Each of the following recently released music books is informative and entertaining by turns, but only the first is an unqualified success.
STOMP AND SWERVE: AMERICAN MUSIC GETS HOT, 1843-1924
By David Wondrich
In his appealingly irreverent new book David Wondrich (who writes about cocktails for Esquire) goes looking for the roots of the primordial American sound he calls hot music: music that combines a Celtic-derived foursquare stomp with the swerving melodic and rhythmic impulses (read: blue notes and syncopation) of Africa. Starting in the earliest days of the minstrel era (and confronting its utter racism head-on), he follows the intertwining of these two crucial elements in ragtime, march, and other idioms, and profiles pivotal figures. Most of these are white folks, from popular minstrels to John Philip Sousa himself, who (deliberately or unconsciously) stole ideas from blacks, but three African-Americans--vaudevillian Bert Williams, bandleader James Reese Europe, and composer and blues progenitor W.C. Handy--emerge as heroes. Their hard-won crossover success in the white entertainment world made black contributions to popular music impossible to ignore, and paved the way for later black superstars, including Louis Armstrong.
This sort of search for the origins of American music is hardly new, but Wondrich's gift is his ability to identify the incremental changes by which ancestral forms evolved into blues and jazz; his exuberance transforms all the research into a pop culture blast. The Archeophone label has also issued a fine companion CD.
THE LATIN BEAT: THE RHYTHMS AND ROOTS OF LATIN MUSIC FROM BOSSA NOVA TO SALSA AND BEYOND
By Ed Morales
Ed Morales has written frequently and well in the Village Voice and elsewhere about the mainstream emergence of Latin pop performers--Ricky Martin, Shakira, the Buena Vista Social Club--but in this book he fails to place such developments in a coherent historical context. As he writes in the introduction, "Trying to define Latin music is like trying to define Latinos in the United States....There may be more styles and variations of being Latino than there are different Latin American countries." Unfortunately that awesome variety overwhelms Morales: his discussion of the advent of Afro-Caribbean music bogs down in stale, quasi-academic language, and he displays major gaps in his grasp of Portuguese-language material. His one-sentence remark on the development of Portugal's fado scene seems to equate the importance of newcomer Mariza (whose debut was in 2001) with that of the late matriarch Amalia Rodrigues (who personified the genre for over half a century), and his chapter on Brazilian music is strewn with errors: he writes that Alcione, Clara Nunes, and Beth Carvalho were the country's most popular performers of the 50s, but none of them began recording before the mid-60s and all achieved their greatest fame in the 70s.
The countless typos (Cypress Hill rapper B-Real's name appears as "Bread," while "Thelonious" is misspelled more often than not) are distracting, but more problematic is the lack of continuity within each of the ten chapters. Though Morales is knowledgeable about his subject (Brazilian music aside), he makes little effort to connect the various performers within a genre, giving the book the feel of a laundry list.
FINDING HER VOICE: WOMEN IN COUNTRY MUSIC, 1800-2000
By Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann
(Vanderbilt University Press/Country Music Foundation Press)
Originally published ten years ago but newly revised to include a chapter covering the 90s, this intensely researched 600-page book doesn't quite accomplish its goal of demonstrating how female country performers have reflected the experience of women in America, but it does a great job of creating a historical context for the music. The title is a bit misleading: country music didn't exist as such until after the advent of radio and the first "hillbilly" records of the 20s--the first two chapters deal with the women who collected and preserved folk songs in the 1800s and with minstrel and vaudeville artists.
The authors follow trends in the evolving country-music industry--family groups, wild cowgirls, and wholesome innocents were the standard types in the 20s and 30s--and uncover loads of fascinating information about well-known performers like the Carter Family and Patsy Montana. In the new chapter there's some insight into how the ascendance of Shania Twain affected decision making in Nashville, but for the most part the examination of the fractious 90s is limited to portraits of mainstream artists like Twain, Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks that don't go much past Behind the Music territory. The work functions best as a reference, collecting the stories of famous and forgotten acts in one handy book.
THERE'S A GOD ON THE MIC: THE TRUE 50 GREATEST MCS
By Kool Mo Dee
Kool Mo (he used to spell it "Moe") Dee first emerged as a member of the Treacherous Three back in the early 80s, waxing some of old-school hip-hop's biggest hits ("Body Rock," "Feel the Heartbeat"), then reinvented himself as a solo act; he waged a famous multirecord battle against LL Cool J beginning with "How Ya Like Me Now" in 1987. By the early 90s he was more or less finished.
Now Mo Dee's back to name his rap pantheon, assigning each MC numerical scores in 17 categories including vocabulary, versatility, flow, industry impact, and battle skills. He demonstrates some magnanimity, rating Cool J number seven, but places himself at number five. (There may be a little old-school bias here: Melle Mel, Rakim, and KRS-One come in at one, two, and three.) While Mo Dee was a fine rapper, as a writer he tends to ramble, and to call his descriptions repetitive is an understatement. (On the flow of Craig Mack: "His flow is incredible." On the flow of Lil' Kim: "Ridiculous. Incredible." Mystikal: "His flow is incredible." MC Lyte: "One of the more ridiculous flows in the game." Method Man: "Incredible." Busta Rhymes: "Stellar, incredible, ridiculous flows.") But there's no shortage here of facts, informed opinion, and good old hip-hop hubris.