Ever since its very beginnings, the United States has always been a place for foreign ethnicities and cultures. The very people who founded the country were not natively born in America, and had to at one point travelled across a vast expanse of ocean in order to reach America. By the 19th century, people from all around the world, including Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, and Asia, were major contributors to the American population. With the large influx of foreign cultures and traditions, it was only natural for them to bring the music of their ancestors with them. Over time, these foreign styles of music blended with the traditional styles of American music. At first, the differences between foreign music and American popular music started to blur, and sooner or later there were no recognizable differences at all. This process largely began in the second half of the 19th century, and took powerful strides in the first half of the 20th century. In this era of American history, American popular music changed from an outlet of the traditional white American culture to a constant ongoing integration of cultures from around the world. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, American popular music evolved from a tradition restricted to Anglo-Americans to an art that included cultures from around the world.
What was often seen at the very core of American music during the 18th and 19th century was American folk music. In any other sense, folk music is music stemming from the roots of one’s native country. It is the music passed down through generations and is shared amongst countrymen or people of the same ethnic group. Folk music from one country is usually unique in one way or another from folk music from another country (although folk music from neighboring countries may share some similarities). However, American folk music breaks from the norm of folk music in that it does not separate itself from folk music of other countries; instead, American folk music draws from various types of traditional folk music already in existence. Since early settlers of America were European, American folk music was heavily influenced by folk music in the British Isles, specifically England , Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. However, as slaves were imported from Africa and became a major part of the “folk” in America, African music also started influencing folk music in America. The popular musical instrument commonly used in folk music, the banjo, was originally an African instrument called the banjar, which was a hollowed out gourd with a neck attached to it in order to support four or five strings. In the late 1800’s, Jubilee songs, which mixed traditional Christian (European) and African styles of music, were popular amongst Christian African Americans. Meanwhile, various other ethnic groups, like French, Mexican, and German, were also making their mark on American folk music. While typical folk music is usually considered an ancient practice isolated to one ethnic group, American folk music has blended with a range of cultures which has existed in the United States.
One of the most popular and influential styles of music in American music was (and still is) the Blues. The Blues first arrived in America with the importation of slaves in the 17th century. Since very few of the slaves were professional musicians, the Blues was very crude and simple. As they toiled in the fields, slaves would sing out in a call and response fashion about the hardships of slavery. After the emancipation of slaves after the Civil War, it was soon discovered that the Blues would soon spread across the nation. The Blues was so adaptable to different styles of music that it acted more as a musical structure that other musical styles could easily reference rather than an independent branch of music. As the Blues spread in the South, the Blues started to vary from region to region, picking up different influences from different cultures and utilizing different instruments, playing techniques, and stories to play about. The Blues became officially recognized as a part of American popular music in the late 19th century as Vaudeville entertainers (traveling stage performers) brought the Blues out of the rural South and into urban settings. The influence of the Blues in New Orleans brought about the invention of Ragtime, which was one of Jazz’s earliest forms. Ragtime was a blend of the Blues and spirituals with European brass and marching bands. The aspect that Ragtime especially took from the Blues was its syncopated or “ragged” rhythms and its tendency towards improvisation. Not only did Ragtime blend different elements of African music and European music, but it also introduced an art form which both white and black people could appreciate. By the time of the roaring twenties, the jazz scene had migrated North to Chicago where it found new black and white audiences. Eventually, the influence of the Blues, or more specifically R&B (subgenre of the blues), on white musicians in the 1940’s and 1950’s led to the invention of Rock N’ Roll, which dominated American popular music for the rest of the century.
Along with music, theatre was also an important artistic medium which people were entertained by during the 19th century. Specifically, operas from Europe caught the attention of American audiences, and with foreign operas came foreign opera music. The spike in interest in foreign operas during the 19th century was largely due to the influx of immigrants from opera-loving countries such as France, Germany, and Italy. In the beginning of the 19th century, the traditional English ballad operas were being replaced by foreign operas. New Orleans especially saw a great amount of French operas during the early 1800’s. Italian operas, such as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Bel Canto’s La sonnambula, gripped audiences of eastern cities. In the later half of the century, several traveling companies brought foreign operas across the United States, which secured foreign opera and its music as part of American popular culture.
Not all cultures had to cross the Atlantic in order to influence American popular music. Latin America, the southern neighbor of the United States, brought even more variety to American popular music during the late 19th century. The earliest form of Latin music that caught the attention of the United States was the Cuban Habanera in the 1880s. The profound quality of Habanera music that fascinated American listeners was, like the Blues, its unique rhythm. The fundamental rhythm of habanera music (utilized in the bass line) consisted of two “swung” eight notes, in which the first eight note is sustained while the second eight note is shortened, followed by two straight eight notes, or eight notes played evenly. Habanera affected a variety of music styles in America, including jazz and opera music. This influence can be seen in Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25, which was composed for Georges Bizet’s famous 1875 opera, Carmen. In this recording of Carmen Fantasy, Op. 25 by Gerhard Taschner, the fundamental rhythm of habanera appears in several areas in the piece, especially at the beginning of part two at 2:55, where the piano plays the bass part that is identical to the fundamental rhythm of Habanera. While classical composers incorporated Habanera into their music, Jazz musicians performing Ragtime in New Orleans sought after Habanera as a means of livening up their music. As the unique rhythms of Latin American music developed, more styles of Latin American music were invented and circulated throughout the US. In 1914, dance stars Irene and Vernon Castle popularized the famous, fast paced Argentinean dance, the Tango, which used the rhythms of Habanera music. In the 1920’s, the Rumba, a Cuban dance which utilized African rhythms, spread across the US. As the century passed, even more Latin styles of music and dance were popularized in the United States, like the Mambo, the Cha-cha-chá, Samba, and Bossa Nova.
Today, it is nearly impossible to name a style or genre of American popular music that solely comes from one culture. As music from foreign and exotic countries came to the United States, Americans adopted their styles and added their own European influences to produce genres of music never before seen in any other part of the world. This could not have been achieved, however, if it wasn’t for America’s standpoint as a cultural center of the world. The intertwining and mixing of cultures from around the world was what made American popular music stand out from all the rest. As American popular music continues to grow and mingle with different backgrounds and ethnicities, it is important to know how it all started back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.