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8.2: Early American Popular Music – Or Not!

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    As music with the power to connect with large groups of people, popular music has sometimes been censored. In Colonial times, popular (pop) music was discouraged and, often, even illegal. Later, after church leaders began to lose some of their political power, with the separation of church and state, composers began to write popular music intended for singing at home by amateurs with some instrumental accompaniment. One popular political song of the 1700s was “Chester” by William Billings.

    The birth and early development of Ragtime, New Orleans Jazz (Dixieland), and the Blues are all critical to the creation and growth of the popular music we enjoy today. The rhythm, melody, harmony, and instrumentation of all three styles were foundational to the big band, jazz, bebop, and rock and roll styles that followed.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): William Billings – “Chester”

    The syncopated rhythms and the importance of a steady dance-like beat in rag- time, and the styles that followed originated in the African cultures accompanying the slaves brought to the American South. The use of scales, chords, and the rules of Western harmony—as well as the use of orchestral instruments like clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tubas, pianos, and snare and bass drums—were all borrowed from the Western European tradition. The combination of these different musical cultures occurred almost exclusively in New Orleans, a city that included French, Spanish, English, Creole (Native American), and African populations in an environment that was unusually cooperative and open-minded for the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    We must remember that most musical styles do not disappear when new styles evolve; they just fade in popularity. Ragtime, New Orleans jazz, and the Blues are still performed today—not only in New Orleans and St. Louis, but also across the United States, in Europe, and even parts of Asia.


    One important point to realize is that most popular music from the 1890s on is heavily influenced by the dominance of syncopation. Syncopation is the act of disrupting the normal pattern of accents in a piece of music by emphasizing what would normally be weak beats. For instance, in a march in quadruple meter, the musicians would typically emphasize beats one and three. However, in Ragtime, the emphasis would be placed on beats two and four (or the “upbeats”). We attribute this practice largely to the music and culture of the Africans who were sold into slavery in the American South. Syncopation and the emphasis on beats two and four permeate ragtime, Dixieland jazz, the blues, and most of the rock music that follows these styles.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.26.36 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Second edition cover of Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin. Source: Wikimedia

    The style of piano playing known as “ragtime” greatly influenced the development of American popular music. Indeed, all of our popular music styles grew out of ragtime and its New Orleans based cousin, jazz. Before the establishment of the recording industry, musicians supplied all live musical entertainment and background music. Music for these musicians to play was published in its written form for piano and other non-electric instruments.

    Ragtime was first published as written piano sheet music in the 1890s; by the early 1900s, it had almost taken over the music publishing industry. In fact, ragtime was so popular that it even increased the sale of pianos and energized the early music recording industry.

    After the Civil War much of the Midwest, particularly Missouri, sported numerous saloons, dance halls, and brothels. These establishments offered work to piano players because of the need for live music—remember there was no record- ed music industry at that time. Many African American businessmen at this time came to enjoy financial success in a section of St. Louis called Chestnut Valley, one such man being John L. Turpin from Savannah who moved to St. Louis and opened the Silver Dollar saloon. Ten years later, in 1897, Turpin’s son, a self-taught pianist, published “Harlem Rag,” a defining piece of piano Ragtime and a model for future composers. That same year, W. H. Krell published “Mississippi Rag.”

    One of the most important ragtime composers, Scott Joplin was born some- time late 1867 and early 1868, probably in the northern part of Texas. Although most of the details of his early life are uncertain, his name appears in the 1880 census, listing him as twelve years of age. His father was a former slave and his mother worked in the home of a well to do white family in Texarkana. Scholars believe that Joplin probably had access to a piano in the home of his mother’s employer and began at that time to learn the rudiments of music. While in Texarkana, Joplin’s ability gained notice, and he began to study with Julius Weiss, a German-born music teacher. Scott later attended high school in Sedalia, Missouri then alternated between Texarkana, where in 1891 he was performing with a minstrel show, and Sedalia, where for several years he continued to perfect his compositional technique. In 1899, he convinced Civil War veteran, music lover, and music store owner John Stark to publish “Maple Leaf Rag— a piece destined to become the most popular ragtime composition. By 1914, it had sold over 1 million copies.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.28.21 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Scott Joplin by Unknown. Source: Wikimedia

    Click on the links below to listen to Cory Hall perform two of Scott Joplin’s better known compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.” Pay attention to the steady beat of the music and then notice that many of the accented notes are not on the beat. Those are the syncopated notes, and they are what make the time sound “ragged.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, musicians often called music that was written with different beat patterns by the name of the purpose for which it was composed. For example, music written for dancing that was grouped in three beats per measure was called “waltz-time,” and music written in two beats per measure for marching was called “march-time.” So it seems reasonable that music written with many notes off the beat, or syncopat- ed, would be called “ragged-time” or “ragtime.”

