Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, June 25, 2011

“Johann Sebastian Bach” by Rick Marschall (Thomas Nelson “Christian Encounters” Series)

This slim volume comes from a series of short biographies entitled “Christian Encounters”, issued by Thomas Nelson, a major publisher of religious books. The series examines the Christian lives of famous people, some obvious (such as Saints Patrick, Francis, and Nicholas), some less so (Jane Austen, Galileo, for example). Johann Sebastian Bach probably falls somewhere in the middle, because while he was not a clergyman as such, a considerable percentage of his musical output - and his life as a whole - was devoted to the church.

As one might expect, this book is deliberately slanted toward a Christian readership rather than the academic musicology audience. Author Rick Marschall, who has a definite gift for reducing complex issues to easily understandable basics without downplaying their true complexity, intends to show that not only did Bach write much music for the specific purpose of worship, even Bach’s secular music was composed with the thought of praising God, and was written under the guidance of divine inspiration.

He makes his case, and he does it very well, if sometimes a bit repetitiously. But in the process, he has come up with an interesting book that may have a difficult time reaching out beyond its target market. While he effectively encapsulates the major events in the composer’s life (adding a few less crucial, but entertaining anecdotes to add color and humanity to his subject), there simply isn’t space in a book this size for the kind of detail and original research an academically-oriented reader would demand from a biography of a major intellectual figure. Moreover, while there is some light analysis and streamlined explanation of concepts from music theory and music history with which a general readership might not be familiar, he makes no attempt to really dig into the sort of intricate technical examination that a college music professor would like to see.

But this is not really a criticism, since the book was not written for scholars, but for the intelligent layman, particularly Christian readers who love Bach’s music and want to know more about the man and the impetus behind his music. Marschall carefully guides these readers through sacred and secular compositions, relating them to events in Bach’s life, exploding a few common myths along the way. For instance, he makes it clear that Bach was not a failure in his time, though his greatest renown outside his home territory was as an organist. He also makes it clear that the reason Bach fell out of fashion almost immediately after his death in 1750 is that the dominant styles in music changed drastically right around that time, not necessarily because he was considered a less-than-worthy composer. We also see how highly regarded Bach was by the major musical figures of the Romantic Era, so that his 20th-century “revival” was more an expansion to a mass-media level, rather than a re-discovery of a totally forgotten figure, as has often been portrayed. The scholars know all this already, but the casual fan may have been misled by less fastidious comments in the popular press. (I know I was deceived on these points during Bach’s burst of popularity in the late 1960’s.) It’s good to have a popularly-written book settle these matters for the general reader.

For the right audience - which need not be limited to the “solid-core” evangelical Christian book reader - this will be a most welcome examination of an often misinterpreted major figure, one who self-identified as a Christian and wrote his music - not as an artistic expression for his own glory - but for what he saw as the glory of God. This thought colored Bach’s work, therefore it colors this book, and author Rick Marschall is perfectly justified in steering this delightful little book in this direction.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

“Stepson of the Blues: A Chicago Song of Survival”” by Larry Hill Taylor with Bonni McKeown (Peaceful Patriot Press)

Larry Hill Taylor is the stepson of the late Eddie Taylor, who served as second guitarist for John Lee Hooker, but made an even more significant impact as the architect of the “Jimmy Reed Sound”, one of the most influential and commercially successful blues styles of the 1950’s/60’s and beyond. Eddie Taylor later recorded under his own name, but never achieved a level of stardom commensurate with his musical importance. The Taylor family is a multi-talented one, as Taylor’s wife, Vera (Larry’s mother), was a well-regarded singer, Larry himself is a drummer/singer/bandleader of some repute, while his brother Eddie Jr. and sister Demetria are also known on the Chicago blues scene.

On the surface, none of this would appear to make Larry Taylor’s life story so momentous that it would justify the publication of his autobiography. The history of Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Reed would be more likely to attract casual readers than that of Eddie’s stepson. But Larry Taylor has a compelling story to tell - several of them, as a matter of fact. This book, co-authored by Larry’s former manager, Bonnie McKeown, herself a blues pianist who has logged time in the Chicago clubs, is - when all is said and done - part autobiography, part diatribe. Larry Taylor feels misused by the blues establishment, he feels his fellow black Chicago blues musicians have been misused, indeed he feels that black blues musicians in general have been dealt a dirty deal. And he’s angry enough to try to do something about it, by laying his own career and reputation on the line to shout out to the world that something extremely unfair has going on in the world of blues for a long time, and the situation is not getting any better.

