Saturday, November 11, 2017


This started out as an outline for videos to use in a 7-hour class/workshop on this topic I am co-teaching with Andrew Smith; it has turned into enough for a semester-long class and/or a big book.

Bear in mind, this is not  meant to be an exhaustive list... many of my own favorites are missing... but rather a representative one, which builds a narrative of the evolution of these topics in American music. There is some annotation for clarity, but each of the many headings and subheadings is ripe for a lecture and discussion.

So here goes...


What follows is an examination of the ways region, race and class have influenced American music from the colonial period to the present, with most of the material coming from the 20th century. It is not a history of American music per sé; it is primarily centered on the South (from which most genres of American popular music originate), the West, and Oklahoma (which is in some ways the crossroads of both).

Music (rivaled only by food) was the least segregated thing in the South. Musical forms were fluid, and musicians were versatile- black musicians in the early 20th century often included country and western songs in their repertoire, and white musicians were frequently conversant in blues styles. White and black performers from that era like Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly often played songs that were a mixture of blues and country. Later in the century, rock and roll could accurately be described as a blend of blues and country; later still, outlaw country and southern rock could be described as blends of blues, country, and rock and roll.

Some of these songs address race directly, and others directly address issues of class and the lived experience of the working poor. Indirectly, one or both of those themes are beneath the surface in all of them.

Things to look for: The British influence on American music, via traditional English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ballads, includes an emphasis on lyrics and especially on storytelling, and that approach is woven through the various iterations of “country/western” music. The African influence includes call-and-response, and in becoming African American comes to include themes of resistance. 

Working class songs, and this can be seen from British ballads forward, are often fatalistic and involve imprisonment or other forms of oppression from authority.  All the aforementioned forms often take a religious expression, looking to a higher power for sustenance and justice.


PART ONE: GENESIS [The birth of American music: a confluence of African and European elements.]

The first Southern music:
                 o   Cherokee Corn Dance Song

Broadside ballads (1700s): sung by minstrels, lyrics sold on sheets. Often sang of lost loves, murderous crimes of passion, or both.
·         Prison songs: “The Gaol Song”
·         Murder songs: “The Oxford Girl”      
o   Compare with: “The Knoxville Girl” by The Louvin Brothers  1956
   §  “Country Death Song” by the Violent Femmes  1984 
·         Execution Songs: “The Gallows Tree”  
o   Compare with:
§  “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio   1958
§  “25 Minutes to Go” by Johnny Cash    1968
§  “Sam Hall” by Johnny Cash  2002  (the song may go back as far as 1707)

Antebellum Black Community
·         Spirituals:
o   “Roll, Jordan, Roll” [powerful scene from 12 Years a Slave
o   “John the Revelator”  Son House, 1930s  
·         Work Songs, alias Field Hollers:
o    "Po' Lazarus" from O Brother Where Art Thou 
·         Playing the Dozens (wherein two people have a contest insulting each other, often in rhyme):
o   “The Signifying Monkey”  Rudy Ray Moore, 1970. From a Yoruba folk tale.  
§  Compare “The Signifying Rapper” by Schooly D, 1988 
§  Compare “Signifying Monkey” by  Willie Dixon,  1947 [a VERY sanitized jazz version]  
o   “Say, Man”  Bo Diddley  1959 

The Minstrel Shows (1820s-1890s): the beginning of American culture appropriating blackness

Jim Crow:
o   “Jump Jim Crow” by Daddy Rice [note: thank God this is only 30 seconds long.] 
o   1950s TV Blackface demonstration [sexist AND racist!]       
o   Compare to: “When I See an Elephant Fly” from Dumbo  
Stephen Foster:
o   The above song's lyrics are about a former (perhaps runaway) slave longing for the better life he had on the plantation. Note: Foster spent most of his life in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and visited the South only once when he honeymooned in New Orleans.
o   “Camptown Ladies”  1850   
o   Compare to: “Old Man River” by Paul Robeson [from 1936 musical Showboat, a nostalgic call-back to Mississippi Riverboat Days of the 1800s… but note the slightly different tone. "I gets weary and sick of tryin'. I'm tired of livin', and scared of dyin'."] 

Western Songs, late 1800s: songs of working cowboys and miners                    
                                 o  “My Darling Clementine” 1884        
       o   “Streets of Laredo”  adapted from a British ballad. From 1890s.        
                                  o   “Git Along, Little Dogies”  [It’s your misfortune, and none of my own.] From 1890s. 

