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December 09, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

"Irving Berlin and Ragtime America" by Ian Whitcomb. Read by Whitcomb. Unabridged on seven cassettes. Books on Tape.

The ex-Trinity College (Dublin) student who became a '60s rock star ("You Turn Me On") is now a performer and historian and connoisseur of ragtime. His just-out book uses Berlin as the focal point for a bright, well-researched if slightly redundant history of the ragtime era, which fell roughly between the brass band and jazz. Popular music can never be separated from the society in which it arises, and Whitcomb's text is also a social history of an America moving from rural to urban, being enriched by mass immigrations, becoming a world power, reveling in a post-Puritan hedonism for which ragtime supplied the score. Whitcomb is a versatile reader, with a variety of accents to match the milieu of what he calls the (Tin Pan) Alleymen, whose lives were strewn with failure and frustration as well as greed and triumph. ***. Information: (800) 626-3333.

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