The first section of the book is more about his Mississippi family origins, his upbringing in Chicago, his various adventures and misadventures, his musical education, etc. In one sense, his childhood reads rather like you might expect a fairly typical Mississippi-rooted, urban ghetto childhood in the world of the blues to read. But of course, no one’s life is ever really as typical as anyone else’s. Taylor’s youth was enlivened by the presence of some of the all-time greats of the blues, who regularly visited his parents in their home, thanks to Eddie Sr.’s vaunted position among the blues royalty of his day. Young Larry picked up tips and lessons from the greats, and kept their words of wisdom to heart, while also getting to see them in their less public moments.

Larry’s life begins to take a less stereotypical turn toward his future career as a bluesman, when he joins a neighborhood street gang. This may well be a part of many modern-day blues musicians’ background, but it’s one which has become so associated with hip-hop in the outsider’s eye - of course, there was no hip-hop when Taylor joined up in the 1960’s - that it takes the reader by surprise. Soon Taylor finds himself involved with martyred Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, and with the Nation of Islam, again not a “typical” blues background, but one which helped instill a particular sense of right vs. wrong into the young Larry Taylor.

Then his life falls apart, when he is falsely accused of being a child molester, which leads to a horrifying round of legal injustices, incarceration in a veritable hell-hole of a prison, and intrusive psychological evaluations which led to some pretty harrowing treatment. The fact that the Taylor family was complicit in Larry’s imprisonment - perhaps feeling he could simply be scared straight, without any thought of how damaging his experiences would be - is a blotch on Eddie and Vera Taylor’s reputations.

Larry’s story doesn’t get any prettier once he gets out of a prison. As he tries to find steady work in the low-paying, jealousy-ridden, dishonestly-run Chicago blues clubs, he suffers through problems with women and develops a serious hard-drug addiction which he has a great deal of trouble shaking to this day. He also finds himself hounded by what he assumes to be FBI spies, seemingly lurking around every corner. Quite honestly, there are times when this comes across as a paranoid obsession, but it’s his life, and I can’t say he’s mistaken or lying.

But while the second half of the book covers these and other personal subjects, what really sticks with the reader in the latter stages of the book is Taylor’s full-throttle expose of the current blues scene. We learn that even in Chicago blues clubs which, judging by the city’s reputation, one would expect to be dominated by hard-core African-American blues musicians, white musicians - make that white rock musicians posing as blues musicians - often get the best-paying jobs, except of course for a handful of long-established superstars such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Taylor points out in various contexts that what black fans listen to and call blues is a very different thing from what white fans call blues. Black blues fans include what was known in the 1960’s as “soul music” as part of their steady diet, whereas white blues fans eschew “soul-blues” and prefer rock-oriented music which may or may not have solid roots in the blues. Even a cursory observation of the Southern Chitlin’ Circuit soul-blues sales charts vis-a-vis the playlists of the typical white DJ posting to Yahoo’s blues-dj list will support this contention. This dichotomy severely impacts black blues musicians who try to make a living in areas where the better-paying clubs cater to white fans, and has essentially left us with two competing musical scenes, both known as “blues”, one white, one black.

Taylor goes on to castigate the blues establishment as a whole, as represented by the Blues Foundation (which tellingly took W. C. Handy’s name off their long-established annual awards) and by many of the people who post on the Internet’s often-controversial BLUES-L listserv (where Rory Gallagher and Gary Moore are thought by many to have been the Kings of The Blues). Some blues fans may consider Taylor’s screed to be sour grapes, the rantings of an artist who has failed to crack the upper reaches of blues stardom and has become embittered as a result. However, I know from my own experiences (as a white college professor in his 60’s, so race, age, and position are not necessarily factors; by comparison, Larry Taylor is 55 years old) that the blues scene can be very difficult for anyone to crack. As someone who has lectured on blues, written about blues for some 40 years, and taught university-level courses on blues, I am still totally lacking in credibility among Western New York blues fans. The latter tend to gravitate toward what I call “biker bar” blues, the hard-core audience for which can be extremely narrow-minded about what they will accept or reject as blues, and who often show themselves to be quite intolerant of opinions on this subject that differ from their own.. My perspective on the matter comes, of course, from a very different angle than Larry Taylor’s, and unlike him I don’t need to depend on blues as my source of income, but I can easily understand where he’s coming from. I don’t blame him at all for being frustrated, and I applaud his boldness for taking a strong, if unpopular stance on this subject.

