The best books on American popular music history

Harvey G. Cohen Author Of Duke Ellington's America
By Harvey G. Cohen

Who am I?

As an author and educator, my work centers on the history, business, and art of the music industry and film industry. I don’t think my fellow historians use musical evidence enough as a primary document that reveals much about the society and time period one is writing aboutjust as much as the usual primary and secondary documents historians use.  I try to ensure my books are entertaining as well as rigorously researched. I’m also a songwriter, with many years in the music biz, and have done much work in radio, especially crafting music shows. I’m always discovering amazing stuff from various eras, and it’s not much fun if you don’t share it, which is part of why I’m on Twitter.

I wrote...

Duke Ellington's America

By Harvey G. Cohen,

Book cover of Duke Ellington's America

What is my book about?

The most thorough, nuanced portrait yet of this towering figure, Duke Ellington’s America highlights Ellington’s importance as a historical figure as well as arguably America’s greatest composer. Harvey G. Cohen paints a vivid picture of Ellington’s life and times, taking him from his youth in black Washington, D.C., to the heights of worldwide acclaim. Mining extensive archives, many never before available, plus new interviews with Ellington’s friends, family, band, and business associates, Cohen illuminates his constantly evolving approach to composition, performance, and the music business—as well as issues of race, equality, religion and the Cold War.

Ellington’s own voice animates the book throughout, giving Duke Ellington’s America an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by any previous account. One of the Washington Post’s best books of the year.

The books I picked & why

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Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

By Jeff Chang,

Book cover of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Why this book?

One of the many things I appreciate about this book, and why I often assign it to students, is that for long stretches, Chang completely ignores the music, concentrating on the essential and disturbing conditions and history that birthed hip-hop. Its initial development in the South Bronx was no accident, just like the rise of much of jazz in New Orleans. The international dimensions of this genre are studied, as well as its multi-faceted contributions to fashion, art, dance, and more.

Hip-hop also eventually brought innovation and more diversity to the music business and was very affected by national radio ignoring it for years during the 1980s, as well as the 1996 Communications Act that deregulated American radio. Chang wraps up these strands brilliantly. And the music.  

Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis

By Fred Goodman,

Book cover of Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis

Why this book?

The story of how Warner Bros Records, perhaps the best, most profitable yet artist-friendly record label in the 1970s and 1980s became heavily damaged when it was bought out in the 1990s and put under corporate auspices and expectations. Goodman communicates the financial details in a clear and accessible way, as well as the music executives’ singular personalities. Also offers a close-up view of how the corporate execs, especially with their short-term focus on quarterly results, failed to deal with the challenges of Napster and downloads at the turn of the century. An insightful view of the changing components of the music business in our time.

The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

By Preston Lauterbach,

Book cover of The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll

Why this book?

Lauterbach’s book travels back to the late 1920s up to the 1960s, illustrating the creation of a major strand in the African American music business, and how rock and roll took its first steps into the marketplace. The chitlin circuit was a necessarily segregated touring circuit, giving black performers nationwide a chance to build an audience, innovate with their music, and start a career. This is also a civil rights story, documenting African Americans in a segregated world supporting each other while building independent businesses.

When black musicians started achieving more notoriety and profit in the 1950s and 1960s, and integration was starting to occur, those brave initial black entrepreneurs were mostly wiped out and cast aside, replaced by more corporate often white-owned enterprises.

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

By Barry Mazor,

Book cover of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

Why this book?

The long-overdue story of IMHO, the most important, talented music executive in American history. Ralph Peer was behind the recording of the first blues record, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” in 1920. His 1927 discovery of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family basically brought us country music. In both blues and country, Peer also led the marketing of these genres, realizing that by promoting artists of all races, despite the segregation of the time, he could make a ton of money in the long run, especially since he was also an innovator in publishing, ensuring he secured rights on his artists, and, surprisingly, paying them well.

He was also behind the 1940s Latin music craze and entered the rock and roll world by signing Buddy Holly. Fascinating, well-written and -researched.

Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

By Greg Milner,

Book cover of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

Why this book?

Going back 125 years in recording history, Milner’s book will make you question what “good recorded sound” is, and how that notion, surprisingly, is a political one that has changed over time. A diversity of genres and artists are brought in to prove his points. He demonstrates why technological innovations such as the cylinder, the 78RPM record, magnetic tape, albums, transistors, the cassette, the CD, ProTools and of course MP3s changed the sound and content of music forever. And also how such changes greatly affected the bottom line of the music business, increasing or decreasing revenue as the case may be. Might change how you view your music collection.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in music, sound, and the music industry?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about music, sound, and the music industry.

Music Explore 74 books about music
Sound Explore 16 books about sound
The Music Industry Explore 12 books about the music industry

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone? The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music, It Came from Memphis, and Never a Dull Moment if you like this list.