All the Years of American Popular Music
All the Years of American Popular Music is rumored by at least one source to be David Ewen’s eightieth book. Whether or not the figure is actually that high, there is absolutely no doubt that Ewen is the most prolific writer on music in history. This latest work in many respects caps a career that has spanned most of the twentieth century. It might be better named “All the Years of David Ewen,” for it is very much a product of the author’s earlier works as well as a lifetime of experience.
Born in 1907 in Lemburg, Austria, Ewen was introduced to music through private instruction in piano, harmony, and music theory. He completed his education in New York City at C.C.N.Y. and Columbia University. His first book, Unfinished Symphony: A Story-Life of Franz Shubert was published in 1931 and was praised by the New York Times as a product of “earnest and painstaking work.” After that the books kept coming. His second book, Hebrew Music, came out the same year, and 1933 saw the publication of Wine, Women and Waltz; A Romantic Biography of Johann Strauss, Son and Father and From Bach to Stravinsky: The History of Music by Its Foremost Critics. Composers of Today followed in 1934 and a second edition appeared in 1936. 1936 also witnessed Ewen’s marriage to Hannah Weinstein, a New York teacher.
Although still publishing books, Ewen expanded his horizons in 1937 to become music editor of Cue, a New York music magazine. In 1938 he became record editor of Stage and in 1940 editor of Musical Facts. The author took time out for service in the United States Army in 1944-1945, and in a radical departure from his prior literary subject matter, he wrote the authorized history of paratroopers. After the war, he became director of Allen, Towne and Heath Publishing Company—a position he held until 1950 when he published his thirtieth title, The Story of Irving Berlin.
Now, thirty or forty titles later, Ewen’s career reaches its pinnacle with All the Years of American Popular Music. This massive 850-page volume is a stunning work of research and writing. With almost fifty years of music study behind it, this volume is in some respects a rehashing and collating of previous Ewen books, but its major strength is that its one-volume format convincingly and dramatically demonstrates how American popular music has developed out of the experience, tragedy, soul, and passions of the people of all races who came to this country. It has become an accepted fact that American music even at its poorest is reflective of the manners, customs, and habits of common people to a degree of precision unmatched by more scholarly music. Thus, Ewen makes no apologies for his serious treatment of popular music, but treats it as a form of folk music that is, in his mind, much broader than the traditional rural material that has been long viewed as forming the basis of such music. All the Years of American Popular Music is a comprehensive, well-documented sourcebook on every kind of popular music written, played, danced to, or sung by Americans from the Puritans and their hymns to the rock phenomena and the currently frenetic pop music scene.
Ewen’s vast chronological narrative contains a tremendous array of names, facts, titles, stories, anecdotes, and critical assessments. The book effectively revives songs, singers, and composers long forgotten. When our country was young, our popular music consisted of the patriotic and political type; such songs had a national rather than an individual orientation. Among our early songs were many borrowed from England, including “Yankee Doodle” and the “Star Spangled Banner.”
As the country expanded, Ewen notes that songs relating to pioneering became popular, particularly nostalgic tunes of home and family. Songwriters like Stephen Foster and James A. Bland were popular during this period. Songs of transportation, still popular today, also got their start at this time with writers addressing horse and buggys, railroads, steamships, and...
(The entire section is 1,631 words.)