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Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930

Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930

by David A. Jasen, Gene Jones

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"St. Louis Blues"; "Ain't Misbehavin'"; "I'm Just Wild about Harry"; "Memories of You"; "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"; "Ballm' the Jack"; "Tain't Nobody's Busmess"... all are classic works by black songwriters.

While most people are aware of the classic white songwriters of the '20s and '30s, few realize that many of the best-loved songs of this era were written


"St. Louis Blues"; "Ain't Misbehavin'"; "I'm Just Wild about Harry"; "Memories of You"; "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"; "Ballm' the Jack"; "Tain't Nobody's Busmess"... all are classic works by black songwriters.

While most people are aware of the classic white songwriters of the '20s and '30s, few realize that many of the best-loved songs of this era were written by African Americans. Rarely given their due, and covered only briefly in standard pop song histories, these important writers are finally highlighted in this landmark work. Based on new research, original interviews, and decades of archival study, Spreadm' Rhythm Around is the story of these talented songwriters who introduced new rhythms and subject matter into American popular song.

The book begins in the 1880s, at the dawn of the popular song era. Pioneer writers like James A. Bland "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny", the only songwriter to match the success of Stephen Foster in his day, and Gussie L. Davis "In the Baggage Coach Ahead" achieved success despite their color, creating music that equaled that of the best of the mainstream white songwriters. Then, the 1890s brought a craze for ragtime-flavored songs, and talented composers like Irving Jones and Ernest Hogan came forward with songs in this style. Bert Williams became one of the first black stage stars, although he had to apply "burnt cork" to his face in order to fit the stereotype of the time.

At the turn of the century, black songwriters began to get a toehold on Broadway. Shows like Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk, scored by Will Marion Cook, and Cole and Johnson's A Trip to Coontown, the first full-length musical comedy to be produced, written, staged, and performed by blacks, helped open the door to a floodgate of new talent. In their wake came talented songwriters like Spencer Williams, Maceo Pinkard, and the team of Andy Razaf and Fats Waller, all creating seminal hits.

In the meantime, a new musical genre, the blues, became highly popular on stage and in sheet music. Thanks to W. C. Handy's early hits, "The Memphis Blues" and "The St. Louis Blues," and the dynamic performances of singers like Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith, this musical style became closely associated with black songwriters and was highly influential during the development of early jazz. Entrepreneurs like Perry Bradford, Clarence Williams, and J. Mayo Williams all rode the blues craze to success as songwriters, publishers, and record producers.

The book concludes with an overview of the rich world of black theater of the '20s. In the work of such famous songwriters as Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, black popular song reached its greatest heights.

In sheer depth of research, new information, and full coverage, Spreadm' Rhythm Around offers a comprehensive picture of the contributions of black musicians to American popular song. For anyone interested in the history of jazz pop song, or Broadway, this book will be a revelation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The great, unsung African American songwriters who struggled and thrived between Reconstruction and the Depression take a bow in this lively survey. The writers (Jasen is author of Recorded Ragtime, 1897-1958; Jones is an actor and sheet music collector) show that although early stars like James A. Bland, Gussie L. Davis and Irving Jones worked in existing 19th-century genres (minstrel songs, tearjerkers and so-called coon songs), innovators of the teens and 1920s--among them Chris Smith, Shelton Brooks, W.C. Handy, Eubie Blake and Fats Waller--transformed American popular music with their creative approaches to rag, blues and jazz. Jason and Jones also demonstrate that in a field dominated by whites, black songwriters of the time depended on their own versatility in order to survive; most were performers as well as songwriters, and many were skilled entrepreneurs, impresarios and promoters (for example, record executive J. Mayo Williams, music publishers Shep Edmonds and Cecil Mack, and band and orchestra organizer James Reese Europe). Thoroughly researched and entertainingly written, the book is an impressive tribute to dozens of remarkable careers. Photos. Editor, Richard Carlin. (Aug.)
Library Journal
It doesn't take much effort to gauge the influence of African Americans on modern popular music. One look at this week's top ten will reveal that at least half of the tunes are by black artists, and the work of blues and jazz musicians of the 1930s and 1940s, which ultimately contributed to the birth of rock'n'roll, is well documented. But some readers will be surprised to learn of well-loved songs written by blacks from 1880 to 1930. From James A. Bland, a minstrel-era star known as the black Stephen Foster; to W.C. Handy, the first person to put the blues on paper; to Fats Waller, who conquered Broadway with songs like "Ain't Misbehavin'"--these individuals excelled in every genre of popular music. This book also explores performers, music publishers, and entrepreneurs. Jasen, head of the C.W. Post College Popular Music Archive, and Jones, who has written monographs on Tom Turpin and The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, provide substantial biographies of more than 40 figures, well known and obscure, that personalize and deepen this look at an important contribution to American culture. Recommended for popular music collections.--Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, PA
Chronicles African-American songwriters, who introduced new rhythms and subject matter into American popular song. The narrative includes discussion of the minstrel era and the beginnings of Tin Pan Alley, the first black composers on Broadway, the first black publishers of popular music, black entrepreneurs of the blues, and black theater composers of the 1920s. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
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 entertainmentþfrom the minstrel show to the talkies and radioþthrough the lives and works of 27 black composers, producers, performers, and music publishers. Some of the namesþFats Waller, W.C. Handy, Bert Williams, Eubie Blakeþwill 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)

Product Details

Omnibus Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.61(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.68(d)

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