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American Song and Struggle from Columbus to World War 2

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Kaufman has written here a new history of music for the Black Lives Matter Era. Beginning before Columbus, with evidence of native music that disappeared with the arrival of Europeans.

From these earliest beginnings, he charts the course of American history, paying special attention to voices that are "unsung" in traditional history books: women, people of color, laborers, voices from the political fringe. And he illusrates each chapter with verses from songs which demonstrated the feelings of the time.

This is a sonic companion to Howard Zinn's groundbreaking A People's History of the United States. I read a preview from NetGalley in exchange for this honest review. I would hope that the book comes with a playlist on Spotify or YouTube to bring out the music of the lyrics that Kaufman references. Or perhaps a reader--one who is as fascinated as I was about this book--can take up the project.
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I definitely did not understand what I was getting with American Song and Struggle from Columbus to World War 2: A Cultural History — or I never would have picked it up. I expected something akin to Chuck D’s Songs that Shook the Planet or the inimitable Alan Lomax’s many books of folk music — a book of song history that includes actual songs.

No such luck. William Kaufman — no Howard Zinn, he — has penned an extremely academic tome that makes history pretty dreary. Yes, I wish sheet music were included, but what I really miss is the compelling writing that makes Zinn’s A People's History of the United States and James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong such classics. I quit before the United States even became the United States I just couldn't take any more. Ethnomusicology majors will probably rejoice, but the rest of us should just stay away.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book from NetGalley and Cambridge University Press in exchange for an honest review.
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A retelling of American history from colonial times through WWII from the point of view of the music of every era. Although the stated focus is on songs of struggle, much of the actual focus is on song in general -- especially prior to the 20th century, without benefit of recordings, and going back in time from there given a dearth of published sources.

There is as well commendable attention paid not just to the music of the oppressed but also to the music of the oppressors, starting with the Spanish conquistadors' use of song to undermine native culture and continuing into the 20th century with the Klan's wide-ranging attacks on just about every ethnic and racial group they attacked.

This is amazing work in an area where there has never been a comprehensive compendium like this. Building on his previous work on Woody Guthrie and other American popular culture topics, author Will Kaufman (a professor of American Studies in England) succeeds for the most part in this monumental endeavor.

I must deduct one star because I felt a lack of focused attention on my own area of expertise, the Blues, which in the process of learning to play on guitar I have studied extensively -- although Kaufman does well in examining Hawaiian music, another area I have immersed myself in, and Native American music, which I know (or knew) too little about.

My biggest problem with his treatment of the Blues, which he most certainly does not ignore, is a lack of examination of signifiers in the lyrical content -- the Blues is famous for its sexual double entendre (or in the case of Bo Carter, single entendre), but there is a school of thought that there is another level of meaning that becomes clear if you substitute "boss" for "baby". I was heartened early on when Kaufman mentioned signifiers, almost always overlooked, but then he never really got into it other than a couple of examples here and there (not even from the blues).

My apologies if it's actually there and I missed it -- I must admit, this work is weighty, so weighty that I was not always able to digest all that I read (I did go back to double check and couldn't find what I was looking for). As much as I admire this endeavor, as much as I learned from reading it, as important as it is despite my one misgiving, it is not a light easy read -- if you want to dive into it, you should make sure you can dive all the way into the deep end, go all in and take it all in.

Kudos to Mr. Kaufman for this tour de force -- I hope he turns his attention to "protest" songs of the post-war era next. Thanks to NetGalley for making the ARC available for review. If I'm wrong about my take on the treatment of the blues, please let me know.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Cambridge University Press for this book on the history of songs and music in American history. 

As the singer/ songwriter Aimee Mann once wrote, "Voices carry", through the air across the country, around the world and down through time. Songs and music can take you back to childhood with a song being sung before bed, can gear you up, bring you down, bring you even further down, remember lost love, and love yet to come. And songs can remind us of our past, and those who survived, those who didn't make it, and why we should continue to sing their songs. History has a soundtrack, for those who are willing to listen, and for those who try to ban it. Will Kaufman in his book American Song and Struggle from Columbus to World War 2: A Cultural History traces the path of songs of the oppressed and the dispossessed throughout American history, beginning with Columbus and ending at the Greatest Generation.

Kaufman begins with a section on the differences between protest music, and music from those who have been marginalized. This is a section that an entire book could be written on, and sets the pace for the rest of the book. From there the book studies the music of the natives who were here when Columbus and the long flood of Spanish explorers looking for gold arrived. As much of the native peoples language and music have been lost we only get descriptions from the explorers about the sounds. However there are copies of songs from both the English and the Spanish usually songs of conquest or propaganda, some of which wouldn't be out of place today. The book follows the history of the United States describing and sharing when possible songs from natives and slaves who were brought her, work songs, songs of mourning, songs of sadness and isolation.

The book is extremely well written and sourced with a very rich index and collection of images that reflect songs and the occasions that led to there creation. No group seems to be omitted, and sadly the racism that shows throughout the book can be tiring, but the book never is. This might seem like an academic book, but everything is clearly explained and written with a good sense of flow and plotting in an order that makes sense and never loses the reader, either in technical discussion or in historical discussion. Mr. Kaufman has been working on this book for years, through some very tumultuous times, and sometimes that shows in the writing. It can not be easy to write about racist songs from a hundred years ago about black lives and Chinese lives and seeing these same ideas on the news again like it was fresh. Not only a good music book but a great view of American history from a different view. 

