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The American Songbook by Ken Bloom

In his introduction to Ken Bloom’s undeniably handsome, encyclopedic salute to the singers, bandleaders and songwriters who shaped and defined pre-rock American music, Michael Feinstein lauds it as “an important book.” Theoretically, I’d agree every book dedicated to the preservation and protection of these artists and their music is important. Trouble is, any volume–even as oversized and photographically rich a one as this–that attempts to illuminate some 150 personalities, each a significant figure, in just over 300 pages, can’t help but remain largely superficial.

Condensing the seismic careers of, say, Sinatra or Garland or Fitzgerald into three or four pages? It’s possible, yes, but apart from bare-bones biographical details, it’s of questionable value. Chris Connor’s entire Atlantic output covered in 50 words (without the mention of a single album’s title) or discussion of June Christy limited largely to her recording and rerecording of Something Cool? Not exactly definitive.

Add a few too many typos and factual hiccups (Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” earned renewed interest after its inclusion in Good Morning, Vietnam not Good Morning, America) and Songbook’s value is further diminished. Still, kudos to Bloom for the many clever sidebars and first-person quotes he’s managed to squeeze in.

Originally Published