EARLY MUSICAL INFLUENCES
The music of the United States reflects the country’s multi-ethnic population through a diverse array of styles. It is a mixture of music influenced by West African, Irish, Scottish, Mexican, and Cuban music traditions among others. The country’s most internationally renowned genres are jazz, blues, country, rhythm and blues, ragtime, hip hop, barbershop, pop, experimental, techno, house, dance, boogaloo, salsa and rock and roll. The United States has the world’s largest music market with a total retail value of 4,481.8 million dollars in 2012, and its music is heard around the world. Since the beginning of the 20th century, some Forms of American popular music have gained a near global audience.
Native Americans were the earliest inhabitants of the land that is today known as the United States and played its first music. Beginning in the 17th century, immigrants from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Germany and France began arriving in large numbers, bringing with them new styles and instruments. African slaves brought musical traditions, and each subsequent wave of immigrants contributed to a melting pot.
Much of modern popular music can trace its roots to the emergence in the late 19th century of African American blues and the growth of gospel music in the 1920s. The African American basis for popular music used elements derived from European and indigenous music. There are also strong African roots in the music tradition of the original white settlers, such as country and bluegrass. The United States has also seen documented folk music and recorded popular music produced in the ethnic styles of the Ukrainian, Irish, Scottish, Polish, Hispanic and Jewish communities, among others.
Many American cities and towns have vibrant music scenes which, in turn, support a number of regional musical styles. The Cajun and Creole traditions in Louisiana music, the folk and popular styles of Hawaiian music, and the bluegrass and old time music of the Southeastern states are a few examples of diversity in American music.
Folk music in the US is varied across the country’s numerous ethnic groups. The Native American tribes each play their own varieties of folk music, most of it spiritual in nature. During the colonial era, English, French and Spanish styles and instruments were brought to the Americas. By the early 20th century, the United States had become a major center for folk music from around the world, including polka, Ukrainian, and Polish fiddling, Ashkenazi Jewish Klezmer and several kinds of Latin music.
The music of the United States can be characterized by the use of syncopation and asymmetrical rhythms, long, irregular melodies, which are said to “reflect the wide open geography of (the American landscape)” and the “sense of personal freedom characteristic of American life”. Some distinct aspects of American music, like the call-and-response format, are derived from African techniques and instruments.
Throughout the later part of American history, and into modern times, the relationship between American and European music has been a discussed topic among scholars of American music. Some have urged for the adoption of more purely European techniques and styles, which are sometimes perceived as more refined or elegant, while others have pushed for a sense of musical nationalism that celebrates distinctively American styles. Modern classical music scholar John Warthen Struble has contrasted American and European, concluding that the music of the United States is inherently distinct because the United States has not had centuries of musical evolution as a nation. Instead, the music of the United States is that of dozens or hundreds of indigenous and immigrant groups, all of which developed largely in regional isolation until the American Civil War, when people from across the country were brought together in army units, trading musical styles and practices. Struble deemed the ballads of the Civil War “the first American folk music with discernible features that can be considered unique to America: the first ‘American’ sounding music, as distinct from any regional style derived from another country.”
The Civil War, and the period following it, saw a general flowering of American art, literature and music. Amateur musical ensembles of this era can be seen as the birth of American popular music. These early amateur bands have been described as combining “the depth and drama of the classics with undemanding technique, eschewing complexity in favor of direct expression. If it was vocal music, the words would be in English, despite the snobs who declared English an unsinkable language. In a way, it was part of the entire awakening of America that happened after the Civil War, a time in which American painters, writers and ‘serious’ composers addressed specifically American themes.” During this period the roots of blues, gospel, jazz and country music took shape; in the 20th century, these became the core of American popular music, which further evolved into the styles like rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip hop music.
Music intertwines with aspects of American social and cultural identity, including through social class, race and ethnicity, geography, religion, language, gender and sexuality. The relationship between music and race is perhaps the most potent determiner of musical meaning in the United States.
