46 6.3. American Music – 1900-1949

Early “popular” music

Head and shoulders of clean-shaven white male with solemn expression, looking into the camera.
The first major American popular songwriter, Stephen Foster.

The earliest songs that could be considered American popular music, as opposed to the popular music of a particular region or ethnicity, were sentimental parlor songs by Stephen Foster and his peers, and songs meant for use in minstrel shows, theatrical productions that featured singing, dancing and comic performances. Minstrel shows generally used African instruments and dance, and featured performers with their faces blackened, a technique called blackface. By the middle of the 19th century, touring companies had taken this music not only to every part of the United States, but also to the UK, Western Europe, and even to Africa and Asia. Minstrel shows were generally advertised as though the music of the shows was in an African American style, though this was often not true.

 Five figures in blackface, playing musical instruments in a lively, exaggerated manner.
Sheet music cover for “Dandy Jim from Caroline” by Dan Emmett, London, c. 1844.

Black people had taken part in American popular culture prior to the Civil War era, at least dating back to the African Grove Theatre in New York in the 1820s and the publication of the first music by a black composer, Francis Johnson, in 1818. However, these important milestones still occurred entirely within the conventions of European music. The first extremely popular minstrel song was “Jump Jim Crow” by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, which was first performed in 1832 and was a sensation in London when Rice performed it there in 1836. Rice used a dance that he copied from a stable boy with a tune adopted from an Irish jig. The African elements included the use of the banjo, believed to derive from West African string instruments, and accented and additive rhythms. Many of the songs of the minstrel shows are still remembered today, especially those by Daniel Emmett and Stephen Foster, the latter being, according to David Ewen, “America’s first major composer, and one of the world’s outstanding writers of songs”. Foster’s songs were typical of the minstrel era in their unabashed sentimentality, and in their acceptance of slavery. Nevertheless, Foster did more than most songwriters of the period to humanize the blacks he composed about, such as in “Nelly Was a Lady”, a plaintive, melancholy song about a black man mourning the loss of his wife.

The minstrel show marked the beginning of a long tradition of African American music being appropriated for popular audiences, and was the first distinctly American form of music to find international acclaim, in the mid-19th century. As Donald Clarke has noted, minstrel shows contained “essentially black music, while the most successful acts were white, so that songs and dances of black origin were imitated by white performers and then taken up by black performers, who thus to some extent ended up imitating themselves”. Clarke attributes the use of blackface to a desire for white Americans to glorify the brutal existence of both free and slave blacks by depicting them as happy and carefree individuals, best suited to plantation life and the performance of simple, joyous songs that easily appealed to white audiences.

Blackface minstrel shows remained popular throughout the last part of the 19th century, only gradually dying out near the beginning of the 20th century. During that time, a form of lavish and elaborate theater called the extravaganza arose, beginning with Charles M. BarrasThe Black Crook. Extravaganzas were criticized by the newspapers and churches of the day because the shows were considered sexually titillating, with women singing bawdy songs dressed in nearly transparent clothing. David Ewen described this as the beginning of the “long and active careers in sex exploitation” of American musical theater and popular song. Later, extravaganzas took elements of burlesque performances, which were satiric and parodic productions that were very popular at the end of the 19th century.

Like the extravaganza and the burlesque, the variety show was a comic and ribald production, popular from the middle to the end of the 19th century, at which time it had evolved into vaudeville. This form was innovated by producers like Tony Pastor who tried to encourage women and children to attend his shows; they were hesitant because the theater had long been the domain of a rough and disorderly crowd. By the early 20th century, vaudeville was a respected entertainment for women and children, and songwriters like Gus Edwards wrote songs that were popular across the country. The most popular vaudeville shows were, like the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of songs and skits that had a profound effect on the subsequent development of Broadway musical theater and the songs of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley was an area called Union Square in New York City, which became the major center for music publishing by the mid-1890s. The songwriters of this era wrote formulaic songs, many of them sentimental ballads. During this era, a sense of national consciousness was developing, as the United States became a formidable world power, especially after the Spanish–American War. The increased availability and efficiency of railroads and the postal service helped disseminate ideas, including popular songs.

