Music in the United States in the twentieth century has been distinguished by its diversity, innovation and fidelity to experiences and modes of expression that are uniquely American. From classical to pop, jazz and blues to country western, American music since 1900 has delighted audiences the world over with its freshness, vitality and rhythmic energy. American jazz can be heard in night clubs in Moscow and Mozambique; rock ‘n’ roll blares from radios in Cairo and Katmandu; American symphonies and musicals are performed in concert halls and theaters all over the world. Despite the charges still levied against America for being philistine and culturally backward, her music has been accepted and even imitated by artists in virtually
every culture worldwide.
While each type of American music has its own forms, composers and performers frequently have borrowed from other musical genres in attempting to define a national music identity. Jazz motifs and folk themes can be heard in classical works, and pop music imitates ideas found in other genres. Thus underlying the diversity of American music is a sense of a shared heritage and tradition dating back to colonial times. Each successive wave of immigrants that landed in the New World brought its own musical traditions that gradually became assimilated into the American culture. English hymns, Scottish and Irish folk tunes, Negro spirituals, and other types of ethnic and folk music gave birth to new forms of music that were uniquely American in style and theme. The music of American Indians made an invaluable contribution to this indigenous music, as did the very character of the land and the people.
By 1900, America was well on her way to achieving a distinctive musical identity. The popular song, “the first music to take on a typically American character,” had come into its own with the songs of Stephen Foster, which were widely performed and reprinted abroad (Hamm 173). Military music and marches, particularly those of John Philip Sousa, had become virtual icons of American music. The popular new music at the turn of the century was ragtime, which began to achieve commercial success with the publication of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899. While various forms of ragtime had been around for some time, it was the more complex syncopated rhythms of Joplin and other composers that made this genre the rage for almost two decades.
The development of classical music in America also found new impetus as America entered a new century. The Czech composer Anton Dvorak, who completed his New World Symphony in 1894, expressed the hope that “just as this nation has already surpassed so many others in marvelous inventions and feats of engineering and commerce, and has made an honorable place for itself in literature in one short century, so it must assert itself in the other arts, and especially in the art of music” (Hamm 410). Dvorak encouraged American composers to be receptive to the melodies and songs cherished by the people themselves. His own music reflected the folk songs and melodies of his native land, and in the New World Symphony he attempted to capture the contours and melodies of Indian chants and Negro spirituals. American composers appeared to take his example to heart, for they began to shift away from the European style of composition toward a distinctively American approach.
The three composers usually credited with bringing American classical music into its own in the twentieth century are Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin. Charles Ives composed music “so deeply rooted in American life and music as to have an unmistakable nationalistic character,” weaving tunes from hymns, marches, and popular songs into complex thematic relationships (Hamm 303). In 1911, when he had reached his creative peak, Ives composed his First Orchestral Set, better known as Three Places in New England. These three movements incorporated familiar American tunes such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and colonial hymns to create a jumble of sounds in different rhythms and keys. Aaron Copland, who composed the majority of his works in the 1920s and 1930s, absorbed jazz elements into his own compositions in a conscious attempt to reflect the music of his own country. His best-known and most popular works – “Billy the Kid” ballet, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and “Appalachian Spring” – made prominent use of traditional melodies and motifs such as the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.”
No American composer traversed the boundaries between classical and popular music more successfully than George Gershwin, who wrote everything from show tunes to symphonies. “Rhapsody in Blue,” commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman, created a sensation with its “then-novel crossing of jazz with diluted Liszt” (Salter 84). He followed with the more sophisticated “Concerto in F” and the symphonic “American in Paris”; his opera “Porgy and Bess” expressed the composer’s deep affinity for black musicians and their music. Long neglected by major U. S. opera houses, it recently was performed by an ensemble from the prestigious Houston Opera Company.
The 1920s in America were known as the “Golden Age of Jazz.” A fusion of blues and ragtime with syncopated dance music and band pieces, jazz is a vocally oriented music that features improvisation by the individual musicians in the ensemble. The pioneers of jazz came out of New Orleans and Chicago: King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. Armstrong, whose career spanned several decades, became an enormously popular ambassador for jazz, performing on goodwill tours to Europe and Africa. These early jazz performers were succeeded by the Big Bands of the thirties and forties, with the swing bands led by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey performing in clubs across the country. But it was the music of Duke Ellington and his band, featured at the Cotton Club in Harlem in the early 1930s, that came to epitomize the swing era. Ellington’s distinctive swing style produced such memorable arrangements as “Mood Indigo” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Count Basie’s Kansas City band established itself as an avantgarde swing ensemble that achieved international fame for its robust sounds and the infectious piano stylings of Basie himself.
A “dynamic and evolutionary art progressing through a series of stylistic changes until the 1950s” (Hama 547), jazz progressed from the big-bank style of the 1940s to the smaller ensemble sounds of free jazz and bebop, some jazz artists preferring the older traditional forms. Classical music, by contrast, continued to experiment with new modes of expression. Composers such as John Cage and minimalist Philip Glass created original and sometimes controversial pieces that challenged conventional notions of music and musical notation. For the first time, American composers found themselves on the leading edge of classical music.
America’s answer to the opera was the Broadway musical, which during the golden years of the thirties, forties, and fifties produced many memorable tunes. Songwriters such as George Cohan, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, created melodies and lyrics that appealed to popular sentimental tastes. Songs performed on the Broadway stage and in Hollywood films were disseminated through recordings and radio programs such as “Your Hit Parade.” The big bands employed vocalists to perform the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley, and their performances were broadcast live over the airwaves to millions of listeners. As swing began to die out, solo vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Nat King Cole popularized an intimate, highly personalized style of singing. Aided by advances in sound technology, their live performances and recordings captured every emotional nuance and vocal inflection.
Rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the dominant form of popular American music in the 1950s, appealing to a broad cross-section of racial and ethnic groups. Whites, blacks, and rural audiences responded with enthusiasm to this new music, which came close to being a universal language. Performers were black and white in roughly equal proportion: Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, the Coasters and the Everly Brothers. Some of the biggest rock hits of the 1950s originated as rhythm and blues songs written for and performed by black musicians. For example, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” which reached the top of Billboard’s white pop chart, was originally a rhythm and blues hit written by two white songwriters for a black singer, “Big Mama” Thorton. The phenomenal success of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and the emergence of Elvis Presley as America’s first bona fide rock star caused consternation among some critics, but rock ‘n’ roll clearly was here to stay.
During the fifties and sixties, rock was characterized by a multiplicity of song styles, none of which gained dominance. The urban folk rock of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary drew on folk traditions in dealing with contemporary issues. Releases under the Motown label monopolized the rock charts in the early and mid-sixties, the Supremes trailing only Elvis and the Beatles in the total of No. 1 hits. Performing on concert stages and in night clubs, these rock musicians also recorded albums which were then played on the Top 40 radio stations. Appearances on television variety programs such as the Ed Sullivan show provided additional exposure for America’s rock stars (as well as a certain rock foursome from England). As it continued to increase in sophistication and commercial possibilities, rock, along with jazz and popular music, became universally recognized as “the most successful and important musical product of the New World” (Hamm 654).