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Music of the United States

The music of the United States began as a synthesis of various European cultures, mixed with African and Native American influences. Its music is similarly varied.

In the 19th century through the 20th century it was the influence of the music of African-Americans which most set United States apart from that of Western Europe. While African-Americans were looked down on by the majority of European-Americans and their musical influences were looked down as low class if not semi-barbaric by many Americans trained in the European Classical music tradition as late as the 1930s, the music was wildly popular with the general public. The African banjo became common in many styles of US music in the 19th century. Stephen Foster, by far the most popular American composer of that century, incoporated many African American rhythmic notions into his songs. The Minstrel show was very popular, and was the first example of American music widely exported abroad.

Interestingly, some West-African melodies, such as "Lucy Long" and "Old Dan Tucker", were retained by white country musicians decades after they fell out of the repertory of the decendants of the Africans who brought the tunes over.

Prior to the late 19th century, U.S. music was dominated by occasional songs of great popularity. Exampes include "The Star Spangled Banner", "Dixie" "Jump Jim Crow", "Oh Susana", "Oh My Darling, Clementine", "The Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Battle Hymn of the Republic[?]", "Just Before the Battle, Mother", and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again".

In the later decades of the 19th century, the music industry became dominated by a group of publishers and song-writers in New York City that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley's representatives spread throughout the country, buying local hits for their publishers and pushing their publisher's latest songs. Song demonstrators were fixtures at department stores and music stores in all cities and large towns, and traveling song demonstrators made circuits of rural areas. The industry was driven by the profits from the sales of sheet music. A piano was considered a must in any middle-class or higher home, or any home that aspired to be middle-class. Major 19th century Tin Pan Alley hits included "Only A Bird In A Guilded Cage" and "After The Ball Is Over".

In the 1890s, more sophisticated African American styles of the cakewalk and then ragtime music started to become popular. Originally associated primarily with poor African Americans, ragtime was quickly denounced as degenerate by conservatives and the classically trained establishment. In spite of the denigration, however, the style continued to gain widespread popularity and became was mainstream and was adopted by Tin Pan Alley at the start of the 20th century.

Military type marches enjoyed great popularity, and most towns had brass bands that performed them. The most popular of the march composers was John Philip Sousa.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Tin Pan Alley popular song dominated the nation's music. Songwriters like Harry Von Tilzer, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin produced many catchy melodies early in the new century. Trailing behind were four other significant genres. African American jazz and blues performers diversified their sound and managed to achieve some success among white Americans. Folk and country music dominated the sound of rural white performers, and both managed to achieve some mainstream success. All five of these types of music influenced each other.

With the 20th century, the rise of the popular home phonograph began to give competion to the long dominant Tin Pan Alley sheet music publishers, and slowly became a significant force in United States music by the 1910s. In the 1920s radio broadcasts of music came on the scene, and together with the recording industry surplanted the sheet music publishers as U.S. music's driving force in the 1930s. In a parallel development, individual performers became more associated with hit songs in the public's mind than the songwriters.

In addition to jazz, blues, folk and country, music from the Caribbean region also briefly became popular during the first half of the twentieth century. Calypso and merengue and other styles influenced American popular music. Hawaiian music (esp. slack-key guitar[?]) enjoyed an early vouge in the 1910s, influencing the developing genre of country music (this is the source of the steel guitar sound that is characteristic of modern country).

The blues began in rural communities, primarily in the south. During the 1920s, female blues singers like Mamie Smith ("Crazy Blues") dominated the genre's sound. For most white Americans, these female singers were their first exposure to black music, or "race music" as it was then known. In the 1930s, local blues styles developed in Memphis, Texas[?], Kansas City[?] and, most importantly, Chicago. A style of piano-playing based on the blues, boogie woogie was briefly popular among mainstream audiences and blues listeners.