    Maple Leaf Rag – Scott Joplin

    The Entertainer – Scott Joplin

    Arthur Pryor was the most famous trombone soloist of his era and a member of the world renowned band of John Philip Sousa. Prior was born in Missouri and wrote numerous successful ragtime compositions. When the Sousa Band toured Europe in 1900, Arthur Pryor’s ragtime compositions did much to spread the fame of ragtime to Europe.

    By the early 1900s, ragtime enjoyed tremendous popularity and could be found in many different forms, including the early example of mass-produced recorded music, the phonograph record. Listen to the following phonograph recording of the Sousa Band from 1906.

    Sousa Band, “Arkansaw Huskin’ Bee”

    The syncopated feel of ragtime encourages a feeling of movement—perhaps a desire to tap your foot, or bob your head, or dance. Many older people perceived this feeling as a threat that would lead young people down the road to sin and deg- radation; they associated the music with saloons, dance halls, and bordellos. Need- less to say, they didn’t approve! We will later see many similar warnings about the rock music of the 1960s.

    You may have also noticed that “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” comprise sections that repeat. These three or four repeated sections make up the “form” of the vast majority of ragtime compositions. Music of all styles can either be built of sections that repeat (a repeating form), or be written in a way that does not repeat (through-composed). We will talk more about form later.

    The Blues

    The term “the blues” may have originated in two possible ways. The first possibility is that as early as the 1790s the term “blue devils” was used to refer to feelings of suffering and sadness. The term first appeared in print in Hart Wand’s piece, “Dallas Blues” (1912), the first copyrighted blues composition. The second possibility suggests it derives from the mysticism associated with many West African cultures that used the Blue Indigo plant to dye the garments of those who were in mourning after the death of a loved one. The indigo plant was grown on many Southern plantations, and its use could have strengthened the slaves’ connecting “blue” indigo with suffering.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.29.56 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Robert Johnson by User "Anetode." Source: Wikimedia license | Fair Use

    Whatever the source, the term “the blues” became universally associated with a style of music that at the turn of the twentieth century began to form out of African American work songs, field hollers, and spirituals. Today, the word “blues” is used loosely and can mean several different things, like feeling sad or down. It can also describe any song played in a bluesy style.

    In musical circles, the term “blues” most commonly describes a song that follows a blues form, which is a twelve-bar strophic song form. This musical structure of the blues has influenced the development of jazz, rock, techno, and other popular styles of music and is based on a few basic and recurring composition- al and performance techniques. The form of the blues is repeating. It is usually eight, twelve, or sixteen bars in length, although some pieces vary this somewhat, and those sections are repeated several times. The blues uses a limited number of chords, usually three or four. Specific notes within these chords are often lowered (the third, fifth, and seventh notes above the root of the chord), and the scales associated with these “blue note” alterations are called “blues scales.” Musicians often “bend” the pitch of these notes to give them their bluesy quality.

    Over the years, the blues has found its way into many different styles of popular music. First, listen to two examples of traditional blues selections: Robert Johnson performs “Cross Road Blues,” and B. B. King performs “How Blue Can You Get”

    Robert Johnson – “Cross Road blues”

    B.B. King - “How Blue Can you Get”

    Next listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn perform a number of blues selections that use rock as the rhythmic basis, including a composition by Jimi Hendrix.

    More than any other musical style, the blues is the foundation of all American music. It appears in virtually every other native musical style, including jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and hip hop.


    New Orleans has, for centuries, been a city of many different cultural and ethnic groups. French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Irish immigrants all settled there before and during the 1800s, and it is in this city where their musical styles mixed with the different musical influences infused by the descendants of African slaves.

    New Orleans jazz has its roots in Storyville, an area of New Orleans (NO-LA) known for its bars, dance halls,
    and brothels—like Missouri’s Chestnut Valley. In the early part of the 1900s, African American musical styles such as ragtime, blues, spirituals, and marches merged together to create a unique art form. Although jazz borrows much of its harmony and instrumentation from Europe, it differs fundamentally from European styles in its rhythmic makeup. Jazz emphasized syncopation and swing. Swing is a term used to describe the rhythmic bounce that characterizes the jazz style.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.32.15 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Louis Armstrong by World-Telegram Staff. Source: Wikimedia

    One of the most important aspects of the jazz style is that it often depends on performers being able to improvise. Improvisation is the act of creating melodies and harmonies on the spot without reading the music off a page. The blending of written and improvised performance has become an integral part of jazz performance and has continued in the later evolution of rock and other popular styles. Early jazz musicians learned to improvise entire new melodies over the chord structures of existing tunes.