Of course, the people who most need to read this book and think seriously about what he has to say will probably ignore it. ‘Twas ever thus. So many negative things have happened in Larry Taylor’s life that the book simply cannot be a pleasant read, something light to skim over without giving it a second thought. But in the end, his faith in Islam (which he discusses in an Appendix) serves to see him through. This is, after all, a tale of survival. I hope he gets the right people to listen.

More information on the book, including ordering information, as well as a sample of Larry Taylor’s music,may be found at

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

“The Song Is Not The Same: Jews And American Popular Music”, edited by Bruce Zuckerman and Josh Kun (Purdue University Press)

This collection of essays is Volume 8 of an “Annual Review” (what might be thought of as an academic journal in book form) called “The Jewish Role In American Life”, published under the guidance of the USC Casden Institiute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.

I have to confess it is not the sort of book I was expecting when I took it off the pile of books to be reviewed. The title would seem (to me at least) to promise some sort of comprehensive survey of the roles played by Jewish artists in the popular music of the United States, rather than a collection of unrelated essays. Beyond that, I was hoping it would be something more along the lines of the Jewish composers of Tin Pan Alley, with perhaps a glimpse of klezmer music thrown in as well. But while there is a famous mainstream American songwriter profiled here, it is not Jerome Kern or George Gershwin, but Bob Dylan. And while klezmer music is likewise covered here, it’s by the very contemporary Naftule’s Dream, not the very traditional Naftule Brandwein.

But books deserve to be read, studied, and reviewed for what they are, rather than for what they are not. After a rather shaky first essay, this is a collection of thoughtful, well-written and often fascinating essays on topics not encountered as often as they might be. That first essay, which strikes me as more a preliminary sketch for an essay which needs to be far more comprehensively researched than this brief memoir, is a reminiscence by Gayle Wald, about being Jewish and listening to Michael Jackson as a young girl during the 1970’s. I should state right offhand that I am not Jewish, but even so I cannot fathom that Jewish-Americans listen to commercial pop music any differently from the way Gentiles do, or - taking the opposite point of view - that all young people, whatever their backgrounds, listen to all music in the same way. Essentially, all Wald tells us is that her ethnic background and, as a consequence, her family background were very different from that of a typical Michael Jackson fan, and thus she reacted to him in her own special way. Indeed, despite the essay’s title, “Dreaming Of Michael Jackson: Notes On Jewish Listening”, the essay is as much about Wald’s reaction to Michael Jackson, the stage presence, and Michael Jackson, the pop-culture phenomenon, as it is about actually listening to his music. But there may be a kernel of an idea here which is worth pursuing - do people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds living in the United States listen to the same music as their fellow Americans in a way that is different from their neighbors? I think most people would say that African-Americans listen differently - or for different things - than white Americans, but the evidence is strictly anecdotal. But do Jewish-Americans listen differently from Italian-Americans, for example? Take a step in another direction - do Republicans listen differently from Democrats? The possibilities would be limitless, and potentially lucrative to certain industry types. My gut feeling tells me this is a concept which might be worth looking into, but a more serious study is needed.

