A Simple Guide to American Music History
Today we’re going to discuss American music history. Obviously it’s a huge topic, so what I intend to do today is an overview-video, and fill in the blanks in more detail in future videos.
We’ve done a video on the blues already, so if you’d like to dive deeper into that, definitely check it out. Same goes for ragtime, which is briefly mentioned today.
In this overview video, we’re going to discuss the roots of popular American music, and then talk about three broad genres: pop/rock, folk/country, and Classical.
Roots of American music
Where did American music begin? With Native Americans and original inhabitants of America, of course.
Native American folk music blended with European folk music in the 1500’s once they started invading. Later, African slaves bought their own folk music.
America, like Canada (who we also did a musical history video on), is a melting pot, and so is its musical culture.
Aside from that, there are a couple genres that have strongly influenced the direction of American pop and country: African American music and Appalachian folk music.
African American music
African Americans brought work songs and spirituals into the limelight of the 20th century.
Spirituals were what they sound like – Christian hymns with big and bold vocals written in a call-and-response style. They’ve been common in American music since the late 1700s, and spread across the south, even becoming popular with white people toward the end of the 1800s.
One style of dance music from African Americans was called the “cakewalk”, very popular in minstrel shows. The cakewalk eventually evolved into ragtime in the early 20th century.
Appalachian folk music
Also known as hilbilly music, Appalachian folk music is a mix of American (black and white), Irish and Scottish folk styles. This is where you get honky tonk and bluegrass, the early forms of country music.
African American and Appalachian folk music are the main roots of American popular music today. Powwows were also popular in the early 1900s, but tended to maintain its own identity instead of joining the musical melting pot.
Popular American music
American pop music has its origin with travelling singers like William Billings in the 1700s. In the 1800s, ballads and patriotic songs became common, along with Spirituals and the cakewalk (which we already mentioned).
Jazz and blues influence on pop
In the early 20th century we had Tin Pan Alley – a sheet music publishing house in New York City. This house distributed popular music to people far and wide. Running parallel to pop music, jazz and blues started flourishing in Memphis, Chicago and New Orleans.
Blues and jazz are the real roots of pop music in America. Recorded music changed the way the music industry worked, and created big hits and stars. Recorded music is what brought popularity to Hawaiian steel guitar, which is still used in country music today.
It started with blues, and later jazz took over as popular music in the 1930s (mainly in the form of big band music). At this time you had swing music, the Appalacian honky tonk music, bluegrass and country.
In the 1940s, jazz became more experimental, and bebop emerged.
Rock n roll
Boogie Woogie music, an offshoot of blues, is what evolved into rock and roll (which we talk about in depth in that blues video).
This music united teenagers into the rise of youth culture in the 1940s. This is where you saw Frank Sinatra. In the 1950s, famous musicians such as Elvis Presley were covering famous boogie woogie tunes (Hound Dog) in addition to originals.
In the 1960s, rock music became more political. Lyrics grew more mature and complex (think Bob Dylan). This is the era of doo wop and soul singers, of prog-rock and psychedelic rock (which would later evolve into funk, punk rock, and so on).
We also had the British Invasion in the 1960s – The arrival of The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones to the American mainstream. These bands were blues-based, and evolved into psychedelic rock. Toward the end of the 1960s, popular music had largely lost its political and activist edge.
In the mid-60s, soul music hit its stride with big-voiced artists like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. James Brown innovated the funk style, which was influenced by psychedelic rock but was more rhythmic – and more danceable than soul music. These genres would ride a wave of popularity for about a decade before branching off.
In the 1970s, we had more subgenres of rock and roll emerge, such as glam rock (David Bowie) and heavy metal (Led Zeppelin). Punk rock emerged and was popularized by bands like The Clash. We also had disco emerge from funk. This was also the decade hip hop was born in the Bronx.
The origin of rapping was more or less MCs introducing the music of DJs. DJing was brought from Jamaica via DJ Kool Herc, who would play and spin records for dance parties.
A brief mention to salsa must be made, which came to popularity in New York in the 1970s. This style merged Latin American styles – from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Mexico, and more.
Latin music in the United States originated from Cuba and Mexico, and started becoming popular in the 1950s. Rumba was the first style in the 30s, then calypso and mambo in the 40s, followed by the chachacha, bolero and charanga in the 50s, and boogaloo in the 60s. Latin styles mixed with jazz at this time to create bossa nova.
