The best books on music’s most famous back stories

Why am I passionate about this?

Writing about history came to me rather late in life and I suppose it’s because the past now looks more inviting than the future. But there’s more to it than that. Everything has a history; it’s a bottomless topic. I became fascinated with the history of my own geographic environment and began exploring areas that were basically in my own backyard, which led to the inception of my first book. And, after years working as a graphic artist, I decided to help the narrative along by adding illustrations. A second book soon followed, then a third, a fourth, and now I’ve just finished my fifth book.


I wrote...

For a Song: The Most Enduring Tunes Ever Written

By Hal Taylor,

Book cover of For a Song: The Most Enduring Tunes Ever Written

What is my book about?

The common advice for authors is ‘write what you know.’ As a former musician, I took that advice, basing my latest book on the back stories of two dozen of the most famous songs ever written. And some of those stories are pretty juicy: Between 1988 and 2015, Warner/Chappell Music expected any public performance of that most innocent of tunes, “Happy Birthday”, to be liable for a royalty fee of $700. The man who wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” had never been to one! The author of “Jingle Bells” left much to be desired as a family man.

I've always been inspired by classic styles. I hope to continue to tap into that vein in as long as I can, until I eventually become history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock 'n' Roll

Hal Taylor Why did I love this book?

No one can say exactly when Rock ’n’ Roll was born, including biographer, novelist, poet, and recently deceased journalist Nick Tosches, but he provides enough background musings to take us on a wild ride through American musical history.

His book reveals twisted roots indeed, some that provided me with reference material regarding a connection between minstrelsy and one of the most popular Christmas tunes of all time. And a country song breaks loose from the genre corral and into the world of pop music when it is made into one of the best-known ballads ever by a singing politician.

By Nick Tosches,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrating the dark origins of our most American music, Country reveals a wild shadowland of history that encompasses blackface minstrels and yodeling cowboys honky-tonk hell and rockabilly heaven medieval myth and musical miscegenation sex, drugs, murder and rays of fierce illumination on Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and others, famous and forgotten, whose demonology is America's own. Profusely and superbly illustrated, Country stands as one of the most brilliant explorations of American musical culture ever written.


Book cover of The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization

Hal Taylor Why did I love this book?

The Story of Music is a massive volume (despite its paperback size), and it has to be to cover the time frame indicated in the title.

Award-winning composer Howard Goodall tends to confine his observations to the world of classical music, but as needed, occasionally veers off into folk and popular veins. I was treated to a revelation that the popular blues rhythm, the shuffle, can be traced all the way back to the alleged children’s rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” that appeared during the English Civil War.

It made me think.

By Howard Goodall,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Story of Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Music is an intrinsic part of everyday life, and yet the history of its development from single notes to multi-layered orchestration can seem bewilderingly complex.

In his dynamic tour through 40,000 years of music, from prehistoric instruments to modern-day pop, Howard Goodall leads us through the story of music as it happened, idea by idea, so that each musical innovation-harmony, notation, sung theatre, the orchestra, dance music, recording-strikes us with its original force. Along the way, he also gives refreshingly clear descriptions of what music is and how it works: what scales are all about, why some chords sound discordant,…


Book cover of Danny Boy: The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad

Hal Taylor Why did I love this book?

I was fortunate enough to be able to share a pint with Malachy McCourt some time ago at The Plough & the Stars in Philadelphia where he was promoting this book.

A delightfully true Irishman, he was full of fatalist humor and irony, bringing to mind the famous quote by G.K. Chesterton from his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse:

“The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.”

And “Danny Boy” is truly a sad song, but there is one enormous flaw regarding its Irishness: it was written by an Englishman who never set foot in Ireland. Frederick Wetherly, a barrister by day, and a lyricist by night, was asked by his sister-in-law to put words to a beautiful tune she had heard. He did, and the song became an enormous hit.

But Fred took the meaning to his grave, and to this day, it has perplexed many who have tried to interpret it.

By Malachy McCourt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Danny Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Everyone can hum this haunting Irish ballad that inevitably brings a tear to the eye. The most requested Irish song, it has been recorded by a variety of performers ranging from Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, and Kate Smith to the Pogues. The complete story of this moving tune has been shrouded in mystery until now. Where did "Danny Boy" originate, who actually wrote the lyrics, and is it even Irish? Acclaimed novelist, actor, memoirist, screenwriter, playwright, and raconteur, Malachy McCourt, turns his Irish eye to the song's complex history and myths in an eloquent ode to this classic. He traces…


Book cover of Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? The History of Christmas Carols

Hal Taylor Why did I love this book?

The Twelve Days of Christmas–an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, perched in a pear tree. It is open to interpretation as to exactly what this exotic piece of holiday music actually means, but Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones gives us an entertaining and educated guess: the French word for partridge was misheard by English ears giving us “pear tree.”

And that is one of an assortment of Christmas tunes whose backgrounds are brought to light in this fascinating book devoted to uncovering some of the oldest and dearest songs of the season.

It also brings into perspective the social aspects and traditions inherent in the time period from where the songs originated.

By Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? The History of Christmas Carols as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why was the partridge in the pear tree? Who was Good King Wenceslas? And what are the pagan origins behind 'The Holly and the Ivy'? Discover the hidden stories behind our best-loved Christmas carols, from their earliest incarnations in the Middle Ages and their banning under the Puritans to the wassailing traditions of the nineteenth century and the carols that united soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War. This fascinating book charts the history of one of Christmas' longest-running traditions and is sure to appeal to all those who love the festive season.


Book cover of The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk

Hal Taylor Why did I love this book?

This is an absolute must for anyone interested in almost any musical genre.

Now in its fifth edition, it takes on the arduous task of sifting through the back stories of over 1,000 of the most familiar tunes through 500 years of musical history.

A more recent, albeit still antique reference, is the story of how “Jingle Bells” came to be, and the controversy regarding where it was actually, written; the snow-covered streets of Medford, Massachusetts, or the live oak-lined thoroughfares of Savanah, Georgia.

By James J. Fuld,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Book of World-Famous Music as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic, painstakingly researched compilation of music information, newly revised and enlarged, analyzes nearly 1,000 of the world's most familiar melodies, tracing them back to their original printed sources. Here in one convenient volume are the composers, lyricists, copyright date, first lines of music, lyrics, physical condition of first editions, and other data on a tremendous range of compositions, including We Shall Overcome, Haydn's Surprise Symphony, The Well-Tempered Clavier, There's No Business Like Show Business, Silent Night, Pictures at an Exhibition, Schubert’s Ave Maria, and many more. 30 black-and-white illustrations.


You might also like...

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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