Some of the most notable publishers of Tin Pan Alley included Willis Woodward, M. Witmark & Sons, Charles K. Harris, and Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern. Stern and Marks were among the more well-known Tin Pan Alley songwriters; they began writing together as amateurs in 1894. In addition to the popular, mainstream ballads and other clean-cut songs, some Tin Pan Alley publishers focused on rough and risqué. Coon songs were another important part of Tin Pan Alley, derived from the watered-down songs of the minstrel show with the “verve and electricity” brought by the “assimilation of the ragtime rhythm”.[13] The first popular coon song was “New Coon in Town”, introduced in 1883, and followed by a wave of coon shouters like Ernest Hogan and May Irwin.

Broadway

The early 20th century also saw the growth of Broadway, a group of theatres specializing in musicals. Broadway became one of the preeminent locations for musical theater in the world, and produced a body of songs that led Donald Clarke to call the era, the golden age of songwriting. The need to adapt enjoyable songs to the constraints of a theater and a plot enabled and encouraged a growth in songwriting and the rise of composers like George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. These songwriters wrote songs that have remained popular and are today known as the Great American Songbook.

Foreign operas were popular among the upper-class throughout the 19th century, while other styles of musical theater included operettas, ballad operas and the opera bouffe. The English operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan were particularly popular, while American compositions had trouble finding an audience. George M. Cohan was the first notable American composer of musical theater, and the first to move away from the operetta, and is also notable for using the language of the vernacular in his work. By the beginning of the 20th century, however, black playwrights, composers and musicians were having a profound effect on musical theater, beginning with the works of Will Marion Cook, James Reese Europe and James P. Johnson; the first major hit black musical was Shuffle Along in 1921.

Imported operettas and domestic productions by both whites like Cohan and blacks like Cook, Europe and Johnson all had a formative influence on Broadway. Composers like Gershwin, Porter and Kern made comedic musical theater into a national pastime, with a feel that was distinctly American and not dependent on European models. Most of these individuals were Jewish, with Cole Porter the only major exception; they were the descendants of 19th century immigrants fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, settled most influentially in various neighborhoods in New York City. Many of the early musicals were influenced by black music, showing elements of early jazz, such as In Dahomey; the Jewish composers of these works may have seen connections between the traditional African American blue notes and their own folk Jewish music.

Broadway songs were recorded around the turn of the century, but did not become widely popular outside their theatrical context until much later. Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me” was an early song that became popular nationwide. Kern’s later innovations included a more believable plot than the rather shapeless stories built around songs of earlier works, beginning with Show Boat in 1927. George Gershwin was perhaps the most influential composer on Broadway, beginning with “Swanee” in 1919 and later works for jazz and orchestras. His most enduring composition may be the opera Porgy and Bess, a story about two blacks, which Gershwin intended as a sort of “folk opera”, a creation of a new style of American musical theater based on American idioms.

Ragtime

Ragtime was a style of dance music based around the piano, using syncopated rhythms and chromaticisms; the genre’s most well-known performer and composer was undoubtedly Scott Joplin. Donald Clarke considers ragtime the culmination of coon songs, used first in minstrel shows and then vaudeville, and the result of the rhythms of minstrelsy percolating into the mainstream; he also suggests that ragtime’s distinctive sound may have come from an attempt to imitate the African American banjo using the keyboard.

Due to the essentially African American nature of ragtime, it is most commonly considered the first style of American popular music to be truly black music; ragtime brought syncopation and a more authentic black sound to popular music. Popular ragtime songs were notated and sold as sheet music, but the general style was played more informally across the nation; these amateur performers played a more free-flowing form of ragtime that eventually became a major formative influence on jazz.

Early recorded popular music

Thomas Edison‘s invention of the phonograph cylinder kicked off the birth of recorded music. The first cylinder to be released was “Semper Fidelis” by the U.S. Marine Band. At first, cylinders were released sparingly, but as their sales grew more profitable, distribution increased. These early recorded songs were a mix of vaudeville, barbershop quartets, marches, opera, novelty songs, and other popular tunes. Many popular standards, such as “The Good Old Summertime”, “Shine On Harvest Moon“, and “Over There” come from this time. There were also a few early hits in the field of jazz, beginning with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band‘s 1917 recordings, and followed by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, who played in a more authentic New Orleans jazz style.

