PRELUDE TO 20TH CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC IN THE U.S.

Back to table of Contents
 

As far back as the Colonial Era, American popular music has been a rich stew comprised of many styles. The intermingling of these styles has resulted in the unique features characterizing our musical heritage. These pop styles have long been the most lucrative--and universally admired--U.S. export.

The prevalent musical styles prior to 1900 tended to represent Americanized derivatives of popular European strains. The most notable included:

Protestant church music. Congregational music was undergoing a renaissance in Northern Europe during the settlement of the original colonies. Two diverse influences played a major role in the evolution of this genre: Martin Luther's compositions tried to emulate the beauty of the Catholic ritual (e.g., liberal use of organ and choir), while John Calvin, a bitter opponent of the fine arts, argued that music shouldn't attract attention to itself, but rather function as a peg upon which to hang the rhythmic recitation of psalms. The Englis Separatists (e.g., the Pilgrims, the Puritans) followed the Calvinist lead in advocating severe, ascetic musical forms. When the Pilgrims arrived in New England, in 1620, their music consisted of a small volume of Psalmody compiled by the Rev. Henry Ainsworth. It consisted of tunes, without any harmony, which paraphrased the Psalms. The poetry of the originals often suffered from the exact character of the setting as typified by Psalm 1:

SCRIPTURAL TEXT

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the

counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way

of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the

judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of

the righteous.

AINSWORTH TEXT

O Blessed man that doth not in

The wicked's counsell walk;

Not stand in sinners' way, nor sit

In seat of scornful folk. Therefore the wicked shall not in

The judgment stand upright:

And in th' assembly of the Just

Not any sinfull-wight.

Patriotic airs. These were frequently adapted, like the nation's art music of that time, from European songs. Primary examples include "Yankee Doodle" (originally sung in satirical fashion during the Colonial Era, its appeal to Revolutionary troops enabled it to spread far beyond its regional roots), "The Star-Spangeled Banner" (composed during the War of 1812), "Dixie" (written by Dan Emmett, it was first sung on Broadway at Dan Bryant's Minstrel Show a year or so before the Civil War ), "Hail Columbia," and "The Battle-Hymn of the Republic." The latter work, considered the chief Northern song of the Civil War, had a rather complicated history. It started out as a Methodist camp-meeting song, sung in many Negro churches in the South. It was remade into a firemen's song in Charleston and, still later, appeared as a camp-song of rather ribald style, made famous by the Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment. Next revived as an abolition ode by Edna Dean Proctor, it was finally immortalized in Julia Ward Howe's 1861 version.

By the late 1800s, the march became the primary form of American patriotic music. The leading American march composer, John Philip Sousa, was the conductor of the world renown U.S. Marine Band prior to forming his own ensemble. His march recordings are reputed to have outsold all other releases during the 1890-1895 period.

Sea-songs. The ship environment, with its stultifying routine, proved conducive to singing. Lacking talented composers, sailors tended to appropriate foreign melodies and set American subjects to them. Primary examples of these songs, which typically employed a rough and ready style, included "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" (which referred to Washington rather than Lord Nelson, the subject of the English version, "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean") and "The Constitution and Guerriere" (or "Hull's Victory"; based on the old English melody, "The Landlady's Daughter of France," it commemorates a famous naval battle from the War of 1812).

Folk songs. Material disseminated among the common people, compositional credits typically are either unknown or shared by many contributors over a period a time. Built on such musical traits as simplicity, directness, and musical imagery, folk songs often provided a more graphic picture of the subject matter at hand than was the case with journalistic overage, formal histories, etc. American output, as a result of our nation's focus on commerce and cultural amalgamation, has tended to be sectional (e.g., Old West, Appalachian, Southern blacks) rather than national in scope. The genre's vitality informed the work of formal composers; e.g., the New World Symphony of European art music composer Dvorak, Stephen Foster's parlor songs such as "Oh! Susannah," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground," "The Old Folks at Home," and "Way Down Upon de Swanee River."

Sentimental songs. They flowered in a domestic setting due to the inclination of the American middle and upper classes to keep a piano in the parlor and the widespread availability of sheet music (which wasn't supplanted by sound recordings as the prime source of pop music for Americans until the World War I era).

