Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930
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Jasen, an accomplished ragtime pianist and historian (Rags and Ragtime, 1978) and Jones, an actor and amateur jazz historian, offer an entertaining and thoughtful history of great but neglected African-American tunesmiths from the vaudeville and early jazz eras. In this highly intelligent and stylishly written volume, Jasen and Jones virtually recount the history of the pivotal era in American popular entertainment—from the minstrel show to the talkies and radio—through the lives and works of 27 black composers, producers, performers, and music publishers. Some of the names—Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Bert Williams, Eubie Blake—will be familiar to a general readership, and a few others may ring a bell for buffs, but most have been lost in the murk to which too many black artists have been consigned by the racism of their era, ill luck, and the vagaries of passing time. Readers will be surprised to learn of James A. Bland, often called “the black Stephen Foster,” whose most famous composition is “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” or the wildly prolific Perry Bradford, whose discovery of Mamie Smith triggered the ’20s blues craze. More significantly, Jasen and Jones document the ways in which racism in the budding entertainment industry deprived many of these men (for they were all males) of the opportunity to join the ranks of the Gershwins, Kerns, and Porters in the pantheon of American song and, in some cases, cost them the most basic credit for their work. By focusing on these key but mostly forgotten figures, the authors have added an absolutely necessary chapter to the history of show business. Although it occasionally drifts into “and then he wrote . . .” cataloguing, this is for the most part an excellent study of neglected creators. (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-02-864742-4
Page count: 460pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998