The musical styles that have developed in the United States are as varied as the people who live here. In this chapter, we learned that ragtime, New Orleans jazz, and the blues are all critical to the creation and growth of the popular music we enjoy today. We learned about the emphasis on rhythm inherited from African roots, and that syncopation refers to accented notes that are not on the beat. We also learned that from the country’s colonial beginnings to the present day, the musical, societal, and cultural establishment has not always approved of popular music—particularly ragtime, blues, and jazz.
Scott Joplin and others developed the distinct style that was called “ragtime,” which contributed, along with other African American music styles to the forma- tion of jazz in and around New Orleans. We saw Louis Armstrong rise to international fame as a jazz performer, recording artist, and movie star. This was followed by the “big bands” of the 1930s and 1940s, and later the small groups, or combos that performed the highly sophisticated music known as bebop. We discussed the evolution of rhythm and blues (R&B) into modern R&B and learned to identify rap music as a style based on two central elements; a strong rhythmic beat and lyrics. We explored the wide variety of folk songs in America. We also learned that folk music in America largely developed from music of the British Isles and Europe, as well as the music brought here by African slaves. We also investigated how rock music incorporated the blues and an emphasis on beats two and four borrowed from jazz to create an exciting new music that appealed to the youth culture.
In the realm of country music, we learned about bluegrass music, which developed largely in the Appalachian region, as well as honky-tonk and hillbilly music, both of which were variations of country music. We examined Western swing as a subset of country music that often uses dance band instruments, and recognized contemporary country music as a mixture of rock and country styles.
America was also home to a wide variety of styles of musical theatre. From the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster, which glorified the plantation South, to the operettas of Victor Herbert, which dominated musical theatre at the turn of the nineteenth century, America has a rich history of song and dance. Today, American musical theatre takes the form of the Broadway musical, which features a strong plot conveyed through dialogue and supported by song and dance. We also discussed American opera in the form of Gershwin’s folk opera, Porgy and Bess.
The importance of American popular music of the twentieth century cannot be overstated. Genres such as rock and roll and rap have now been exported around the globe. At their root, all forms of American popular music have been influenced by the blues, and thus owe their existence to the cultural contributions of African Americans. Although America was not yet discovered during much of the early development of Western art music, we have contributed much to the culture of the world in a relatively short span of time.