New book paints intimate portrait of legendary singer's musical, political exploits

Monday, May 25, 2009 at 1:00am
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The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger
By Alec Wilkinson
(Knopf)

Pete Seeger just celebrated his 90th birthday, an event that was the focal point of a great concert aired on satellite radio and covered in numerous publications.

Award-winning New Yorker magazine writer and author Alec Wilkinson follows the famed performer’s instructions to the letter in his new book The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. Seeger wanted any new biographical treatment to be brief, focused mainly on his musical and political exploits and to avoid hyperbole or obsession with his age and lengthy career.

Wilkinson enjoyed the benefit of numerous talks with Seeger, and lets his words convey Seeger’s feelings about Woody Guthrie, The Weavers and Leadbelly. It also explores his involvement with the civil rights, peace and environmental movements, and his longtime marriage (more than 60 years) and family relationships.

The book provides the complete account of Seeger’s testimony before The House Un-American Activities Committee subcommittee on August 18, 1955. It also includes details regarding his trips to Africa and Asia with his children in the late ‘50s and describes the impact that meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 had on his life.

Although there aren’t many details in The Protest Singer his ardent followers don’t already know, his life is a testament to the transformative nature of art and culture.

Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky
William Van Meter
(Simon & Schuster)

Until the morning of May 4, 2003, Katie Autry was just another college student at Western Kentucky University, pursuing a degree in the school’s dental program.

Sadly, on that day, she became a grim statistic. Autry was raped and murdered in a horrible incident that became a national story. The ensuing investigation didn’t just permanently scar the town of Bowling Green and its surrounding communities, it also escalated into a sordid tale replete with racial, class, gender and even regional issues.

Journalist William Van Meter now lives in New York but is a Bowling Green native. His knowledge of the community proves invaluable in his shocking new book Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky.

Van Meter avoids sensationalism or judgment in his profile of Autry’s background and the murder. He’s also able to fairly cover the other controversies that emerged, especially those involving the two young men and three families whose lives were forever destroyed by the crime.

Stephen Soules was an unemployed high school dropout who also happened to have a mixed-race background, something that added fuel to an already explosive situation. There was also Lucas Goodrum, a low-level drug dealer. Soules was implicated by DNA evidence at the scene, while Goodrum initially confessed, then began continually changing his story. Van Meter includes interviews with friends of both suspects and victims, offering readers a combination of undisputed facts and debatable contentions.

Eventually one person is found not guilty, the other sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. It’s impossible to read <i>Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky</i> without feeling regret and outrage.


W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
By David Robertson
(Knopf)

There’s no question W.C. Handy played a major role in the growth of the blues. But exactly what he did during the genre’s early years has never been as thoroughly examined as in poet and author David Robertson’s excellent new book W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues.

Though many accounts have claimed Handy was the “Father of the Blues,” Robertson instead deems him “the man who made the blues.” Handy spent countless hours in Beale Street saloons and music halls, and it was as a composer that he made his greatest musical contribution.

The long list of artists who recorded Handy tunes begins with Bessie Smith and continues through Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and many others.

Handy’s most famous tune was “The St. Louis Blues,” a song that’s been covered hundreds of times by all types of performers. Robertson traces it’s development from inception until it became a hit and shows how and why it remains popular today.

Handy also compiled and arranged spirituals, dabbled in symphonic music and jazz, helped create America’s first black-owned record label, and organized concerts on behalf of African American musicians. He lent his name to several political causes, most notably an event to help pay for the appeals of the Scottsboro Boys, eight Alabama black men sentenced to death for rape on extremely dubious evidence in the early 1930s.

No previous work has covered in such detail the exploits of the great W.C. Handy like David Robertson’s fine new book.