cover image Revolutions in American Music: Three Decades That Changed a Country and Its Sounds

Revolutions in American Music: Three Decades That Changed a Country and Its Sounds

Michael Broyles. Norton, $35 (416p) ISBN 978-0-393-63420-4

Broyles (Mavericks and Other Traditions in American Music), a musicology professor at Florida State University, explores in this vibrant history how race and technology drove drastic changes in American music during the 1840s, 1920s, and 1950s. According to Broyles, the popularization of minstrelsy in the 1840s marked the growth of the “first popular genre that was distinctly American,” presenting racist depictions of Black Americans that appealed particularly to Irish Americans who were often in competition with free Blacks for work. The development of the phonograph in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proved pivotal to jazz’s surging popularity in the 1920s, Broyles contends, noting that “no sheet music could adequately capture what happened on those records.” In addition to profiling such legends as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, Broyles also highlights the contributions of lesser-known figures, suggesting that white proto–rock n’ roller Johnnie Ray’s packaging of Black singing styles for white audiences in the early 1950s paved the way for Presley to do the same later that decade. The trivia captivates (Armstrong played cornet so loudly “he had to stand some fifteen feet behind the band” when recording so he wouldn’t drown them out), and Broyles’s discerning analysis illuminates how complex social and technological factors interacted to shape the course of American music. This hits all the right notes. Photos. (Feb.)