Blues had been around a long time before it became a part of the first explosion of recorded popular music in American history. This came in the 1920s, when classic female blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith grew very popular; the first hit of this field was Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”. These urban blues singers changed the idea of popular music from being simple songs that could be easily performed by anyone to works primarily associated with an individual singer. Performers like Sophie Tucker, known for “Some of These Days”, became closely associated with their hits, making their individualized interpretations just as important as the song itself.

At the same time, record companies like Paramount Records and OKeh Records 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, includingCharley Patton, Lonnie Johnson and Robert Johnson.

Popular jazz (1920–1935) and swing (1935–1947)

Jazz is a kind of music characterized by blue notes, syncopation, swing, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Though originally a kind of dance music, jazz has now been “long considered a kind of popular or vernacular music (and has also) become a sophisticated art form that has interacted in significant ways with the music of the concert hall“. Jazz’s development occurred at around the same time as modern ragtime, blues, gospel and country music, all of which can be seen as part of a continuum with no clear demarcation between them; jazz specifically was most closely related to ragtime, with which it could be distinguished by the use of more intricate rhythmic improvisation, often placing notes far from the implied beat. The earliest jazz bands adopted much of the vocabulary of the blues, including bent and blue notes and instrumental “growls” and smears.

Paul Whiteman was the most popular bandleader of the 1920s, and claimed for himself the title “The King of Jazz.” Despite his hiring many of the other best white jazz musicians of the era, later generations of jazz lovers have often judged Whiteman’s music to have little to do with real jazz. Nonetheless, his notion of combining jazz with elaborate orchestrations has been returned to repeatedly by composers and arrangers of later decades.

Whiteman commissioned Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, which was debuted by Whiteman’s Orchestra. Ted Lewis‘s band was second only to the Paul Whiteman in popularity during the 1920s, and arguably played more real jazz with less pretension than Whiteman, especially in his recordings of the late 1920s. Some of the other “jazz” bands of the decade included those of: Harry Reser, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, Nat Shilkret, George Olsen, Ben Bernie, Bob Haring, Ben Selvin, Earl Burtnett, Gus Arnheim, Rudy Vallee, Jean Goldkette, Isham Jones, Roger Wolfe Kahn, Sam Lanin, Vincent Lopez, Ben Pollack and Fred Waring.

In the 1920s, the music performed by these artists was extremely popular with the public and was typically labeled as jazz. Today, however, this music is disparaged and labeled as “sweet music” by jazz purists. The music that people consider today as “jazz” tended to be played by minorities. In the 1920s and early 1930s, however, the majority of people listened to what we would call today “sweet music” and hardcore jazz was categorized as “hot music” or “race music.”

The largest and most influential recording label of the time, The Victor Talking Machine (RCA Victor after 1928) was a restraining influence on the development of “sweet jazz” until the departure of Eddie King in October 1926. King was well known as an authoritarian who would not permit drinking on the job or severe departure from the written music, unless within solos acceptable by popular music standards of the time. This irritated many Victor jazz artists, including famed trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Sudhalter, in Lost Chords, cites an example of a 1927 recording by the Goldkette Orchestra in which musicians were allowed considerable freedom, and remarks “What, one wonders, would this performance have been if Eddie King had been in charge, and not the more liberal Nat Shilkret. Since the Victor ledgers show no less than five recording sessions in January and February 1926, when King actually conducted Goldkette’s Orchestra, comparison between the approach of Goldkette and King is readily available.