Gospel Spirituals (1800s) popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, starting in 1871


Precursors: New Orleans, and the Whorehouse Professors of Storyville
o   Civil War brass bands
§  “When the Saints Go Marching In”  Louis Armstrong  
o   “The Spanish Tinge” Cubans and African-Americans mixing musically in New Orleans, creating new piano sounds
§  “Creepy Feeling” by Jelly Roll Morton 

·         Ragtime: St. Louis Sound, popular ca. 1895-1915. Syncopated rhythm.
o   “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin, 1902 
o   “Cake Walks”  antebellum plantation origins; appropriated by blackface minstrels during Ragtime Era. An example from 1903: 

The Delta Blues:
o   field hollers mixed with ballads, performed by rural musicians, using African rhythms and structure, playing “blue” notes and often thumping on their guitars for percussion. Not recorded until the late 1920s, but the style had been around a long time. Also used bottleneck slides.
o   Early greats:
§  Son House. “Scary Delta Blues”   
§  Charley Patton.“Rattlesnake Blues”  
§  Robert Johnson. “Crossroad Blues”  
§  Tommy McClennan, “Bottle It Up and Go”  
·         Common themes: domestic violence, brawls, swaggering, getting money

·         Piedmont Blues, AKA Southeastern Blues  [more picking than Delta style]
o   Blind Blake, “You Gonna Quit Me Blues”  1927  
·         W.C. Handy meets the Blues [literally, in Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1903]
o   “St. Louis Blues”  1914  
·        Jug Bands 
                        "On the Road Again"  by the Memphis Jug Band, 1928
      Jazz hits the national scene, 1917


Between the World Wars, radio took over pop culture. Radio stations, and record producers, segregated music and musicians.

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing:
o   Radio Greats of Swing
§  King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Shake It and Break It”  1930  
§  Count Basie, “Swingin’the Blues”  1941  
o   Big Band era (1935-1945)
§  Benny Goodman, “Sing,Sing, Sing” 1937  
§  Glen Miller, “In the Mood” 1940  
o   Western Swing
§  Bob Wills, “San Antonio Rose”   1944 

Scat Singing
o   Scatting, or making up nonsensical lyrics, had been part of ragtime and jazz since the turn of the century before, but it was introduced to the general public in a 1926 record by Louis Armstrong, “Heebie Jeebies.” His lyric sheet fell in the middle of the song and he started scatting.
o   Louis Armstrong, “Heebie Jeebies”   1926 
o   Cab Calloway, “Minnie the Moocher”  1931  
o   Ella Fitzgerald, “How High the Moon”  1947  

§  Compare: Scatman Crothers (you may remember him from The Shining), “I’m a N****r Man”  1975    This is very powerful usage of the n-word in defiance of white society and oppression.  

Blues Harmonica
                  ·         Sonny Boy Williamson I, "Stop Breaking Down"  1945
                                        "Shake the Boogie"   1946
        ·         Sonny Boy Williamson II (Aleck Miller)
§  “Bring It on Home”       1963 

Queens of Jazz and Blues
·         1920s
o   Ma Rainey, “See See Rider Blues” [with Louis Armstrong], 1924 
o   Bessie Smith, “I’m Wild about That Thing,” 1929  
·         1930s
o   Mildred Bailey, “All of Me”  1931  [Native American] 
o Memphis Minnie,  "I'm a Bad Luck Woman" 1936
o   Billie Holliday, “Strange Fruit,” 1939 
 Gospel Blues
                        Blind Willie Johnson
                                    “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” 1927
                                    “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” 1927
                        Reverend Gary Davis
                                    “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”
 Dirty Blues
o   Some early blues singers could be as raunchy as any modern rapper, and –like rappers –often had both a “real version” of songs that they played live in clubs and a “radio edit version” that was cleaned up. Many of those “dirty blues” songs were recorded, though, in the 1920s and 1930s.
o   Clara Smith
o   Sweet Emma
§  “I Ain’t Giving Nobody My Jellyroll”  written in 1919, this version recorded decades later. “Jellyroll” was slang for vagina
o   Lucille Bogan
§  NOTE: the slang word that appears in these songs, which is short for “cockleshell”, referred to female genitalia and didn’t become slang for male genitalia until around WWII.
§  “Shave ‘Em Dry”   1934   (the expression "shave 'em dry" meant give it to them straight, pulling no punches)

Jump Blues
o   Mixture of blues and jazz swing, danceable with a boogie beat (repetitive, up-tempo, danceable). When electric guitar is added in the late ‘40s, rhythm and blues is born

o   Lionel Hampton, “Flying Home”   1942   
o  Roy Brown, "Good Rockin' Tonight"  1947

“Hillbilly Music”
                               o   Early Greats
§  The Carter Family, “Worried Man Blues” 
§  Jimmie Rodgers (The Singing Brakeman) “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)” 
§  The Skillet Lickers, “Down Yonder”       
§  Dock Boggs, "Pretty Polly"  1927

o   Grand Ole Opry, est. 1925  preceded by National Barn Dance, in Chicago
§  Uncle Jimmy Thompson, “Lynchburg”
§  Uncle Dave Macon, "Sail Away, Ladies"
§  DeFord Bailey, “John Henry”  

Working Class Folk & Protest Music
§  Compare: “Sixteen Tons” By Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1955 
o   Leadbelly, “Bourgeois Blues”  
o   Pete Seeger