Rock in the 80s and beyond
Then we hit the 1980s, with glam metal and punk rock continuing in popularity, further fracturing in alternative rock and hardcore styles. Hip hop became more mainstream toward the end of the 1980s with artists like LL Cool J. Defining albums were It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Straight Outta Compton. These albums were controversial because of their violent and vulgar lyrics.
The 1990s saw rock music evolve into grunge, popularized by Nirvana, Soundgarden and others, which quickly gave way to mainstream alternative rock.
Hip hop continued rising in popularity – in the mid-90s, sensations Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. were murdered. Like alternative rock, this music that was once on the fringe saturated the mainstream.
Singer-songwriters became popular again (like in the early ‘70s) with artists like Alanis Morissette. Ska-influenced pop punk gave us Sublime and No Doubt.
By the turn of the century, pop groups were very popular – Backstreet Boys, NSync, Spice Girls. Some of this music was Latin-influenced (like Ricky Martin and Shakira), and hip hop became more pop-ified (Eminem).
Folk/country American music
Appalacian folk music hit the mainstream in the 1940s with groups like the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. This is also when swing music peaked, with artists like Bob Wills.
Country music as we know it today evolved out of honky tonk in the 1940s. When mixed with blues, we got the genre ‘rockabilly’, with stars like Elvis Presley leading the way. People like Elvis also brought what was considered ‘black’ music to white audiences. This was considered scandalous to some parents, thinking their kids would be corrupted by this “race music”.
In a different direction from rockabilly were country-pop artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline around 1950. Hank Williams and others of his ilk were responsible for popularizing Nashville as a country music hub, which it remains to this day.
Gospel music also became popular in the 1950s, especially when mixed with R&B styles to make it more danceable. Later, in the 1960s, the lyrics would evolve away from spirituals, leading to the soul music genre. Aretha Franklin was one such performer who got her start with gospel music in the 50s.
Doo wop also influenced the direction of soul and R&B music. Doo wop was very smooth and polished, and was very popular in the 1950s. It ranged in sound from upbeat and fun to ballad-style. The first black teen idol, Frankie Lymon, was a doo wop artist in the 50s (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”).
In the 1960s, the Bakersfield Sound emerged to rival the Nashville sound, heralded by Merle Haggard. Bluegrass was influencing bands like the Grateful Dead.
With the Bakersfield Sound dictating the direction of country music, we saw the rise of outlaw country. In the 1970s, this genre was led by Willie Nelson, as well as country rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. This led to heartland rockers like Bruce Springsteen in the late 70s and 1980s.
Classical American music
First New England school
What about Classical music in the United States?
Classical music originates in Western Europe, so naturally when Europeans were migrating to the US, they were bringing their Classical traditions with them. This became especially pronounced around the turn of the 20th century with the rise of globalization.
Some composers in the 1700s stuck closely to European models, but others created the First New England School, a distinctly American Classical style. Contributing to this style were many singers, who developed sacred singing styles with unusual harmonies that amateurs could sing.
Anthony Philip Heinrich is one such composer who was mainly self-taught in composition (very different from his European contemporaries). He wrote chamber and orchestral music and toured around USA in the early 1800s.
Second New England school
In the mid to late 19th century, we saw the Second New England School emerge (named as such because of its popularity in New England). Composers like John Knowles Paine were driven to write American indigenous music. Paine had a variety of students you might recognize, such as Amy Beach and Edward MacDowell.
These composers studied in Europe, but based their teaching, composing and performing careers in the United States.
Classical music evolved further in the 20th century with George Gershwin, who was very influenced by Spirituals, and Leonard Bernstein, who was fond of jazz. These composers blended Classical music with popular styles.
Other composers in the 20th century influenced by folk music were guys like Aaron Copland.
Major composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, who weren’t composers native to the US, had a huge influence on Classical music in general and the era of Modernism.
By the 1960s, Minimalism became the trend in Classical music with guys like Philip Glass. This music tended to employ dramatic contrasts, drones and repetitions, and synthesizers.
The 1970s and 80s saw Postmodern music (John Cage). This is the guy who wrote 4’33”, the famous piece with no notes written on the sheet music. Literally 4:33 minutes of silence.
Orchestra mainly evolved into Broadway and film scores. You’ll often hear overtures in opening and closing credits of early movies. Orchestration in movies used to be a big deal (think giants like John Williams), but has since given way to electronic music.
I have to admit that when I first started planning out this video, I naively assumed I’d be able to cover it all – but it turns out I have my work cut out for me in the future. Throughout the next while I’ll cover a variety of genres in music, as I’ve already done with ragtime and blues.
If any of these genres in particular interest you, please let me know. Maybe I’ll get to those ones first!
Music history is fascinating. ?