Economic and social classes separates American music through the creation and consumption of music, such as the upper-class patronage of symphony-goers, and the generally poor performers of rural and ethnic folk music. Musical divisions based on class are not absolute, however, and are sometimes as much perceived as actual; popular American country music, for example, is a commercial genre designed to “appeal to a working-class identity, whether or not its listeners are actually working class”. Country music is also intertwined with geographic identity, and is specifically rural in origin and function; other genres, like R&B and hip hop, are perceived as inherently urban. For much of American history, music-making has been a “feminized activity”. In the 19th century, amateur piano and singing were considered proper for middle-class and upper-class women. Women were also a major part of early popular music performance, though recorded traditions quickly become more dominated by men. Most male-dominated genres of popular music include female performers as well, often in a niche appealing primarily to women; these include gangsta and heavy metal.
The United States is a melting pot consisting of numerous ethnic groups. Many of these peoples have kept alive the folk traditions of their homeland, often producing distinctively American styles of foreign music. Some nationalities have produced local scenes in regions of the country where they have clustered, like Cape Verdean music in New England, Armenian music in California, and Italian and Ukrainian music in New York City.
Ragtime was a style of music based around the piano, using syncopated rhythms and chromaticism. It is primarily a form of dance music utilizing the walking bass, and is generally composed in sonata form. Ragtime is a refined and evolved form of the African American cake walk dance, mixed with styles ranging from European marches and popular songs to jigs and other dances played by large African American bands in northern cities during the end of the 19th century. The most famous ragtime performer and composer was Scott Joplin, known for works such as “Maple Leaf Rag”. His music was also featured in the movie “The Sting”.
The Creoles are a community with varied non-Anglo ancestry, mostly descendant of people who lived in Louisiana before its purchase by the U.S. The Cajuns are a group of Francophiles who arrived in Louisiana after leaving Acadia in Canada. The city of New Orleans, Louisiana being a major port, has acted as a melting pot for people from all over the Caribbean basin. The result is a diverse and syncretic set of styles of Cajun and Creole music.
The United States has produced many popular musicians and composers in the modern world. Beginning with the birth of recorded music, American performers have continued to lead the field of popular music, which out of “all the contributions made by Americans to world culture… has been taken to heart by the entire world”. Most histories of popular music start with American ragtime or Tin Pan Alley; others, however, trace popular music back to the European Renaissance and through broadsheets, ballads and other popular traditions.
JAZZ AND BLUES MUSIC
The development of an African American musical identity, out of disparate sources from Africa and Europe, has been a constant theme in the musical history of the United States. Little documentation exists of colonial era African American music, when styles, songs and instruments from across West Africa commingled in the melting pot of slavery. By the mid-19th century, a distinctly African American folk tradition was well-known and widespread, and African American musical techniques, instruments and images became a part of mainstream American music through spirituals, minstrel shows and slave songs. African American musical styles became an integral part of American popular music through blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll, soul and hip hop; all of these styles were consumed by Americans of all races, but were created in African American styles and idioms before eventually becoming common in performance and consumption across racial lines. In contrast, country music derives from both African and European, as well as Native American and Hawaiian, traditions and yet has long been perceived as a form of white music.
The ancestors of today’s African American population were brought to the United States as slaves, working primarily in the plantations of the South. They were from hundreds of tribes across West Africa, and they brought with them certain traits of West African music including call and response vocals and complexly rhythmic music, as well as syncopated beats and shifting accents. The African musical focus on rhythmic singing and dancing was brought to the New World, and where it became part of a distinct folk culture that helped Africans “retain continuity with their past through music”. The first slaves in the United States sang work songs, field hollers, and, following Christianization, hymns. In the 19th century, a Great Awakening of religious fervor gripped people across the country, especially in the South. Protestant hymns written mostly by New England preachers became a feature of camp meetings held among devout Christians across the South. When blacks began singing adapted versions of these hymns, they were called Negro spirituals. It was from these roots, of spiritual songs, work songs and field hollers, that blues, jazz and gospel developed.
Spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith, sung by slaves on southern plantations. In the mid to late 19th century, spirituals spread out of the U.S. South. In 1871 Fisk University became home to the Jubilee Singers, a pioneering group that popularized spirituals across the country. In imitation of this group, gospel quartets arose, followed by increasing diversification with the early 20th-century rise of jackleg and singing preachers, from whence came the popular style of gospel music.
Blues is a combination of African work songs, field hollers and shouts. It developed in the rural South in the first decade of the 20th century. The most important characteristics of the blues is its use of the blue scale, with a flatted or indeterminate third, as well as the typically lamenting lyrics; though both of these elements had existed in African American folk music prior to the 20th century, the codified form of modern blues (such as with the AAB structure) did not exist until the early 20th century
The process of transplanting music between cultures is not without criticism. The folk revival of the mid-20th century, for example, appropriated the music’s of various rural peoples, in part to promote certain political causes, which has caused some to question whether the process caused the “commercial commodification of other peoples’ songs and the inevitable dilution of mean” in the appropriated music’s. The issue of cultural appropriation has also been a major part of racial relations in the United States. The use of African American musical techniques, images and conceits in popular music largely by and for white Americans has been widespread since at least the mid-19th century songs of Stephen Foster and the rise of minstrel shows. The American music industry has actively attempted to popularize white performers of African American music because they are more palatable to mainstream and middle-class Americans. This process has been related to the rise of stars as varied as Benny Goodman, Eminem and Elvis Presley, as well as popular styles like blue-eyed soul and rockabilly.
Folk music in the US is varied across the country’s numerous ethnic groups. The Native American tribes each play their own varieties of folk music, most of it spiritual in nature. African American music includes blues and gospel descendants of West African Music brought to the Americas by slaves and mixed with Western European music. During the colonial era, English, French and Spanish styles and instruments were brought to the Americas.
Blues are the basis for much of modern American popular music. Blues can be seen as part of a continuum of musical styles like country, jazz, ragtime, and gospel; though each genre evolved into distinct forms, their origins were often indistinct. Early forms of the blues evolved in and around the Mississippi Delta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest blues-like music was primarily call-and-response vocal music, without harmony or accompaniment and without any formal musical structure. Slaves and their descendants created the blues by adapting the field shouts and hollers, turning them into passionate solo songs. When mixed with the Christian spiritual songs of African American churches and revival meetings, blues became the basis of gospel music. Modern gospel began in African American churches in the 1920s, in the form of worshipers proclaiming their faith in an improvised, often musical manner. Composers like Tommy Dorsey composed gospel works that used elements of blues and jazz in traditional hymns and spiritual songs.
Blues became a part of American popular music in the 1920s, when classic female blues singers like Bessie Smith grew popular. At the same time, record companies launched the field of race music, which was mostly blues targeted at African American audiences. The most famous of these acts went on to inspire much of the later popular development of the blues and blues-derived genres, including the legendary delta blues artist Robert Johnson and piedmont blues artists Blind Willie McTell. By the end of the 1940s, however, pure blues was only a minor part of popular music, having been subsumed by offshoots like rhythm & blues and the nascent rock and roll style. Some styles of electric, piano-driven blues, like the boogie-woogie, retained a large audience. A bluesy style of gospel also became popular in mainstream America in the 1950s, led by singer Mahalia Jackson. The blues genre experienced major revivals in the 1950s with Chicago blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter as well as in the 1960s in the British Invasion and American folk music revival when country bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis were rediscovered. The seminal blues artists of these periods had tremendous influence on rock musicians such as Chuck Berry in the 1950s, as well as on the British blues and blues rock scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, including Eric Clapton in Britain and Johnny Winter in Texas.
Jazz is a kind of music characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisations. Though originally a kind of dance music, jazz has been a major part of popular music, and has also become a major element of Western classical music. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Early jazz was closely related to ragtime, with which it could be distinguished by the use of more intricate rhythmic improvisation. The earliest jazz bands adopted much of the vocabulary of the blues, including bent and blue notes and instrumental “growls” and smears otherwise not used on European instruments. Jazz’s roots come from the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, populated by Cajuns and black Creoles, who combined the French-Canadian culture of the Cajuns with their own styles of music in the 19th century. Large Creole bands that played for funerals and parades became a major basis for early jazz, which spread from New Orleans to Chicago and other northern urban centers.
