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10 books on the History of American Popular Music

  • May 26, 2010
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I have been a student of American popular music since I was a teenager.  So for anyone who might be interested I thought I would share with you some of the books I have read and referred to over the years.  Hopefully, one or more of these titles will pique your curiosity,  They are presented here in no particular order.
A terrific biography of the legendary gospel/blues pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians, from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church, steeped in the gospel tradition, but she produced music that crossed boundaries, defied classification, and disregarded the social and cultural norms of the age; incorporating elements of gospel, blues, jazz, popular ballads, folk, country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Tharpe went electric early on, captivating both white and black audiences in the North and South, in the U.S. and internationally, with her charisma and skill. People who saw her perform claimed she made that guitar talk. An extremely important book that can be enjoyed a wide variety of audiences!
See the full review, "Entertaining biography of this highly influential pioneer figure in the world of gospel music.".
Complete Book of Doo Wop
A book focusing on the history of one of my very favorite genres "group harmony". The Complete Book of Doo-Wop provides an extensive history of doo-wop from 1950 through the early 1970s and gives definitions and illustrations of the music that falls between rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll. I refer to it all the time.
See the full review, "Indispensible reference book for the avid collector.".
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Lovingly done history of the world famous Glenn Miller Orchestra. Miller's music is timeless and the band is still performing all over the world today. A terrific read for history buffs and music fans alike!
See the full review, "Lovingly done history of the venerable Glenn Miller Orchestra.".
How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A.
How did a medium-sized Southern river town become arguably the most important music center in America? In How Nashville Became Music City, U.S.A., we learn how a single studio in a tiny duplex house became Music Row, a ten-block area populated by hundreds of talented people whose job is to simply make music.
See the full review, "Lots of new information in this insider's look at the Nashville music scene".
As a serious record collector and student of American popular music I have been using Joel Whitburn's reference books for years. This particular book lists every single to chart on Billboards Top 100 Pop SIngles chart from 1955 through 2006. A cornucopia of information for the serious collector or the casual fan.
See the full review, "Joel Whitburn's music reference books continue to get better and better".
Machers and Rockers
Learn about the history of the legendary Chicago based label Chess records. This story was featured in the 2008 motion picture "Cadillac Records".
See the full review, "How Leonard Chess built one of America's truly great indie labels".
Little Labels Big Sound
During the first half of the 20th century there were literally hundreds of independent record labels operating in the U.S. "Little Labels" focuses on ten of these companies and the artists who helped to put them on the map. A fascinating read!
See the full review, "Little labels played a huge role in the evolution of American popular music.".
The Encyclopedia of Rhythm & Blues
Meticulously researched reference volume on the history of R&B and doo-wop. This book is now considered the authority on these genres.
See the full review, "The most authoritative reference book ever published on the subject of rhythm and blues.".
Genre In Popular Music
In Genre in Popular Music, Fabian Holt provides new understanding as to why we debate music categories, and why those terms are unstable and always shifting. He comes up with 9 different genres. I would take issue with him because one of my favorite genres is not included. An interesting read.
See the full review, "Shedding some much needed light on a little discussed topic.".
Music of The Great Depression
From Duke Ellington to Woody Guthrie and the Gershwins the music of the Great Depression is a cornucopia of great sounds. All of them are chronicled in this book. This is that rare book that is both a superb reference volume and a great cover-to-cover read as well. I learned a lot in this book!
See the full review, "This outstanding reference volume is also a terrific read!".

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May 26, 2010
Thanks so much for sharing, Paul, this is a great list! Right now, I'm most intrigued by 5 and 10... I'll have to take a look at them the next time I'm at the bookstore :)
About the list creator
Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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