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Heard It In A Love Song: Ted Gioia & James Gavin

C. Michael Bailey By

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Recently, I had to admit to myself that: (1) I will not live forever, and because of Number 1, (2) Not listen to all the music there is, and (3) not read all of the books on my list. Well, I am trying to bring up the rear on this latter point reviewing books by two prominent music writers, Ted Gioia and James Gavin... about a year late... well, better that than...

Love Songs: The Hidden History
Ted Gioia
332 Pages
ISBN: # 978- 0199357574
Oxford University Press

Elijah Wald and Ted Gioia are the two most important contemporary music writers opining about American Music. Gioia is exceptional in his academic way of stripping his prose to the Hemingway quick and producing a readable narrative readily accessible to professionals and laymen alike. Gioia's bibliography brims with taut descriptions of everything from the Mississippi Delta Blues (Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (Norton, 2008)) to the history of jazz (The History Of Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2011, 2nd Edition).

Gioia follows his very well-received survey of the standard jazz songbook, The Jazz Standards -A Guide to The Repertoire (Oxford University Press, 2012) with Love Songs: The Hidden History. There a few metaphysical and aesthetic components that go together like Love and Music. Love songs are like the peanut butter-and-jelly of art. From the get-go, Gioia challenges the reader that there is nothing new about love songs. They have been around the first word was written and tune whistled. I believe that it could be easily supported that love (or, at lease, its torturous animus, sex) was the artistic stressor bringing together melody and words.

Gioia carefully spends a great deal of time discussing the older forms giving special attention to Sappho and Confucius and composers thereafter, highlighting the prudish attempts to make many of the more frankly erotic songs more family friendly (including the Biblical Song of Songs). It seems that Puritanism predated itself. Gioia makes a provocative argument for oppression, here the oppression of slavery, be it either Roman, Egyptian, or American as both an overt metaphor for and covert exegesis of love longing (or sexual desire). The author's thoughts on contemporary music are revealing, noting that,

"Not since the age of the castrati had asexuality risen so high in the charts, and arousal levels sunk so low."

Love is reduced to the physical and the physical is reduced to the mechanical and nowhere is there James Brown crying either, "Please, Please, Please" or "Get on Up Like a Sex Machine."

If the 21st Century is anything in music, it is the bell that tolls for the Great American Songbook. What Gioia firmly contends is that all is not lost as long as there is love.

Is That All There Is: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee
James Gavin
608 Pages
ISBN: # 978-1451641684
Atria Books

Early in his biography of singer Peggy Lee, James Gavin quotes New York City critic Rex Reed, who described Lee as, "strange to the point of madness." This clause could just as easily describe the objects of Gavin's two previous biographies, 2002's darkly stark Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf) and 2009's revelatory Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (Atria Books). If we add the cast of characters included in Gavin's 1991 Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (Grove Weidenfeld) we might conclude that it is exactly these types of conflicted and compelling figures that Gavin enjoys specializing in. He is good at it. I would not want him to change and I am always looking forward to his next subject.

The life and career of one Norma Deloris Egstrom, AKA Peggy Lee is a well-represented bibliography that includes author Peter Richmond's Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee (Henry Holt & Co., 1995) and Lee's own autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography (Dutton, 1989). What Gavin brings to this previously covered ground is his contemporary social wit and keen ability to craft fact-dense, deceptively easy to read sentences. Gavin has that rare ability to make the reader feel smart and as if they learned something previously unknown.

In Gavin's hands, a life that could otherwise be described as intensely unhappy and malignantly duplicitous, is given new meaning and appreciation. Lee is not an easy subject. While we are all human, some of us are more so and despite fame and fortune those characteristics rise to the surface like the blood in a bruise. Lee had plenty of them, but remained a trooper to the end. Gavin's research is meticulous and his prose pacing as certain as the bass line from Lee's torch, "Fever." Gavin's gift for me was to allow me as the reader to get to know Lee, warts and all, and then give a damn about her. That is no small feat.


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