Five Books About One Song

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Five Books About One Song

Expertise.  It's a nice thing to have, but it often takes time and effort that we don't have.  Luckily, it's fairly easy to be an expert on one very, very specific thing, like a song.  Think about it.  Would you rather spend 2 years studying American music history, or one afternoon learning all there is to know about "White Christmas?" Here are five books that will have you on your way to faking pop music expertise. 

The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah" by Alan Light
Unlike other songs on this list, it took a while for Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to become the phenomenon it is today.  In The Holy or the Broken, Alan Light traces the song's rise in popularity- from Cohen to Cale to Buckley to EVERYWHERE. Seriously, everywhere. (Why, Watchmen? Just....why?) Light also makes the case that the song's popularity has a lot to do with it's adaptability.  Cohen originally wrote 80 verses. While most covers of the song only use seven (at the most) many of them drop a verse or add one.  They reorder the verses, they change around the words and suddenly the song has a new meaning.  It can be a love song, it can be a religious song, it can be a song of grief. It's all up to the artist.  If you can't appreciate the genius of that, then you don't really care for music, do ya?  (Had to do it. Sorry.)

Ready for a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America by Mark Kurlansky
Mark Kurlansky has made a career out of writing about the huge impact of things we don't think about often (cod, salt, etc.)  While most people probably think about "Dancing in the Street" more than they think about cod, Kurlansky's book about Martha Reeves' Motown masterpiece fits right in with the other books in his oeuvre. Kurlansky makes a strong case for the subtly revolutionary power of the song. We often think of "A Change is Going to Come" or "Fortunate Son" or "Blowin' in the Wind" as "anthems" of the 60's, but "Dancing in the Street" was also popular with activists at the time, who found inspiration in the lyrics. Reeves maintains that it was merely a party song, but if you listen to it again you can see where they were coming from. Or just listen to it again because it's a great song.

Strange Fruit: the Biography of a Song by David Margolick
If any song ever merited an entire book, it would be the gut-wrenching, unabashedly furious anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit", first sung by Billie Holiday in 1939. Margolick dives into accounts from Holiday, songwriter Abel Meeropol, musicians and Cafe Society patrons and assembles the definitive account of how the first great protest song came to life. He also talks to music critics and scholars to gain insight into the song's lasting impact. 

Danny Boy: the Beloved Irish Ballad by Malachy McCourt
"Danny Boy" is known as a song that can make anyone tear up.  It's clearly a song that is close to author Malachy McCourt's heart. The song "Danny Boy" was written in 1912 by an English lawyer who had never been to Ireland. (Didn't see that coming, did you?) McCourt discusses the mysterious origins of the song's melody (also known as the "Londonderry Air", the tune had been kicking around Ireland for a while before lawyer and part-time lyricist Frederick Weatherly found it and added his lyrics) and speculates about what the lyrics might mean. He also discusses how the song became the standard it is today.  

White Christmas: the Story of an American Song by Jody Rosen
Did you know that Irving Berlin was being snarky when he first wrote "White Christmas?"  Originally, the song was supposed to be part of a stage show, and White Christmas was supposed to be sung by wealthy "Hollywood sophisticates" who long for a "rustic snow-bound Christmas." Jody Rosen's White Christmas: the Story of an American Song is the story of how that snark became sincere on its way to Bing Crosby.  I'm not particularly fond of this song (and neither is the author) but I love this era of American pop music, and this book is a wonderful look into that period of songwriting.