Obama Music by Bonnie Greer

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Obama Music by Bonnie Greer

Category: History
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A largely autobiographical look at the 'musical landscape' of the South Side of Chicago, where President Barack Obama began his career.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Legend Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1906558246

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This is an interesting read, but unless I'm missing something, the focus of the book seems a little difficult to grasp. It's best if I start with the author's intentions as set out in her Prologue. It is a mixture of tales of her own life growing up on the South Side, she writes, interspersed with stories and observations about Obama, linking it with the music, musicians and music scene, past and present, including hip hop, country, classical, and rock'n'roll. All of these, she notes, were heard on the President's Inauguration Day. To them she adds the blues, gospel, soul and jazz of the South Side, when the people began to build the great institutions and great solidarity that enabled him to become the most powerful man on the planet.

The foregoing is loosely paraphrased from her own words. As she says, she and Obama both came from the South Side themselves, although his connection is a little more tenuous. According to a source I checked outside these pages, Chicago figured little if at all in his life until he went to work there when he was in his twenties.

What we have, therefore, is a book of short essays, mostly autobiographical, with various references to Obama, although his associations with them are generally not that strong. Greer talks about original bluesmen Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, her father's collection of 45s and 78s, the influence of Bo Diddley, the unique voices of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin. She talks about gospel music, and then tells us that Michael Jackson's funeral was not a gospel event but a popular one – this being the first and only reference to Jacko in the whole book.

We are told about Stevie Wonder being presented at the White House with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, then she discusses how much his music meant to her and her friends in their teenage days as they eagerly looked at Ebony, a black magazine published in Chicago, and drooled at pictures of Richard Rowntree, who later went on to play Shaft on the big screen. A couple of pages later, she is talking about her local soul station interrupting its staple diet of Motown, Etta James and the Chi-Lites to play the Beatles. Throughout the book, she briefly mentions one hero after another before going off at a completely different tangent.

Speaking as one who is fascinated by popular music of the time in most of its shapes and forms, I kept on asking myself, What is she trying to tell us? Obama's connections with music aren't that clearly defined. It's highly likely that he grew up listening to most if not all of the stars that she did and that she mentions, as did most Americans of their generation. But as far as we can glean, his musical roots go no further. It's almost as if she has tried to combine a memoir of sorts with her admiration of the President, and make the most of whatever links she can find – pretty weak links at that. Every now and then she refers to history being made, but she never really defines it sharply. No matter what era anybody lives through, history is always being made somewhere, whether one can see it at the time or not.

I'm a little reluctant to say it, but I feel Greer tells us more about herself than about music or the President himself.

As an aside, after reading this, it occurred to me that there might once have been a case for a book on Blair Music, although the moment has surely passed. I don't think the young Obama was ever involved in anything like The Ugly Rumours!

Our thanks to Legend Press for sending us a copy for review.

For more on contemporary America, why not try The American Future: a History by Simon Schama.

Buy Obama Music by Bonnie Greer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Obama Music by Bonnie Greer at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Obama Music by Bonnie Greer at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Obama Music by Bonnie Greer at Amazon.com.


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