Music History

07.09.134:45 AM ET

Mark Kurlansky’s Book Bag: 5 Essential Music Reads

In his new book Ready for a Brand New Beat, prolific author Mark Kurlansky looks at how the Motown song “Dancing in the Street” became an anthem for ’60s America—he picks five essential music reads that inspired his own work.

Blues People: Negro Music in White America
By Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

This reflection of black history, culture, music, and how they come together was published in 1963, but remains a profound insight into the development of jazz from blues, and the role of black culture in history. Baraka continues to be one of the most interesting critics of jazz, with such essays as “Coltrane: Why His Legacy Continues.” To those of us who think jazz is profoundly meaningful, he is one of the best guides.

Bachanalia: The Essential Listener’s Guide to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier
By Eric Lewin Altschuler

This 1994 book is one of those products of Harvard University where there seems to be an endless supply of students convinced that their ideas are incredibly cute. Altschuler really was cute and his analysis of The Well-Tempered Clavier, fugue by fugue, is probably the most readable study of Bach ever done for the layman. It matters because Bach matters, because what Bach did is one of the most important events in the history of music, because if you understand Bach then you can understand what Jimi Hendricks did to “The Star Spangled Banner,” what Ramsey Lewis did to “Dancing in the Street,” why the backup band the Funk Brothers made Motown recordings work.

The Cellist of Sarajevo
By Steven Galloway

This 2008 novel is a beautiful book. The story of a cellist who plays on the street in Sarajevo while it is being blown up around him, and the impact this has on three separate people. This is a book about the power of music. In full disclosure, I play the cello, and it is my favorite instrument. But I do not see how anyone would fail to be moved by this book.

The Joy of Music
By Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein was not only a great musician, but a man of irresistible charm, even charisma. What a pleasure it is to hear him explain what he is doing when he is conducting or talking about jazz or Bach.

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
By Daniel J. Levitin

A 2007 book by a psychologist/musician, which turns out to be a pretty interesting combination, explaining what your mind is doing when it is responding to music.

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