Toronto Book Review

14

REVOLUTIONS IN AMERICAN MUSIC: THREE DECADES THAT CHANGED A COUNTRY AND ITS SOUNDS BY MICHAEL BROYLES

In his exploration of three pivotal moments in American pop and classical music, Broyles, a musicology professor at Florida State University and former music critic, identifies the 1840s, 1920s, and 1950s as significant periods shaped by the intersection of race, technology, and evolving musical ideologies. Each decade witnessed transformative shifts in the cultural landscape, fueled by changing attitudes towards music performance and consumption.
The 1840s saw the emergence of minstrelsy, a genre deeply rooted in American racial tensions yet emblematic of the nation’s first distinctly American popular music. Concurrently, the era saw the introduction of classical symphonies to a public that had previously not viewed music as an art form. Moving forward to the 1920s, advancements in technology such as phonograph recordings and commercial radio led to the explosive growth of jazz, blues, and country music, reshaping the musical landscape and challenging traditional notions of genre boundaries.
By the 1950s, the proliferation of car radios and the blending of musical genres propelled American teenagers toward a diverse array of R&B and rock artists. Contrary to popular belief, Broyles argues that the transformative figure of the decade was not Elvis Presley but rather Johnnie Ray, a white singer heavily influenced by Black musical styles. In the classical realm, avant-garde composers like Pierre Boulez and John Cage paved the way for experimental innovations that would define future generations of classical music.
Despite its scholarly approach, Broyles’ work remains accessible and engaging, offering readers unexpected insights and anecdotes. For instance, the surprising influence of the polka genre in the 1840s is explored, shedding light on its widespread popularity despite detractors’ disdain.
Throughout his analysis, Broyles adeptly navigates the complex intersections of race and music, highlighting instances where racial boundaries were blurred despite attempts to categorize and segregate musical traditions. While each decade could support the author’s thesis, these three periods offer particularly compelling case studies.
In conclusion, Broyles’ study offers a thought-provoking examination of the enduring and often uneasy relationship between race and music in American history, shedding light on the profound impact of cultural and technological shifts on musical expression.

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