Charles Hamm, Author on American Popular Music, Dies at 86
By ZACHARY WOOLFE
Charles Hamm, who helped establish the field of American popular music history with two books that have become standard texts, died on Oct. 16 in Lebanon, N. H. He was 86. The cause was pneumonia, his son Stuart said.
After beginning his career as a specialist in Renaissance music, Mr. Hamm became frustrated with the condescension of his fellow musicologists toward the popular music of their own time. He began to write and lecture on the subject.
"There was no literature in my own discipline to guide me," he later recalled in "Putting Popular Music in its Place," a 1995 collection of his essays. "My first attempts were shots in the dark, guided only by the germ of a conviction that popular music should be approached as a complex field encompassing composers, performers, audiences, the music industry, the media and the state."
In "Yesterdays: Popular Song in America" (1979) and "Music in the New World" (1983), Mr. Hamm was one of the first scholars to study the history of American popular music with musicological rigor and sensitivity to complex racial and ethnic dynamics, and both oral and written traditions. He traced pop's history not just to its full recent flowering in the 1950s or to the 19th century and Stephen Foster, but also to the colonial-era compositions that created the context for all that followed.
His books "convinced other scholars to study and take seriously the music loved by ordinary people," Dale Cockrell, the director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, said in an e-mail.
Charles Edward Hamm was born in Charlottesville, Va., on April 21, 1925. In high school he was a member of the band and the choir, and he played trombone in a local swing band. He studied music at the University of Virginia, and earned both a master's degree in composition and a Ph.D. in musicology from Princeton University.
He taught at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and was active as a composer, with works that included a chamber opera, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1956), based on the James Thurber story.
He went on to teach at Tulane, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and Dartmouth, where he was named the Arthur R. Virgin professor of music in 1976 and served as chairman of the music department.
Mr. Hamm's books also included "Irving Berlin: Songs From the Melting Pot" (1997), for which he received a Special Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or Ascap, in 1998.
He published articles on the music of American avant-garde composers like John Cage, on George Gershwin, and on the popular music of South Africa and China, and was a contributor to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the Harvard Dictionary of Music.
In 1981 he was a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and twice served as its chairman. In 2002 the Society for American Music presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In addition to his son Stuart, he is survived by two other sons, Bruce and Chris; a sister, Ruby; a brother, Jerry, and four grandchildren.