Popular Music in America. The Roots of American Music. Where it all Began….
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The Roots of American Music
Because of it’s location, Louisiana had a unique ethnic diversity that would blend into the creation of a different type of music that had never been heard. It would be become the roots of all popular music of the 20th century
New Orleans, based at the mouth of the Mississippi River, was an important place in music at the turn of the century.
There were three distinct ethnic groups that were living in New Orleans at the turn of the century. It was the combination of these groups that led to the formation of a new music.
Only 35 years after emancipation, many families of former slaves lived in the south. The spiritual, characterized by it’s bending pitch style of singing, was prominent.
The French brought traditional European musical harmonies and instruments to the New World, where they mixed with those around them.
The nearby island of Cuba brought many to New Orleans, and along with them came their music – rhythmic and full of energy, including “the clave” – an offbeat rhythm named for the instrument that usually plays it.
These three cultures were fused together here – in New Orleans’ French Quarter – still the cultural highlight of the city.
As these diverse people gradually became one local culture, the combination of their musical styles blended as well. The result was a new type of music – they called it “Jass”. It later got changed to the spelling we now use – JAZZ.
Jazz got it’s start in a type of music called the blues. The Blues got it’s nickname from it’s usually depressing subject matter. It is also characterized by it’s combination of swung rhythms (reminiscent of Latin music), blend of major and minor tonalities (the harmonies of French – Europeans), and a bending of pitch in instruments and voices (like a spiritual).
Blues singers would usually play piano or guitar, and improvise the melody as they sang.
Since they were making the lyrics up as they went, it soon fell into common practice to repeat the first line of a blues song – this gave the singer time to think of what the next line might be!
One of the most important figures in the Blues was Robert Johnson.
Johnson sang of how he went “…down to the crossroads”, where he supposedly made a deal with the devil to get his amazing guitar skills.
As Jazz musicians traveled up the Mississippi on riverboats, their music spread and developed.
In St. Louis, a new style of music called Ragtime was becoming popular. Ragtime, which was mostly played on piano, used off-beat rhythms called syncopation. Because only one performer was needed, printed versions of ragtime songs were in great demand.
A new invention called the player piano would allow shop owners to play ragtime music even if there was no piano player!
This music, purchased on piano “rolls”, was essentially America’s first form of recorded music.
A Black composer named Scott Joplin wrote many ragtime favorites, including “The Entertainer” (which you are now listening to), and “Maple Leaf Rag”.
Although he never got rich from his compositions, he was widely known, and was nicknamed “The King of Ragtime”.
Dixieland music was called “Hot Jazz” at the time, and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was one of the most popular “Hot Jazz” bands in New Orleans.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band moved from New Orleans to Chicago, where there was less competition and where “Hot Jazz” was much newer and fresh for the young crowd there. Eventually, King Oliver’s music would gain widespread acceptance.
King Oliver gave a 12 year old boy named Louis Armstrong a trumpet, and eventually he joined the band.
Nicknamed “Satchmo”, Armstrong would become one of the most famous musicians in history, and the first black Superstar in America.
Jazz Music was born in New Orleans, and moved up the river to Memphis, St. Louis, and finally to Chicago. It is America’s first truly original art form, and gave a new emphasis to popular music that influenced music for the entire century.