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.

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