Not always pretty, but stirring nonetheless. (45 b&w photos)



A near-encyclopedic study of black influence on American music.

Musicians have always borrowed from their forebears, and white musicians have borrowed a hell of a lot from blacks. Not surprisingly, journalist Phinney suggests that this practice reflects institutionalized racism: “more often than not, blacks innovate/create and whites popularize/exploit until, finally, the trend breaks through to mass acceptance.” Well, purists may note, blacks borrowed scales from Gypsy and Jewish music for the blues; true, says Phinney, each generation builds upon others, just as Cream invested Skip James’s “I’m So Glad” with its own nuance. Yet no one would deny that blacks have been left wanting—in terms of both credit and remuneration—in their contribution to the evolution of music. The author convincingly writes that it was the introduction of rhythm into a once melody-dominated discipline that rests as one of the most significant contributions of blacks to the field. Beginning with ragtime, “rhythm has been gaining ground against melody in popular music until even the most vapid music reaches for a percussive flourish to make it danceable, convey urgency, or create drama.” Phinney sharply chronicles a number of musical awakenings: from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole; Elvis amplifying the blackness, Pat Boone bleaching Little Richard white. A breathtaking amount of material is covered here: the ramifications of ragtime’s unusual syncopation, the simple elasticity of the blues, Benny Goodman leaning on Fletcher Henderson, the female trailblazers of rap. And there are plenty of delicious anecdotes, such as the time Stevie Ray Vaughan asked musical idol Albert King to repay the money Vaughan had loaned him. King responded: “Money? Money? Come on now, son. You know you owe me, don’t you?” Rip-off artists abound, but others testified to their indebtedness, including the Beatles, the Stones and, for sure, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who never got his money and agreed that that was just fine.

Not always pretty, but stirring nonetheless. (45 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8230-8404-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2005

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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