    Unlike with ragtime, which is largely a piano performance style, jazz musicians often provided music for dancing. By the early 1900s, dance music group instrumentation had changed from mostly string orchestras to jazz bands using instruments borrowed from marching bands; the band instruments were louder and more suited to noisy dance halls. Different combinations of trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, trombones, and tubas joined with drums, piano, guitar, and banjo to form the common jazz band instrumentation. However, piano players often traveled from city to city looking for work and it is easy to see how the music of these popular ragtime pianists influenced early jazz development in NOLA.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.34.13 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Original Dixieland Jazz Band by Unknown. Source: Wikimedia

    In 1917, Storyville was closed down due to the efforts of religious leaders in NOLA, so jazz musicians were forced to move to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Memphis, St. Louis, and other big cities to find work. Around this same time, the recording industry began to flourish, particularly in Chicago and New York. Soon groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band began recording New Orleans style jazz. Jazz eventually became part of a performing and recording revolution that swept the country (and Western world) and changed popular music and culture forever.

    Charles “Buddy” Bolden is widely recognized as the first major figure in the early development of jazz in NOLA. Bolden, like most of the other top jazz performers at that time, was of African descent, a fact which points to the central importance of African Americans to the development of New Orleans jazz and later American popular music from this point forward. Unfortunately, no known recordings of Bolden exist. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an ensemble comprised of white musicians, is widely considered to have made the first recording of jazz. This recording sold over one million copies in the first six months of its release and did much to associate New Orleans with “jazz” in the new recording industry. Phonograph records soon replaced sheet music as a favorite way to experience new music because records allowed the listener to hear the subtle jazz performance practices that could not be accurately put down on paper.

    Listen to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s recording of “Livery Stable Blues” which was recorded in New York in 1917, linked below. File:ODJBcard.JPG

    Original Dixieland Jazz Band – “Livery Stable Blues”

    This early style of jazz, now known as New Orleans Jazz, or “Dixieland,” is based almost entirely on the tradition of improvisation. The mature Dixieland style was in full swing by the 1920s and included syncopated rhythms, improvised solos and harmonies, as well as a common instrumentation that included trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, tuba, banjo, piano, guitar, and drums. The form of most Dixieland tunes, like almost all popular music, was based on repeated sections.

    The late 1920s saw the rise of a New Orleans native who transformed jazz from a somewhat loose style with many parts being improvised at the same time, into a style that featured soloists taking turns playing improvised solos. Louis Armstrong, whose nickname was “Satchmo,” became an international jazz superstar and movie and television personality in a career that stretched from the 1920s to the 1960s.

    Armstrong was born in 1901 in a section of New Orleans with a violent reputation, so much so that it was called “The Battlefield.” At the age of 11, Armstrong was arrested for firing a gun in the air to celebrate the New Year and was subsequently sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. It was here that Armstrong learned to play the cornet (an early version of the trumpet). He quickly realized his aptitude for music and, upon being released two years later, soon began to build a reputation as one of the best trumpet players in New Orleans, performing everywhere from the seedy bars of Storyville to the riverboats that traveled up and down the Mississippi River.

    Armstrong eventually moved to Chicago to join the band of his old mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. From 1925 to 1928, Armstrong made a series of recordings as a leader known as the “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens” that would cement his status as one of the most important jazz artists of the twentieth century. His innovations include the following: he established jazz as a solo art form firmly rooted in the blues and which celebrated individual expression; he introduced a jazz singing style, which included a loose phrasing style; he defined the new rhythmic feel of jazz known as swing; and he expanded the possibilities of the trumpet through bends and other techniques that allowed him to mimic the human voice.

    Listen to “West End Blues” recorded by Louis Armstrong, America’s first popular music superstar, in Chicago in 1928 (linked below.) In addition to common Dixieland instrumentation and improvised solos, this selection also contains a vocal solo by Louis Armstrong using a technique called “scat singing.” Scat singing occurs when a vocalist improvises a melody using seemingly nonsense syllables, often in an attempt to imitate the style of a wind instrument.

