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Best of the Web

Studs Terkel, Giants of Jazz (1957, 1975)

During radio personality Studs Terkel's long career, he had opportunities to meet and befriend many of the greatest jazz and blues musicians of the 20th century; Bessie Smith was before his time, but he tells a colorful version of her story. The book also covers Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

Will Friedwald, Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (2002)

This wonderfully detailed "biography" tells the story of twelve popular songs from the earlier parts of the 20th century, from the music to the business and politics behind the tunes. It is highly recommended especially for those with an interest in jazz and blues.

Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (1998)

A very interesting, pretty academic breakdown of the music of these three influential women. If you're looking for basic biography of each individual, don't start here—but if you are interested in how they all fit together, and how their music might actually be feminist, this is definitely the book for you.

W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues, An Autobiography (1969)

W.C. Handy openly acknowledges that he learned the blues from the street, and did not grow up with the music. He also openly touts himself as the father of the blues. A bit of contradiction there, perhaps, but this is certainly a good read.

Francis Davis, The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People (1995)

This book makes for a nice overview of blues history, although it sometimes avoids delving into the more complicated race and gender questions.

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