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)