Though jazz had long since achieved some limited popularity, it was Louis Armstrong who became one of the first popular stars and a major force in the development of jazz, along with his friend pianist Earl Hines. Armstrong, Hines and their colleagues were improvisers, capable of creating numerous variations on a single melody. Armstrong also popularized scat singing, an improvisational vocal technique in which nonsensical syllables are sung. Armstrong and Hines were influential in the rise of a kind of pop big band jazz called swing. Swing is characterized by a strong rhythm section, usually consisting of double bass and drums, medium to fast tempo, and rhythmic devices like the swung note, which is common to most jazz. Swing is primarily a fusion of 1930s jazz fused with elements of the blues and Tin Pan Alley. Swing used bigger bands than other kinds of jazz, leading to bandleaders tightly arranging the material which discouraged improvisation, previously an integral part of jazz. Swing became a major part of African American dance, and came to be accompanied by a popular dance called the swing dance.
Jazz influenced many performers of all the major styles of later popular music, though jazz itself never again became such a major part of American popular music as during the swing era. The later 20th-century American jazz scene did, however, produce some popular crossover stars, such as Miles Davis. In the middle of the 20th century, jazz evolved into a variety of subgenres, beginning with bebop. Bebop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody, and use of the flatted fifth. Bebop was developed in the early and mid-1940s, later evolving into styles like hard bop and free jazz. Innovators of the style included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who arose from small jazz clubs in New York City.
SOUL AND RHYTHM AND BLUES MUSIC
R&B, an abbreviation for rhythm and blues, is a style that arose in the 1930s and 1940s. Early R&B consisted of large rhythm units “smashing away behind screaming blues singers who had to shout to be heard above the clanging and strumming of the various electrified instruments and the churning rhythm sections”. R&B was not extensively recorded and promoted because record companies felt that it was not suited for most audiences, especially middle-class whites, because of the suggestive lyrics and driving rhythms. Bandleaders like Louis Jordan innovated the sound of early R&B, using a band with a small horn section and prominent rhythm instrumentation. By the end of the 1940s, he had had several hits, and helped pave the way for contemporaries like Wynonie Harris and John Lee Hooker. Many of the most popular R&B songs were not performed in the rollicking style of Jordan and his contemporaries; instead they were performed by white musicians like Pat Boone in a more palatable mainstream style, which turned into pop hits. By the end of the 1950s, however, there was a wave of popular black blues rock and country-influenced R&B performers like Chuck Berry gaining unprecedented fame among white listeners.
Soul music is a combination of rhythm and blues and gospel which began in the late 1950s in the United States. It is characterized by its use of gospel-music devices, with a greater emphasis on vocalists and the use of secular themes. The 1950s recordings of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and James Brown are commonly considered the beginnings of soul. Charles’ Modern Sounds (1962) records featured a fusion of soul and country music, country soul, and crossed racial barriers in music at the time. One of Cooke’s most well-known songs “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) became accepted as a classic and an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There had been reports that James Brown was critical, through “the gospel-impassioned fury of his vocals and the complex polyrhythms of his beats”, in “two revolutions in black American music. He was one of the figures most responsible for turning R&B into soul and he was, most would agree, the figure most responsible for turning soul music into the funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s.” The Motown Record Corporation of Detroit, Michigan became highly successful during the early and mid-1960s by releasing soul recordings with heavy pop influences to make them palatable to white audiences, allowing black artists to more easily crossover to white audiences.
