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.
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.' "