Minstrel tradition. After the War of 1812, many Americans expressed the need for native forms, symbols, and institutions that would assert the nation's cultural distinctiveness as clearly and emphatically as the war had reaffirned its political independence. Elite groups looked forward to a cultural renaissance in which American artists and subjects would push European forms and concepts to new heights of achievement. However, new forces were emerging which demanded that the American masses be permitted to shape the country in their own image. The mass migration of rural citizens to the cities had led to severe "culture shock." This disruption meant more than the mere loss of longtime amusements--stories, songs, tales, jokes, etc.--because, in folk societies, the verbal arts taught values and norms, invoked sanctions against transgressors, and provided vehicles for fantasy and outlets for social criticism. Through a process of trial and error, the popular arts emerged to fill this void.

Minstrelsy ultimately arrived at the most successful entertainment formula geared to the masses. In the 1830s, theater-goers still attended the same venue for cultural sustenance; a typical evening's entertainment consisted of a full-length play, whose acts were interspersed with variety specialties--dances, popular songs, black-faced acts, jugglers, acrobats, trained animals, and various novelties (e.g., freaks of nature). The Astor Place Riot (New York, 1849) rendered the by then unbridgeable cultural gap between common folk and elith society all too obvious, causing stage entertainment to divide into specialized forms. The 1850s saw major market areas offering different types of productions, including legitimate theater, opera, symphonic music, melodrama, variety, the circus, and minstrelsy.

Every part of the minstrel show--its features, form, and content--was hammered out in the interaction between performers and the vocal audiences they sought only to please. In addition to their entertainment value, blackfaced performers played a key role in helping white America come to grips with the changing role of blacks within society. Beginning in the 1820s, traveling blackfaced performers grew in popularity and continued to augment their repertoires. In February 1843, four blackfired white men took the stage billed as the Virginia Minstrels to perform for the first time an entire evening of the "oddities, peculiarities, and comicalities of that Sable Genus of Humanility." They left in their wake a minstrel-mad public and a bevy of imitators that reshaped American popular entertainment.

Broadway musical theater. This genre represented the sum of many evolutionary influences: (a) British and Viennese operetta, (b) minstrelsy, (c) continental variety shows, (d)immigrant humor, and (e) Manhattan's songwriting factory, Tin Pan Alley. It arose out of the interaction of cultures in New York City during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The folk traditions of blacks, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants mixed with each other as well as established American traditions and more entrenched music theater forms, resulting in a heightened degree of experimentation. Many dramatic works of the era used music and lyrics as elements in their productions. Songs were not integral to revealing plot and character; rather, they enhanced the atmosphere and gave the actors another outlet for their talents.

Ragtime. A dance-based vernacular style, it featured a syncopated melody against an even accompaniment (i.e., oom-pah or march-style bass). It was comprised of self-contained sections or strains, usually sixteen measures each, which were often repeated. Ragtime--which arose in the 1890s and faded by the late 1910s in the wake of dixieland jazz--comprised four main categories:

a. Instrumental rags, which were usually play on the piano. They generally used conventional European harmonies and possessed a typical formal structure of "AA BB A CC DD" (where each letter indicated a separate strain with its own melody, rhythm, and harmony). The distinctiveness of the genre was largely rhythmic in nature; untied syncopations predominated to around 1900, after which tied syncopations came to dominate. After 1906 a melodic motif called "secondary rag" became a staple (this device is prominent in George Botsford's "Grizzly Bear Rag").

b. Ragtime songs. While the best piano rags--featuring more syncopation and musical elaboration--have better stood the tests of time and modern critical judgment, the turn-of- the-century public liked songs much better than piano rags. This variant evolved from the syncopated "coon songs" of the late 1890s. The word "ragtime" became so marketable that it became widely applied to songs that were either lightly syncopated or not syncopated at all. The label was also applied to songs whose only connection with ragtime was the mention of it in the lyrics. The tremendous popularity of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) caused the term to be increasingly applied to rhythmic, but not necessarily syncopated, popular songs.

c. Ragtime or syncopated waltzes.

d. "Ragging" of the classics or other preexisting pieces. The origins of ragtime go back to the practice of ragging an existing melody (examples of which have been ascertained as early as the 1870s). Only later were new compositions--i.e., banjo and piano rags and ragtime songs--written in a "raggy" style, with the syncopations an inherent, not an "added-on," part of the music. By 1886, George W. Cable described the rhythm of a black dance in New Orleans' Congo Square as "ragged." The first substantiated use of the words "rag" and "rag-time" occurred in August 1896 with the copyrighting of Ernest Hogan's "All Coons Look Alike to Me," which possessed an optional chorus labeled "Negro Rag Accompaniment."