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Joe "King" Oliver
    Composition: Louis Armstrong: "West End Blues"
    Date: 1928
    Genre: Early jazz or "Dixieland"
    Form: 12-bar blues
    Performing Forces: Early New Orleans Jazz Instrumentation: Louis Armstrong – trumpet and vocal; Fred Robinson – trombone; Jimmy Strong – clarinet; Earl Hines – piano; Mancy Cara – banjo; Zutty Singleton – drums

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • Much of the piece is improvised over a repeating 12-bar blues form
    • It features Armstrong’s virtuosity on trumpet as well as his unique interpretation of the melody on trumpet and on vocals

    Other things to listen for:

    • Each time the twelve bar form is repeated, it is called a “chorus”
    • Each chorus is an opportunity for a new soloist or a new ensemble passage
    • Armstrong’s vocals are “scat singing,” and incorporate syllables instead of text
    • The piano, banjo, and drums are collectively called the “rhythm section”
    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form


    Improvised lines incorporate dramatic leaps, chromaticism, triplet figures, and elements of the blues.


    Full band.
    Trumpet plays the melody while clarinet and trombone improvise supporting parts.


    Trombone with rhythm section.

    Trombone plays the melody.


    Clarinet and voice with rhythm section.

    Call-and-response melody between clarinet and voice.


    Rhythm section featuring piano.

    Improvised piano solo.

    2:34 Full band.
    Improvised trumpet solo supported by full band.
    2:57 Full band.
    Piano followed by trumpet.

    No unit on New Orleans jazz would be complete without mentioning the Marsalis family. Father Ellis (piano) and sons Branford (saxophone), Wynton (trumpet), Delfeayo (trombone), and Jason (drums) are all artists of the first rate and world-renowned as individual jazz musicians. Listen to the Marsalis family continue the New Orleans jazz tradition as they perform “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque.”

    Struttin’ With Some Barbeque – The Marsalis Family

    Later Jazz Styles

    Big Bands

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.38.07 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Duke Ellington by Unknown. Source: Wikimedia

    By the 1930s, jazz was the most popular music in the country. Most jazz ensembles at this time featured a large group of fifteen to twenty musicians. This increase in size was needed mainly because the larger venues used for dancing made it difficult to hear small combos over the noises in the room. Before long, the standard instrumentation of the performing dance band had become five saxophones, five trombones, five trumpets, a rhythm section (piano, bass, and drum set), and oftentimes one or more singers. The larger number of instruments made the normal improvised Dixieland parts impractical; fifteen musicians improvising at the same time just sounded like noise. Therefore, band leaders began to either arrange parts for the different sections (as Duke Ellington did) or hire arrangers to do it for them (as did Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, and others). The standard big band instrumentation that resulted survives to this day.

    Throughout the later 1930s, the 1940s, and to some extent the 1950s, big bands enjoyed enormous popularity performing both for dances and as concert performing groups. Today the terms dance band and big band are used interchangeably. During the heyday of big band popularity, a number of superstars rose with the tide. Many times the leaders of these bands became famous; Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller were just a few that became household names. Listen to the traditional big band sound of Glenn Miller and his orchestra as they perform their number one hit “In the Mood.”

    Glenn miller – “In The Mood”

    One of the most important figures in the big band era was Duke Ellington, a bandleader and composer who created some of most unique and innovative sounding music of the era. Ellington sought out musicians with their own personal sounds to incorporate into his orchestra. Some famous musicians from the Ellington band include trumpeter Cootie Williams, who created interesting vocal effects with a plunger mute; Cat Anderson, who could hit high notes that most trumpeters thought im- possible, and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, a master at bending notes to create beautiful expressive melodies. Ellington was able write music that wove these unique playing styles together into a musical tapestry that was complex and dissonant, yet beautiful and accessible. Ellington wrote many big band hits of the 1930s and 1940s, such as the example below, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”


    For audio, go to:

    Composer: Duke Ellington
    Composition: It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
    Date: 1931 (recorded 1932)
    Genre: Big Band Jazz
    Form: AABA
    Nature of Text: an upbeat song celebrating swing music

    Performing Forces: Early Big Band Instrumentation:
    Arthur Whetsel, Freddie Jenkins, Cootie Williams – trumpet; Joe Nanton, Juan Tizol – trombone; Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney – woodwinds; Duke Ellington – piano, Fred Guy – banjo; Wellman Braud – bass; Sonny Greer – drums; Ivie Anderson – vocals

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • The original song follows a standard AABA form, which is repeated over and over. Much like the blues, each time through the form is called a “chorus.”
    • Take a look at the words to the song below to follow along with the form.

