Richard Crawford,
America's Musical Life: A History
(W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)

Like most lovers of music, I have a large library of books about music and musicians as well as walls full of CDs and LPs that constantly threaten to collapse my house. There's a full shelf of books about Bob Dylan, another one filled with Sinatra tomes, still another of classical composer bios, still more guides to recordings of various genres from the blues to opera, and so many books on jazz that most have to live in boxes. Still with all these books, I have never had one all-encompassing volume about American music that covered all genres from ragtime to classical to soul. At last Richard Crawford's book fills that gap.

Crawford, whose previous books have included works on William Billings, Civil War songs, Early American psalmody, early jazz and more, has used his encyclopedic knowledge to create a volume of nearly a thousand pages that attempts to cover it all. There are three major sections:

The first and shortest covers the first three centuries, with chapters on Native American music, early Christian music, sacred music, Colonial music (a separate chapter on song, dance and home music, and another on military, concert and theatre music), African music in early America and New England psalmody.

The second section on the 19th century covers such subjects as Southern and frontier sacred music, theatre and opera, minstrelsy, home music and the publishing industry, parlor songs, bands and orchestras, classical music, slave songs and Tin Pan Alley. Individuals receiving special attention include Lowell Mason, Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Henry Fry, Louis Gottschalk, George W. Chadwick and Amy Beach, Edward MacDowell and John Philip Sousa.

The third section, which comprises half the book, deals with 20th century music, starting with the iconoclastic Charles Ives and offering essays on the birth of the Jazz Age as well as follow-up chapters on the development of jazz and big band music, American folk song and its collectors, classical music, blues, rock, pop and every other imaginable musical genre.

Crawford further treats each of these periods by looking at three different types of music, folk (in which the preservation of community custom is the prime motivation), classical (in which the works themselves and their creation are of major interest) and pop (in which commerce rather than art is the prime mover).

That's what's in it. Now how good is it? Very good indeed. Though none of these chapters will replace individual volumes about certain composers or genres, anyone desiring an overall look at, say, American jazz in the 20th century will not be disappointed. And one would have to look long and hard to find better written and more incisive individual essays about their particular subjects. Crawford grants general readers the boon of not writing too technically, and the layman with only a rudimentary knowledge of musical forms should be able to understand the book easily. Granted, one gets the sense that Crawford prefers some genres more than others, but this in no way lessens his authority or his readability.

For this book is, above all, highly readable. Though one would probably use this volume as a reference, dipping into it when wanting to become better informed upon a certain subject, it makes delightful reading cover-to-cover, being intelligently structured and thematically sound. It is just as entertaining when used as a browsing volume, as I recently discovered when I opened it to a six-page section, "Elvis Presley in Memphis," where I read once again the often told story of how Presley hooked up with Sam Phillips for his first classic Sun recordings. Written with an intimacy that makes the moment come alive, it is still filled with a wealth of factual information that fixes it in time as the result of the musical development Crawford has been constantly tracing throughout the book. The book is filled with such moments that can be appreciated as both small individual essays or as part of a greater whole.

And the whole is great indeed. Crawford has done something here that will not be easily equaled. He has presented the entirety of American music in a single volume that is at once readable, comprehensible and comprehensive. This should be an indispensable volume for any lover of music.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 22 January 2005

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