Recommended for music lovers and students of music. Also recommended for people who will be taking to the streets soon to continue to fight for a country that lives up to the ideals we al have. These songs have a power and voice that time and oppression have not been able to destroy. Thanks to Will Kaufman they will live to inspire and teach again.
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American Song and Struggle From Columbus to World War II
Will Kaufman




This volume, written in a very academic fashion, attempts to relate the history of those who wished to voice their approval or disapproval of the then current social, political or religious thoughts of the day through the medium of song. I would not say it is an easy read but the value of the history encompassed in its chapters is worth the effort.
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For music lovers and historians, this comprehensive volume is a helpful resource that, as the subtitle states, starts off from Columbus in 1492 and traces its way to World War 2 with a focus on Black American music. Chronicling Cortez and the Aztecs, the book goes on to explore all the way up to New France and Nova Scotia before veering over to Brazil and the Caribbean. 

In the early parts of the book, much discussion is given about James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826) and the ballads of the time. We then go up to 1767 with the first printing of "Yankee Doodle" and then 1820s that the 'minstrel show came into its own,' which started with George Washington Dixon. He was only eclipsed in popularity by TD Rice's 'Jim Crow'; 

Edwin P Christy had his 'Christy Minstrels' while Daniel Decatur Emmett popularized 'Virginia Minstrels' otherwise known as 'Ethiopiann Delineators'; Christy claimed to have observed and studied African American musical performance in New Orleans, picking up what he called 'queer words and simple but expressive melodies' from the city's street performers. The author extrapolates that Christy would likely have gone to Congo Square, which is now known as Louis Armstrong Park. I'm not sure if it's appropriate or if it was Christy's phrasing, but he seemed to think this is where he would find what he called 'pure' African music in the United States. 

For folks interested in the history of music in New Orleans, the chapters that cover this area in "American Song and Struggle" are worth their weight in gold. Enslaved revolt leaders Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner are also discussed. Also notable are the discussions of Irish immigration to the United States and Canada which introduced songs from collections such as Moore's "Irish Melodies." 

Later, discussions include Uncle Tom's Cabin and the formerly enslaved man, Josiah Henson, who was rumoured to have been Harriet Beecher's Stowe's basis for the titular character of Uncle Tom. Stowe helped to ghost write his autiobiography which came out in 1849. Next, the Underground Railroad is discussed, which leads up to the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, and the First Battle of Bull Run. 

The Reconstruction Era discussions give way to The Fisk Jubilee Singers, then onto Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. 

Singers of the turn of the century including Sissieretta Jones are discussed, James Weldon Johnson, the origins of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' and from there onto music in Hawaii, until the first world war and the operas of the early 20th century. 

Vaudeville is discussed, followed by other significant events in American history of the early to mid 20th century. Hall Johnson's works are discussed leading into Franklin D. Roosevelt's reelection in 1936 as well as Black blues singers of the time such as Joe Pullum. 

There is also a significant portion of the book dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance and its luminary figures including Langston Hughes as well as Alain Locke and events that happened at Carnegie Hall such as John Hammond's 'From Spirituals to Swing' and the rise in popularity of Paul Robeson.

Those interested in figures of the era such as Lead Belly and Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, as well as the famous musicologist Alan Lomax who, along with his father John, dedicated his life to the study of folk songs in America and in some cases, other parts of the world where they had come from including Haiti.

It's a comprehensive volume that's well worth checking out.
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An interesting topic to write a book on. I am something of a history buff, and while this was well-written and packed with interesting details, it just wasn't my cup of tea. I think to truly appreciate this, one needs to be passionate about musical history. However, using music is a unique way to present American history and the various struggles the country has faced. I like that aspect, but again, it wasn't enough to keep me engrossed.
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American Song and Struggle from Columbus to World War 2, by Will Kaufman, is a well-researched and quite moving history of the role of music in addressing the struggles people faced.

He makes a distinction, though not really an either/or distinction, between music of struggles and protest music. My takeaway on that introduction is that protest music is a subset of struggle music, not something different from it. That distinction is important, especially since he chose to end his history at about the time protest music was being called protest music.

From Columbus on music was used to address many types of struggles. From hunting and warring to what we have come to think of as struggles, economic and racial oppression among them. This history is fascinating and brings a lot of the music into better focus. From indigenous rituals that were misunderstood by the oppressive colonizers to ragtime's minstrelsy elements.

Even the areas a reader might know a little about will be illuminated by Kaufman's perspective and analysis of the role music played. This is more than just a music history, this informs what we often think of as simply American history. Looking at the music offers both greater insight into each period as well as additional rationales for many of history's uglier moments.

Highly recommended for music history buffs as well as those interested more generally in history.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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I never had considered the issue about struggle and protest that Kaufman describes in his early pages- there is a distinct difference in them and songs don't necessarily become both.  This book takes a tour through history, beginning with exploration, through WWII, explaining how song and lyric have inspired and given people an outlet to their frustrations.  While some parts of the book will undoubtedly be familiar to people (folk music in particular) there were some instances of history that I had never encountered.  The Jamestown chapter alone is magnificently thought-provoking.  Really glad he also included Tom Lehrer, I think he gets overlooked and honestly has never received the credit he's been due.
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In American song and struggle by William Kaufman, they have stories from when Cortes slain the Aztecs all the way to woody Guthrie singing about the wrongful treatment of the Spanish in America. With the songs and stories I found this book to be one of the best researched I have ever read. It is totally engulfing. It was like a swimming pool, once I dove in I didn’t want to come out. It really was that good and it’s a book I highly recommend to any real history fan who love social or musical history. I was given this book by Net Gally and I am leaving this review voluntarily. Please forgive any grammatical a punctuation of errors as I am blind and dictate my review.
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