    A It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
    (doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah)

    A It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
    (doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah)

    B It makes no difference if it’s sweet or hot Just give that rhythm everything you’ve got

    A It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
    (doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah)

    Other things to listen for:

    • In the A sections of the form, the brass players use standard toilet plungers on the bells of their horns to create a “wa, wa” sound

    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form

    Upright bass and vocals.

    Bluesy “scat singing” riff in vocals.



    Trombone with rhythm section. Improvised solos alternating with original melody.

    First “chorus” of AABA form


    Full Band.
    Main melody which includes a call and response between vocalist and horns.

    Second chorus of AABA form

    1:23 Alto sax solo over horn backgrounds. Improvised solo. Interlude

    Alto sax solo.

    Improvised solo.

    First two A sections of third chorus

    Sax section.

    New melodic material written in a soloistic manner.

    B section of fourth chorus
    2:16 Alto sax solo over horn backgrounds. Improvised solo. Last A section of third chorus


    Full Band (Shout Chorus).
    New melodic material written in a soloistic manner.

    First two A sections of fourth chorus


    Vocalist with rhythm section. Improvised “scat” solo.

    B section of fourth chorus


    Full Band.
    Main melody which includes a call and response between vocalist and horns.

    Last A section of fourth chorus

    Stan Kenton was an innovative big band leader who liked to incorporate mu- sic from other cultures into his repertoire. Listen to the Latin influence in his re- cording of “Malaga.”

    Stan Kenton – “Malaga”

    This recording of the Count Basie band is a great example of the traditional swing style of jazz in a contemporary arrangement of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

    Count Basie – “Sweet Georgia Brown”

    Numerous vocalists also became stars in the Big Band movement. One of the most famous also became a movie star: Frank Sinatra.

    Frank Sinatra – “New York, New York”

    Ella Fitzgerald became world famous as a jazz vocalist and recording artist, and enjoyed a long and illustrious career as one of the leading jazz recording artists of all time.

    Ella Fitzgerald – “The lady is a Tramp”

    The big band tradition continues to this day with vocal artists such as Michael Bublé recording and performing live concerts. Here Michael Bublé performs his hit “Moon Dance.”

    Michael Bublé - “Moon Dance”

    In the early 1940s, World War II had put a serious damper on saloons and dance halls due to rationing, lower incomes, and the drafting of a large number of musicians. It was difficult for bandleaders to hire enough good players because many musicians had gone to war. Consequently, many musicians began to form smaller jazz ensembles consisting of a few wind instruments and a rhythm section. These ensembles are often called jazz “combos.”

    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 12.41.08 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New York, N.Y. by William P. Gottlieb. Source: Wikimedia

    At this same time, several important musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, began meeting at such clubs in uptown New York City as Minton’s Playhouse. During late night jam sessions, they began exploring new ways to improvise in a small group setting. The bebop style developed when Charlie Parker arrived in New York from Kansas City. His nickname was “Bird,” and he soon became perhaps the most influential bebop player. Bebop was a dramatic departure from the jazz that came before it in several ways. The music featured more complex, faster moving harmonies, angular melodies, and highly complex rhythms that were not conducive to dancing. Most importantly, bebop marked the beginning of the modern jazz era. From this point on, jazz was no longer perceived as a popular music. Dance halls gave way to basement clubs where jazz enthusiasts would come to sit and listen. While jazz never regained its initial popularity, musicians such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and others carried on the jazz tradition into the 1950s and beyond, creating some of the most ground- breaking recordings in American music.

    Listen for the complex melodies and complex chords in the following selection.

    Charlie Parker – “Donna Lee”

    In the late 1960s and 1970s, some acoustic jazz musicians became interested in incorporating electronic instruments and rock beats into the jazz idiom. This style is often called fusion as it “fuses” jazz with other styles. A truly outstanding group from this era is Weather Report. The composition entitled “Birdland” from Weather Report’s 1977 Heavy Weather studio album, Heavy Weather received numerous awards, as well as ranking #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. Although the title of the song pays tribute to an acoustic jazz club in New York City named after Charlie Parker, the music itself features a rock instrumentation, a straight beat, and electronic instruments. The group’s bass player Jaco Pastorius is considered by many to be the best electric bassist of all time.

    Weather Report – “Birdland”

    This page titled 8.2: Early American Popular Music – Or Not! is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.