The second essay is also somewhat more of a preliminary sketch than a full-blown examination. But in this case, pictures tell the story as well as words can, so the result is more successful. Jody Rosen discusses and illustrates early 20th-century sheet-music covers, primarily of Tin Pan Alley comic songs with Jewish themes (some of them written by Jewish Tin Pan Alley songwriters, including Irving Berlin). The subject is not so much the stereotypes in the lyrics, but the stereotypical portrayal of Jews in the front-cover pictures, whether drawn or photographed. The images on these sheets may not be as consistently damaging as those on “coon song” sheet-music covers, but they tend to be insultingly racist, nonetheless. One of the worst offenders is reproduced right on the cover of this book - “When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band”, featuring a cartoon-style drawing of a musical quintet being conducted by a director whose nose is said to be so prominent that he can conduct with his nose instead of a baton. Amazing what trash our ancestors could come up with, isn’t it?

The third essay, by Peter LaChapelle, is an examination of the much more insidious racism of the then-powerful industrialist Henry Ford, as typified by his attempts to establish country-dance music among right-thinking (i.e., Caucasian Gentile) Americans of the 1920’s, to overthrow the invasion of Jazz and jazz-rooted popular music and popular dancing, a scourge promulgated by blacks and Jews. I don’t think there’s a great deal of disagreement anymore over the extent of Ford’s racism, but I do question the author’s lumping together of Ford’s country-dance movement with the growing popularity of Southern country music in the 1920’s. The Appalachian string bands of that period were not playing the older dance forms favored by Ford, but breakdowns and long-regionally-established fiddle tunes, slanted toward a very different audience than the urban, Northern listeners Ford seemed to be aiming for. Ford’s favorite fiddlers were Northerners such as Mellie Dunham and Jep Bisbee, whose popularity on records paled beside that of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers or the North Carolina Ramblers. Other than that, this is an interesting glimpse of a once beloved, now more often reviled American icon and the near-Hitlerian society he envisioned for America.

Jonathan Z. S. Pollack offers an entertaining look at the use of Yiddish words and phrases in scat-singing, the influence of cantorial singing on Cab Calloway’s style - and now that he mentions it, I can tell it’s there, I simply never thought about it - and in the oddball jazz songs of singer-songwriter Slim Gaillard, who was known to occasionally write lyrics consisting entirely of names of Jewish foodstuffs. He also takes a very brief side trip into minstrelsy, looking at the role it played in the development of artists such as Al Jolson.

Much more arcane is Josh Kun’s look into the world of Jewish comediennes who appeared in nightclubs and on LP’s doing “blue” (that is, naughty) material for the middle-aged, middle-class “party records” crowd. Though they were primarily comics, they spiced their act with songs as well. As Kun points out, performers such as Belle Barth and Pearl Williams (the two he specifically concentrates on) have pretty much been excised from the histories of both comedy and music. So while I must confess that I have always considered this to be a low form of comedy and a mediocre variety of music, it’s worthy of documentation like any other entertainment phenomenon.

David Kaufman examines the Jewishness of Bob Dylan, who changed his name from Zimmerman, wrote songs that did not overtly address Jewish concerns. professed to be a born-again Christian at one point in his career, and in general could be interpreted as ignoring, if not necessarily outright denying his Jewishness. Having read this essay a day or two before seeing the clip of Dylan on a Hassidic telethon in the “Bob Dylan: Revealed” DVD, I’m inclined to say that to Dylan, his Jewishness was to him largely a non-issue rather than a denial. But while this is a topic that has been broached in the past, Kaufman’s essay is an interesting read.

The final essay, by Jeff Janeczko, looks at a handful of albums on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, from the “Radical Jewish Culture” series, specifically from the viewpoint of musical hybridity, I have to confess I have heard none of the records being discussed, which as the author points out, is essential to a full understanding of his discussion. But while he claims samples of these recordings may be found on the web, I was unable to find them. (Other performances by the artists can be found on Youtube, which helps considerably.) Even so, his discussions about and excerpts of interviews with four diverse artists - Ben Perowsky, Wolf Krakowski, Koby Israelite, and Naftule’s Dream - are quite interesting. What’s more, the discussion of the various types of hybridity is most enlightening. So even without hearing the specific records Janeczko talks about, I feel I gleaned more from this essay than any of the others.

In sum, this is, like so many collections of essays by various authors on a diversity of topics, inconsistent. Of course, you may find those segments I’ve downplayed to be much more to your liking, which is likewise pretty much the nature of books of this sort. If the subject matter looks promising to you, I would suggest that you seek it out to find out more.

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