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Spreadin’ Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930 by David A. Jansen and Gene Jones

The achievements of white songwriters active during the heyday of Tin Pan Alley-Berlin, Kern, Gershwin, Porter Rodgers, et al.-have received lavish attention over the years. Less well known is the story of how their accomplished African-American contemporaries carved out a place for them selves in the popular music inustry, succeeding both as creative artists and saavy entrepreneurs. Spreadin’ Rhythm Around aims to redress this imbalance, offering biographical profiles of over two dozen black songwriters ranging from the famous (W.C. Handy, Sissle and Blake, Fats Waller) to the familiar (Spencer Williams, Perry Bradford) to the obscure (Shep Edmonds, Jo Trent).

Jasen and Jones survey the career of each figure covered, listing major works and supplying details about publication, recorded versions, royalties, and sales figures. They keep musical discussion to a minimum, intending the book for more general readers and knowledgeable fans than musicians or scholars. The latter group will find the scanty documentation frustrating; the brief section on sources at the end is perfunctory, and their are no footnotes. Even so, Spreadin’ Rhythm Around is welcome for the way it pulls together existing information and uncovers new facts about a group of talented and ambitious black professionals who, as the authors point out, helped put the “American” in American popular music.

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