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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Black Music Tome Sings With Tales

SPREADIN' RHYTHM AROUND: Black Popular Music, 1880-1930 by David A. Jasen and Gene Jones;Schirmer Books $29.95, 460 pages

August 24, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the current technological El Nino, where the Internet surf's up at any hour of the day, the old Reference Work has become degraded to the status of a mere tool. Gone are the days of leisurely browsing through, say, the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the 1958 South American Handbook or the many nautical guides that Somerset Maugham quotes in his Eastern stories. Reference has become a matter of speed. Nuance and her companion Accuracy have been put out to pasture.

So it is an old-fashioned delight that greets the appearance of "Spreadin' Rhythm Around." On first glance, the nearly 500-page book is an encyclopedia of the African American songwriters of the first golden 50 years of black popular music, 1880 to 1930, from the minstrel show to the motion picture. David A. Jasen and Gene Jones have researched their subject with a thoroughness tempered by a wariness for speculation. With an extensive set of indices and bibliographies as well as period photographs of songwriters, performers and producers, "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" will undoubtedly serve musicologists as a standard tome.

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And yet, the true joy of reading the book is in the ease with which the authors tell the stories of the legendary and the unknown. Biographies of familiar songwriters--such as James Bland, Williams and Walker, James Reese Europe, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle--mix with the lesser-known. Gussie Davis, one of the first generation of Tin Pan Alley writers, makes an appearance as the author of the tear-jerker "In the Baggage Coach Ahead." Indeed, the easy range of the authors' knowledge allows them a reference to Davis in Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten," in which "Tyrone's searing memories of bringing his mother's body home for burial are triggered by two lines of an old song: 'But baby's cries can't waken her / In the baggage coach ahead.' "

Each story is a movie within itself. Yet the authors are careful to let facts shine through the greasepaint. They explode the myth of the Mississippi car accident of the great blues singer Bessie Smith with common sense. "She died in the ambulance during the ten-mile ride to Clarksdale's black hospital. A white hospital was about the same distance away. There is no truth to the legend that Smith died because she was denied entrance to the white hospital. The ambulance driver, who was black, knew better than to take her there." Accuracy matters and packs a firmer racial punch than fiction.

Indeed, it is as a cultural history that "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" takes flight. Jasen and Jones present an evenhanded, multidimensional picture of the minstrel shows of the turn of the century that could very well serve as a model for any discussion of the racial politics of today's popular music. While not denying the racist quality of these forms, the authors describe the very real success of many African American songwriters who rose to fame by "blacking up." Bert Williams, singer, songwriter, comedian, star of Florenz Ziegfeld's "Follies" (the "Mark Twain of his color" as one New York reviewer praised him), was so identified with his makeup that at his public, open-casket funeral, "many of [his fans], those who knew Bert Williams only from his stage appearances, saw the color of his face for the first time."

The authors reserve their real scorn for the Hollywood that killed the careers of black lyricists such as Andy Razaf ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin' ") by denying them the opportunity to make the necessary move into the motion picture industry. The entertainers themselves were successful because they were open-eyed show business people who understood that popular music by definition required pandering to the market, and that costume and makeup were distinct from dignity.

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