- Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music by Burton W. Peretti
Burton W. Peretti's Lift Every Voice contributes to a much-needed discussion of African American musical history by providing an important, albeit brief, visitation of the social issues entwined in the professional experience of some of the United States' most important and influential artists. Any work that focuses on this subject matter, particularly covering such a broad swath of history in one volume, will bring comparisons to Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans (Norton,  1997). While Southern focused on chronicling major events and actors in African American music history, Peretti covers less material and embarks much more freely in historical contextualization. His depth of knowledge as a scholar in jazz and blues is clear, and all of the important events and performers are thoroughly covered. Information on these genres is easy to come by, and there are no major new revelations brought to light in Lift Every Voice. It is the subject matter outside of those two areas that is most significant.
Peretti gives readers a fairly unique examination of the lives of numerous historical figures. Two notable subjects include Billy Kersands and William Marion Cook. Kersands was a black minstrel-era entertainer who gained national prominence through the exploitation of stereotypes that were caustic even by early twentieth-century standards. Cook's story is poignantly expressed in the recollections of his mother, as she lamented how Cook devoted years of his life to serious musical training in the United States and Europe only to achieve economic success by writing coon songs. Cook and Kersands are examples of African American musicians who endured the racial indignities that were part and parcel to their commercial success. Both are important stars in an era that needs to be explored more fully to understand early American music. While there are biographical sketches dealing with some of the major figures of the era, unfortunately the nature of their musical contributions are a reminder of a painful and unresolved chapter in American history that is something of an intellectual minefield. Peretti acknowledges not only the strides that these performers made to advance professional possibilities for other African American performers, but he also recognizes the personal and societal conflict inherent in their means to success. This discussion forges a path to a re-invigorated and broader discussion of musical history in his book.
Peretti also delves into areas such as the intersection of R & B, rock and roll, and gospel in the 1940s through the 1970s, as exemplified in the careers of industry leaders including Thomas A. Dorsey, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. The writer is able to show the interwoven aspects of the three distinct showmen and how, although their messages differed, the music of one fed, in direct and indirect ways, into the music of the next. By including historical context for all three artists' careers, Lift Every Voice goes beyond showing the relationships of the notes and rhythms of the three men's expressive niches. Peretti succinctly allows the reader intellectual access to the peer judgment that each singer had to overcome because of the often frowned-upon, but undeniable, juxtaposition of sacred and secular cultural expression that their music represented to the African American community. Peretti includes pioneers [End Page 233] in African American music, such as Russell Simmons, in a way that implies academic equality with artists like Duke Ellington, harkening important scholarship to come. Lift Every Voice also includes a brief survey of other seminal figures in more recent African American music such as Tina Turner, Prince, and Michael Jackson, providing a glimpse of one of the areas that scholarship on African American music history will need to move in the future. The documents and bibliography that Peretti includes will well serve scholars new to the subject matter.
While there is no shortage of works that interpret the how...