In 1935, swing music became popular with the public and quickly replaced jazz as the most popular type of music (although there was some resistance to it at first). Swing music is characterized by a strong rhythm section, usually consisting of a double bass and drums, playing in a medium to fast tempo, and rhythmic devices like the swung note. Swing is primarily a kind of 1930s jazz fused with elements of the blues and the pop sensibility of Tin Pan Alley. Swing used bigger bands than other kinds of jazz had and was headed by bandleaders that tightly arranged the material, discouraging the improvisation that had been an integral part of jazz. David Clarke called swing the first “jazz-oriented style (to be) at the center of popular music … as opposed to merely giving it backbone”. By the end of the 1930s, vocalists became more and more prominent, eventually taking center stage following the American Federation of Musicians strike, which made recording with a large band prohibitively expensive. Swing came to be accompanied by a popular dance called the swing dance, which was very popular across the United States, among both white and black audiences, especially youth.

Blues diversification and popularization

In addition to the popular jazz and swing music listened to by mainstream America, there were a number of other genres that were popular among certain groups of people—e.g., minorities or rural audiences. Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating greatly in the 1940s, the blues began rapidly diversifying into a broad spectrum of new styles. These included an uptempo, energetic style called rhythm and blues (R&B), a merger of blues and Anglo-Celtic song called country music and the fusion of hymns and spirituals with blues structures called gospel music. Later than these other styles, in the 1940s, a blues, R&B and country fusion eventually called rock and roll developed, eventually coming to dominate American popular by the beginning of the 1960s.

Country music is primarily a fusion of African American blues and spirituals with Appalachian folk music, adapted for pop audiences and popularized beginning in the 1920s. Of particular importance was Irish and Scottish tunes, dance music, balladry and vocal styles, as well as Native American, Spanish, German, French and Mexican music. The instrumentation of early country revolved around the European-derived fiddle and the African-derived banjo, with the guitar added later. Country music instrumentation used African elements like a call-and-response format, improvised music and syncopated rhythms. Later still, string instruments like the ukulele and steel guitar became commonplace due to the popularity of Hawaiian music in the early 20th century and the influence of musicians such as Sol Hoopii and Lani McIntyre. The roots of modern country music are generally traced to 1927, when music talent scout Ralph Peer recorded Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Their recordings are considered the foundation for modern country music. There had been popular music prior to 1927 that could be considered country, but, as Ace Collins points out, these recordings had “only marginal and very inconsistent” effects on the national music markets, and were only superficially similar to what was then known as hillbilly music. In addition to Rodgers and the Carters, a musician named Bob Wills was an influential early performer known for a style called Western swing, which was very popular in the 1920s and 30s, and was responsible for bringing a prominent jazz influence to country music.

Rhythm and blues (R&B) is a style that arose in the 1930s and ’40s, a rhythmic and uptempo form of blues with more complex instrumentation. Author Amiri Baraka described early R&B as “huge 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 recorded during this period, but not extensively and was not widely promoted by record companies, who felt 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. Jordan’s band featured a small horn section and prominent rhythm instrumentation and used songs with bluesy lyrical themes. By the end of the 1940s, he had produced nineteen major hits, and helped pave the way for contemporaries like Wynonie HarrisJohn Lee Hooker and Roy Milton.

Christian spirituals and rural blues music were the origin of what is now known as gospel music. Beginning in about the 1920s, African American churches featured early gospel in the form of worshipers proclaiming their religious devotion (testifying) in an improvised, often musical manner. Modern gospel began with the work of composers, most importantly Thomas A. Dorsey, who “(composed) songs based on familiar spirituals and hymns, fused to blues and jazz rhythms”. From these early 20th-century churches, gospel music spread across the country. It remained associated almost entirely with African American churches, and usually featured a choir along with one or more virtuoso soloists.

Rock and roll is a kind of popular music, developed primarily out of country, blues and R&B. Easily the single most popular style of music worldwide, rock’s exact origins and early development have been hotly debated. Music historian Robert Palmer has noted that the style’s influences are quite diverse, and include the Afro-CaribbeanBo Diddley beat”, elements of “big band swing” and Latin music like the Cuban son and “Mexican rhythms“. Another author, George Lipsitz claims that rock arose in America’s urban areas, where there formed a “polyglot, working-class culture (where the) social meanings previously conveyed in isolation by blues, country, polka, zydeco and Latin musics found new expression as they blended in an urban environment”.

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