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Race Music: Black Cultures From Bebop to Hip-Hop by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.

The most striking element of Race Music is the dichotomy between its academic and down-home components. Author Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., who is an assistant professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania, approaches his investigation into the historical and cultural ties of black music as a scholar and theorist, applying the strict conventions of academia to his work. Everything is examined, reexamined, duly researched, argued and footnoted. At the other end of the spectrum are Ramsey’s interviews with his relatives, which are employed to set the stage of time, place and climate of some of the music’s transformations. During these segments, the author lets things fly, even deeming to leave unedited the little disagreements that inevitably come up when any families get together and discuss the past. “I don’t remember Daddy singing that,” says Ramsey’s Aunt Ethel. “I remember he used to be out there with those men and they’d be singing…out there on the front,” replies his Aunt Doris. Ramsey’s use of his family’s narrative “to tease out some of the meanings created by this interplay of music, memory and history” remain valid. However, in maintaining all of the original voices, the oral presentations become wearing.

In following and unraveling the traditions that weave throughout black music from the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the “Say It Loud” revolution of James Brown and beyond, Ramsey is most successful when he examines his own music-filled life in a brief autobiographical chapter. Two distinct books bubble between the covers of Race Music, both of which hold great promise for future readings.

Originally Published