                Slow vocal jazz identifiable by complex harmonies
o   Early precedents
§  The Ink Spots
·         “My Prayer”  1939  
·         “If I Didn’t Care”  1939 
§  The Mills Brothers
·         “Paper Doll”  1943   
o   Doo-wop arrives in the 1950s
§  The Platters, “The Great Pretender”  1955
§  The Five Satins, “In the Still of the Night” 1956  
§  The Drifters, “This Magic Moment”  1960  
·         Compare:  The Temptations, “Just My Imagination”  1971  
·         Compare: Boyz II Men, “The End of the Road”  1993  
o   Italian-American Doo-wop
§  Dion and the Belmonts (The Bronx)
·         “Runaround Sue”   1961  
§  Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Newark, NJ)
                                          ·         “Sherry”  1962  

The Blues Goes Electric
o   Sister Rosetta Tharpe,  "Strange Things Happening Every Day" 1945
o   John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen” 1948 
o   Muddy Waters, “Mannish Boy (I’m a Man)” 1955 
o   Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightnin’” 1956   

The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll

o   Rhythm & Blues
§  Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, “Rocket 88”  1951  [first rock song?]
§  Bo Diddley, “Who Do You Love”  1956  
§  Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music,” 1957 
§  Little Richard, “LongTall Sally/Tutti Frutti”, 1955 
o   Bill Haley
§  A white country/Western swing singer from Pennsylvania, in 1951 he and his band The Saddlemen did a country cover of the popular “Rocket 88”, then of the blues song “Rock the Joint.” In 1954 they changed their name to Bill Haley and the Comets and introduced their version of “race music” to white teens.
§  Bill Haley and the Saddlemen, “Teardrops from My Eyes”  1950  [Western swing style]  
§  Bill Haley and the Comets, “Rock around the Clock”  1954
§  Promoted by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, who for several years had been playing rhythm and blues “race music” for his white teen audience, and popularized the term “rock and roll” [which had been around for decades, and was African American slang for sex]
§  Both Freed and Bill Haley and the Comets appeared in the 1956 movie “Rock around the Clock” 
o   Sun Records, Memphis … the birth of Rockabilly
§  Elvis Presley and “black” music
·         “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” –Col. Sam Phillips
·         “That’s Alright (Mama)” 1954
o   Compare:
§  Arthur Cruddup, “That’s Alright (Mama),”  1946
§  Big Mama Thornton, “You Ain’t Nothin’ but aHound Dog”  1956
§  Carl Perkins, “Blue Suede Shoes” 1955 
§  Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line” 1956  
§  Roy Orbison, “Ooby Dooby” 1956  
§  Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire”  1957  
o   Meanwhile, in Texas…. Buddy Holly and the Crickets. “That’ll Be the Day” 1957  
o   The birth of the Power Chord

§  “Rumble” by Link Wray (Shoshone Indian from NC)  1958  

We’ll Go Honky Tonkin’
         Country moves toward a sound popular on honky tonk juke boxes, a working class sound centered on "drinkin' and cheatin'"
o   Hank Williams
§  “Honky Tonking” 1948 
§  “Hey Good Looking” 1951 
o   Kitty Wells
The Birth of Bluegrass (c. 1946)
o   Bill Monroe, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”  1946 
o   The Stanley Brothers, “Little Maggie,”  1948 
o   Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, “Rolling in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” 1951 
o   Roscoe Holcomb, “Graveyard Blues”  1957  The "High, Lonesome Sound" 

The Folk Music Renaissance
o   Kingston Trio, “Greenback Dollar” 1959  
o   Joan Baez, “House of the Rising Sun” 1960 
o   Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, “Change the Lock on the Door”  1959  [traditional blues resurgence as “folk music”] 

Western Themes in Popular Music
o   1940s and 1950s:
§  Gene Autry, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”  1949  
§  Roy Rogers, “Don’t Fence Me In”  1944 
§  Marty Robbins, “El Paso”  1959 
§  Tex Ritter, “Do Not Forsake Me”  1952  
§  Frankie Lane, “Rawhide”  1958 
o   Later Eras:
§  Bob Dylan, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”  1973 [from a western starring Kris Kristoffersen and Bob Dylan] 
§  Bad Company, “Bad Company”  1974  [inspired by the western with Jeff Bridges?] 
§  The Eagles, “Doolin Dalton/Desperado”  1973 [from a concept album about the infamous outlaw gang from Oklahoma”]  
§  Jon Bon Jovi, “Blaze of Glory”  1990  [theme song to the western Young Guns II

The Nashville Sound
o   Engineered in part by Chet Atkins, a move toward smooth, jazz-like sounds, turning away from steel guitars and honky tonks. Goal: Capture the older audience, as the kids were all turning to rock and roll.
§  Jim Reeves, “Four Walls”  1957  
§  Faron Young, “Hello Walls”  1961  [written by Willie Nelson] 
§  Patsy Cline, “Crazy” 1961 [written by Willie Nelson]   

I Got No Kick Against Modern Jazz
o   Bebop
§  Thelonious Monk, “‘Round Midnight”  1947  
§  Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, “Hot House”  1952  
o   Afro-Cuban AKA c-bop
§  Mongo Santamaria, “Afro-blue” 1959 
o   Cool Jazz
§  Miles Davis, “Moon Dreams”  1954  
o   Hard Bop
§  John Coltrane, “BlueTrain”  1957  
o   Modal Jazz