An earnest attempt by the well-known scholar (Women, Culture, and Politics, 1989, etc.) and activist to see three great African-American singers as part of a black feminist tradition. In her appreciative analysis of the classic blues written and recorded in the 1920s and early '30s by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Davis (History of Consciousness/Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz) accurately notes that these women expressed a working-class, African-American sensibility quite different from the ``uplift the race'' gentility of their middle-class peers in the Harlem Renaissance. Openly sexual, unconstrained by maternity or marriage, pragmatic about the impact of money and work on women's lives, Smith and Rainey spoke to and for ordinary blacks with a candor that remains striking and appealing today. Davis's explication of their works' political undercurrents seems accurate, if somewhat trite compared to the splendid particularity and vigor of the lyrics themselves. (The author's transcriptions of Rainey's and Smith's songs occupy one third of the text—and it's not wasted space.) It's hard to trace a strong connection between these two artists, who generally wrote their own earthy material, and Billie Holiday, stuck with the banal pop clichÇs of second-rate white Tin Pan Alley hacks. Davis makes a plausible case that Holiday transformed this dross by informing it with a subtext of irony and social consciousness, the latter quality more evident in one of the few songs she composed, the searing ``Strange Fruit.'' But a single paragraph arguing that ``Holiday was following in the footsteps of a host of black artists who preceded her . . . who . . . incorporated into their music their own brand of critical social consciousness'' needs much more fleshing out. Davis's prose, distanced and overly abstract in the vintage academic manner, could also use a shot of Rainey's humor, Smith's sass, or Holiday's soulful intensity. Intelligent, well-meaning, not without merit—but so drab compared to its vivid subjects. (8 pages b&w photos) (Author tour)

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 1998

ISBN: 0-679-45005-X

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1997

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Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.


A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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