AMERICANA or How Democracy Fathered Rock n Roll

The title is simplistic as most of my musing are and this one is also meant as an attention grabber, oh well, onward we go.

Previously I wrote about the CULTURAL MELTING POT and using Elvis as our guide as through our musical (historical) endeavor. ELVIS PRESLEY as a developing artist sampled from the diverse musical palette of gospel, hillbilly, and virtually everything available to his young ears. Now let’s look at what was available to young Elvis and how it came to be so.

The UNITED STATES of AMERICA experienced a great cultural upheaval especially during its formative years. This young developing nation was participating in what is known as the GREAT EXPERIMENT (democracy) and within a few short years was at the same time expanding its borders from “sea to shining sea” (MANIFEST DESTINY). And to that we find a new (AMERICAN)  culture (music, arts, etc) developing. Specifically in music we find a new sound which when broken down one can hear pieces from all the great musical ERAS that preceded it.

The first predominant style of AMERICAN “popular” music is RAGTIME, 1899-1917. Tossing a mix of European music while adding to it the stylings of The Mississippi honky-tonk pianists, throw in parts of the minstrel shows, plus the banjo styles of the times, blend it altogether with the syncopated dance rhythms of the CAKEWALK,….and we get RAGTIME, an accented left hand versus right hand melody. …SCOTT JOPLIN is considered the “KING OF RAGTIME”. (Give him a listen when you can)

Same era as RAGTIME (1903) but in another region of the USA is  one W.C. Handy working on what will be identified as THE BLUES, another form of original American musical expression. The basis of the blues is a musical form using the vocal melodies of AFRICAN-AMERICAN folklore with call and response phrasing. Handy’s works helped develop the harmonic framework for musical IMPROVISATION. The “blues” is noted for its use of a flattened seventh note AKA “the blue note”.

And in 1904 Buddy Bolden fused Ragtime and Blues which becomes the basis for early JAZZ ( which leads us to 1910,

New Orleans Jazz according to ( “The early development of jazz in New Orleans was connected to the community life of the city, as seen in brass band funerals, music for picnics in parks or ball games, Saturday night fish fries, and Sunday camping along the shores of Lake Ponchartrain at Milneburg and Bucktown. There were also red beans and rice banquettes on Monday’s, and nightly dances at neighborhood halls all over town. The New Orleans sound was “good time” music, delivered in a rollicking, sometimes rough manner, which suited everyday people seeking music “with a feeling.” This spirit or emotional content connected the performer to the audience. It offered a musical communication in which all parties could participate (as with the “second line” dancers who turned out for brass band processions).”

The other “spices” of the roots of AMERICAN MUSIC included the mixing of (circa1920) COUNTRY music (, and American Folk music. Also called “roots music” American Folk music developed from the traditional songs of previous generations coming from many different countries …with bluegrass, gospel, jug band, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American stylings thrown in.

Continuing on with our timeline into the history of music one must focus on pre Big Band era of music, that is, music recorded prior to the “BIG EVENT” of  AUGUST of 1935, that being the appearance of BENNY GOODMAN at THE POLAMAR in Los Angeles, the specific date and show which music scholars consider the BIRTH OF THE SWING ERA.

Jazz music was recorded before 1935, in fact the ORIGINAL DIXIELAND JASS BAND record of 1917 sold over a million copies, a feat which enabled jazz music to be heard and experienced nationwide. (radios and joke boxes). Steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River helped to spread the jazz rhythms as many jazz musicians and bands were hired to entertain passengers. Hotels along the Mighty River also hired these “dance bands”.

The dance bands of the day were more intricate than their smaller combo predecessors.While small group jazz had previously allowed a group of musicians the freedom to basically just “blow,” structure became necessary with these larger gatherings of musicians, hence the need for an “arranger”. Improvisational solos were allowed but only when the score dictated to take the solo. This “arranged” solo and easy flowing style of jazz would become known as SWING and with it came a new, exciting style of dance.

SWING took the country by storm in the mid 1930’s and with it came new dances, one in particular was a dance popularized in the SAVOY BALLROOM in Harlem, the LINDY HOP, named in honor of CHARLES LINDBERG’S (May 1927)Atlantic “hop”.

In 1933 Homer Capehart sold the Simplex record changer mechanism to the Wurlitzer Company and The jukebox was born, the biggest tool of its time in promoting big band music. By the late 1930s one could find “jukeboxes” located in speakeasies, ice cream parlors, and even drugstores. The jukebox was at least part of the reason record sales began to show a tremendous increase toward the end of the decade.

And then, the 1940’s we have the beginnings of RnB (Rhythm and Blues) which to me is also the “BIRTHPLACE OF RnR”.

More to come….next  Chapter 4:THE HEART OF AMERICAN MUSIC. Comments? (