Music in the Age of Anxiety by James E. Wierzbicki does a great job of placing the American music of the 1950's in historical and sociological context. He mentions that for him the 50s were simply the time when he grew up, so he brings that perspective to the analysis of what role the various music played as well as why. A writer significantly younger might have been unconsciously influenced by either the sugar-coated version of the 70s (Happy Days, Grease, etc) or the more realistic but dark version of the turn of the new millenium (Pleasantville, Good Night, and Good Luck, etc).
The writing flowed well with little academic jargon in the text itself but offers detailed explanations and resources for those interested in more than just the "that song really sounds good" aspect of music. If your interest is in music and not just songs, the endnotes and resources are a treasure while the text itself is clear and easy to follow.
As with almost every book that addresses music in conjunction with history, whether music history or history in general, this is 'a' history of music in the 19502, not 'the' history. Wierzbicki is not exhaustive in his examples but rather uses enough examples to illustrate his points within each section as well as the book as a whole.
Most of the history books and courses with which I am familiar emphasize a couple of points about why the musical changes that took place then took place, based primarily on the perspective of the authors or instructors. This volume fills the holes that are left from those longer histories and does so with a very balanced view.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in music and how it can lead or follow societal shifts or how it can comment on society. While there will certainly be some nostalgia induced for many readers this is less nostalgic than, say, a work like Covach's What's That Sound? Covach's book is still an essential book for history of rock 'n roll courses but because it is looking closer at charts and song form (AABA, etc) it stirs a great deal more nostalgia.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
The post-Korean War years in America, were prosperous for many Americans buying new houses in suburbia and vets going to college on the GI Bill. This was the beginning of the birth of Rock and Roll, free-form and bebop jazz and on Broadway and in Hollywood, musicals were all the rage. But this was also the time of the McCarthy hearings, the Red Scare and “duck and cover” exercises in public schools.
In this 288-age paperbound book Australian music professor James Wierzbicki from the University of Sydney, explores the changes that occurred in music composed, performed and recording during the decade of the 1950s. There are chapters devoted to “popular music” (think Sinatra, Clooney, Doris Day), Rock and Roll, Opera, Classical, Jazz, Hollywood and Broadway (separate chapters for the last two as well). One genre missing is “country” – which would have been called “country & western” back then.
The author quotes or paraphrases a lot and you’ll have to turn to the copious “notes” which fill 50 pages- 25% as long as the core text. I found the writing a bit dry and – with all the “source notes” it was more like a textbook than for general reading. There’s also a 20-page “Bibliography”. There are no photos or illustrations in the volume.
The concept of the book is fine (and I wonder how an American living through the 1950s – as I did as a teenager – would see the changes differently.)
But, if the subject of “the fifties” interests you, the book may satisfy you. It didn’t me.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.
I rather enjoy this book, some I really got immersed into, other part I found not so interesting. I think, sometimes, I expect books like this, to take me back in time - which it did for me to a part. Where it lost me, was that I am not that familiar with local politics in America and I couldn't quite get into that part of it. I am sure that reader who lived in America at the time , will really feel like they have taken a step back in time. I was only a child at the Cuba crisis, but the book and the songs took right back, as if it happened yesterday. Put shivers up my spine
This book was provided to me in return for an honest and unbiased review