Pure soul was popularized by Otis Redding and the other artists of Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. By the late 1960s, Atlantic recording artist Aretha Franklin had emerged as the most popular female soul star in the country. Also by this time, soul had splintered into several genres, influenced by psychedelic rock and other styles. The social and political ferment of the 1960s inspired artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to release albums with hard-hitting social commentary, while another variety became more dance-oriented music, evolving into funk. Despite his previous affinity with politically and socially-charged lyrical themes, Gaye helped popularize sexual and romance-themed music and funk, while his 1970s recordings, helped develop the quiet storm sound and format. One of the most influential albums ever recorded, Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) has been considered among the first and best examples of the matured version of funk music, after prototypical instances of the sound in the group’s earlier work. Artists such as Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets practiced an eclectic blend of poetry, jazz-funk and soul, featuring critical political and social commentary with Afrocentric sentiment. Scott-Heron’s proto-rap work, including “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971) and Winter in America (1974), has had a considerable impact on later hip hop artists, while his unique sound with Brian Jackson influenced neo soul artists.
During the mid-1970s, highly slick and commercial bands such as Philly soul group The O’Jays and blue-eyed soul group Hall & Oates achieved mainstream success. By the end of the ’70s, most music genres, including soul, had been disco-influenced. With the introduction of influences from electro music and funk in the late 1970s and early 1980s, soul music became less raw and more slickly produced, resulting in a genre of music that was once again called R&B, usually distinguished from the earlier rhythm and blues by identifying it as contemporary R & B.
The first contemporary R&B stars arose in the 1980s, with the dance-pop star Michael Jackson, funk-influenced singer Prince, and a wave of female vocalists like Tina Turner and Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson and Prince has been described as the most influential figures in contemporary R&B and popular music because of their eclectic use of elements from a variety of genres. Prince was largely responsible for creating the Minneapolis sound: “a blend of horns, guitars, and electronic synthesizers supported by a steady, bouncing rhythm.” Jackson’s work focused on smooth balladry or disco-influenced dance music; as an artist, he “pulled dance music out of the disco doldrums with his 1979 solo debut, Off the Wall, merged R&B with rock on Thriller, and introduced stylized steps such as the robot and moonwalk over the course of his career.”
Janet Jackson collaborated with former Prince associates Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on her third studio album Control (1986); the album’s second single “Nasty” has been described as the origin of the new jack swing sound, a genre innovated by
Teddy Riley. Riley’s work made new jack swing a staple of contemporary R&B into the mid-1990s. New jack swing was a style and trend of vocal music, often featuring rapped verses and drum machines. The crossover appeal of early contemporary R&B artists in mainstream popular music, including works by Prince, Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Anita Baker and the Pointer Sisters became a turning point for black artists in the industry, as their success “was perhaps the first hint that the greater cosmopolitanism of a world market might produce some changes in the complexion of popular music.”
The use of melisma, a gospel tradition adapted by vocalists Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey would become a cornerstone of contemporary R&B singers beginning in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Hip hop came to influence contemporary R&B later in the ’80s, first through new jack swing and then in a related series of subgenres called hip hop soul and neo soul. Hip hop soul and neo soul developed later, in the 1990s. Typified by the work of Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly, the former is a mixture of contemporary R&B with hip hop beats, while the images and themes of gangsta rap may be present. The latter is a more experimental, edgier and generally less mainstream combination of ’60s and ’70s-style soul vocals with some hip hop influence, and has earned some mainstream recognition through the work of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill. D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed album Voodoo (2000) has been recognized by music writers as a masterpiece and the cornerstone of the neo soul genre.
Rock and roll developed out of country, blues, and R&B. Rock’s exact origins and early influences have been hotly debated, and are the subjects of much scholarship. Though squarely in the blues tradition, rock took elements from Afro-Caribbean and Latin musical techniques. Rock was an urban style, formed in the areas where diverse populations resulted in the mixtures of African American, Latin and European genres ranging from the blues and country to polka and zydeco. Rock and roll first entered popular music through a style called rockabilly, which fused the nascent sound with elements of country music. Black-performed rock and roll had previously had limited mainstream success, but it was the white performer Elvis Presley who first appealed to mainstream audiences with a black style of music, becoming one of the best-selling musicians in history, and brought rock and roll to audiences across the world.