The earliest American music

The earliest American music was exclusively European in nature and origin. The earliest type of purely American popular song was called into existence by political excitement. In every particular the Liberty Song was our first possession of this kind, although adapted to a foreign air. In the early and mid 1800’s work songs and song of the sea were very popular. Their intention was to help workers do the job better by pacing the work and diverting the mind from either oppressive or tedious work in otherwise bad conditions. Well known and colorful are the sea shantieslike the “halyard” shanty from 1815, s Blow, Boys, Blow, which flourished from around 1810 to the end of the 19th century [1]. Another popular genre was music that was  sacred or liturgical in nature (for example Ave Maria Herbert Johnson (1857-1904).

American music style really began to come into its own by the late 1890’s and from that point on, flourished as a musical movement. American popular music developed with a variety of influences (European, Native American, African) and as such, evolved into a new style and genre.  Operatic music popularized by well known singers sung at popular concerts for the masses and were published in various versions for instruments commonly found in the home was perhaps one of the strongest foundations for popular music’s rise [2]. Performances of opera excerpts became a staple of local bands and dance ensembles. In some cases, operatic works were rewritten as waltzes or quadrilles for dances at music halls which provided a place of undemanding community entertainment that mixed drinking with singing.  Music halls spawned a new type entertainer, comics, who had no serious musical aspirations and relied on crude appeal and simple, sometimes vulgar or common phrases that the public could easily pick up on. Often the audience would join in the singing. In all of the popular songs there was a general similarity of construction and treatment; the melodies, harmonies and rhythms are simple, though not to the same extent as those of an earlier time. The most popular songs of the closing years of the Nineteenth Century were songs of home, honor and pure love. Among them may be cited Sweet Marie, Sweetest Story Every Told, Sunshine of Paradise Alley, On the Banks of the Wabash, She was bred in Old Kentucky. As piano playing became more general several writers came forward with compositions gauged to appeal to the average musical intelligence. Well-known melodies such as Old Oaken Bucket, Nearer My God to Thee, Old Black Joe, Suwanee River, Sweet Bye and Bye and others of like character were arranged with variations. Foremost among the successful American writers of popular instrumental music was John Philip Sousa, the “March King.” which contained all the nuances of military psychology, the long unisonal stride, the grip on the musket, the pride in the regiment and the esprit de corps. They also have served as dance music, and the two-step was directly borne into vogue by them.

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American music became an industry [3] thanks to Tin Pan Alley, 28th street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, which was the popular music publishing center of the world from around 1885 to the 1920’s. Tin Pan Alley produced a succession of songs for vaudeville which had replaced the minstrel show as the most popular form of stage entertainment. Broadway became the cradle of the American musical and stage without which there would have been no “Tin Pan Alley” for the huge congregation of theaters and performers became a magnet for the finest composers and lyricists that America had to offer. The market potential for songs was enormous, even by today’s standards. Charles K. Harris’s After The Ball (1892) sold over five million copies! Songs like: In the Good Old Summertime (1902), Give My Regards To Broadway (1904), Shine on Harvest Moon (1908, featured this month), Down by the Old Mill Stream (1910) and Let Me Call You Sweetheart (1910) are still sung today and their melodies could probably be sung by just about anyone you might ask. These shows also popul;arized “ragtime” which utilized Syncopation is a rhythmic pattern in music where the beat or emphasis is displaced to a “weak” beat. The lyrics of music from this period suggest that the USA was a peaceful, happy and prosperous place. The many songs about the past describe warm memories of happy and innocent times in rural or small town settings. T

The persistent image of the “Gay Nineties” as one of the happiest and least troubled times in American history has been derived largely from these songs. Compare those images to today’s music which is mostly in an urban setting with very disturbing and violent images [4]. Punk was a kind of rebellious rock music that began in the 1970s, as a reaction against the popular music of the day, especially disco, which was seen as insipid and uninspired; punk drew on American bands including the Velvet Underground, The Stooges and the New York Dolls.. Punk was loud, aggressive and usually very simple, requiring little musical training to play. Alternative rock was a diverse grouping of rock bands that in America developed largely from the hardcore scene in the 1980s in stark opposition to the mainstream music scene. Alternative rock subgenres that developed during the decade include indie rock, gothic rock, grunge, and college rock. Most alternative bands were unified by their collective debt to punk, which laid the groundwork for underground and alternative music in the 1970s. Though alternative rock had little mainstream success in America in the 1980s, it laid the groundwork for the genre of the next decade, heavy metal. Heavy metal is a form of music characterized by aggressive, driving rhythms and highly amplified distorted guitars, generally with grandiose lyrics and virtuosic instrumentation with blues, blues rock, rock and prog rock aspects. Most of the pioneers in the field, like Black Sabbath, were English, and the first major American bands began appearing in the 1970’s, like Blue Öyster Cult and Aerosmith.  In the 1990s grunge, an alternative rock subgenre with a “dark, brooding guitar-based sludge” sound, drawing on heavy metal, punk, and other elements became popular. The supposed Generation X, who had just reached adulthood as grunge’s popularity peaked, were closely associated with grunge, the sound which helped “define the desperation of (that) generation”. Gangsta rap is a kind of hip hop, characterized by a lyrical focus on macho sexuality, physicality and a dangerous, criminal image also became popular. By the end of the decade and into the early 2000s pop music consisted mostly of a combination of pop-hip hop and R&B-tinged pop, including a number of boy bands and female divas.

The social impacts of American popular music [5] have been felt both within the United States and in foreign countries. Beginning as early as the extravaganzas of the late 19th century, American popular music has been criticized for being too sexually titillating and for encouraging violence, drug abuse and generally immoral behavior. Criticisms have been especially targeted at African American styles of music as they began attracting white, generally youthful audiences; blues, jazz, rock and hip hop all fall into this category