Billie Holiday
Jazz was more urban than the blues. Relying more on instrumentation, the sound was well-suited for listeners unfamiliar with the genre's conventions. In the 1920s, jazz bars became popular among white Americans, particularly young ones. Like with ragtime before, and most major genres since, jazz was blamed for the moral degeneracy of the youth that visited these bars and listened to the music. In spite of the controversy, jazz emerged as the dominant sound of the country in the late 1920s in popularized forms that some called watered down, like swing music and big band. Though these, like jazz proper, had been blamed for crime and delinquency, they had become mainstream by the 1930s. In the 1940s, pure jazz began to become more popular, along with the blues, with artists like Ella Fitzgerald ("A-Tisket, A-Tasket") and Billie Holiday ("Strange Fruit[?]") becoming nationally successful.

Folk music (in the United States, this refers almost always to Appalachian folk[?]) is based strongly off Celtic traditional music[?], and had been around for some time before folklorists like Cecil Sharpe[?] began recording it in the 1910s. Country music evolved along somewhat the same lines as folk, but achieved much more mainstream success. Jug bands and other influences (included Hawaiian steel guitar, folk and the blues) coalesced in the 1930s development of honky tonk.

In the 1940s, the major strands of American music combined to form rock and roll. Based most strongly off an electric guitar-based version of the Chicago blues, rock also incorporated jazz, country, folk, swing and other types of music; in particular, bebop jazz and boogie woogie blues were in vogue and greatly influenced the music's style. It had developed by 1949, and quickly became popular among blacks nationwide (see 1949 in music). Mainstream success was slow to develop, though (in spite of early success with Bill Haley & the Comets[?]' "Rock Around the Clock"), and didn't begin in earnest until Elvis Presley ("Hound Dog", a white man, began singing rock, R&B and rockabilly songs in a devoted black style. He quickly became the most famous and best-selling artist in American history, and a watershed point in the development of music.

The 1950s also saw the popular dominance of the Nashville sound in country music, and the beginning of popular folk music with groups like The Weavers[?]. Country's Nashville sound was slick and soulful, and a movement of rough honky tonk developed in a reaction against the mainstream orientation of Nashville. This movement was centered in Bakersfield, California with musicians like Buck Owens[?] ("Act Naturally"), Merle Haggard ("Sing a Sad Song") and Wynn Stewart[?] ("It's Such a Pretty World Today") helping to define the sound among the community, made up primarily of Oklahoman immigrants to California, who had fled unemployment and drought. In addition, gospel and doo wop achieved widespread popularity in the 1950s. Doo wop blended Italian folk traditions with jazz's vocal stylings, forming barbershop singing and a series of hits by groups like The Crows[?] ("Gee"), The Ventures[?] ("Walk-Don't Run"), The Orioles ("It's Too Soon to Know") and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love"). Gospel arose as a form of blues- and jazz-inflected Christian music[?] performed primarily in churches until its commercial emergence in the 1950s with performers like The Staple Singers ("I'll Take You There") and Gladys Knight & the Pips ("Neither One of Us"). In the late 1950s, gospel singers like Sam Cooke ("Chain Gang"), and doo wop singers like Ben E. King[?] ("Stand By Me"), invented a sound that came to be called soul music. Soul was, at its root, very similar to gospel but with a secular orientation and R&B influences.

In the early to mid-1960s, soul music and R&B dominated American audiences. Girl groups (The Angels[?] ("My Boyfriend's Back"), The Shirelles ("Dedicated to the One I Love")) and blue eyed soul[?] (The Righteous Brothers ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"), Mitch Ryder[?] ("Devil With a Blue Dress On")) helped to popularize the music as mainstream, as well as polishing it and removing the grit of gospel. With the popularity of Elvis and other white singers (like Gene Vincent ("Be-Bop-A-Lula"), Roy Acuff[?] ("The Wreck on the Highway"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire") and Chet Atkins ("Mr. Sandman")), as well as black vocalists like Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti[?]"), Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode[?]"), Fats Domino ("The Fat Man") and Chubby Checker ("The Twist"), a new generation of teens began playing in their own rock bands. This sound developed primarily in two places: southern California, where musicians like Dick Dale (Let's Go Surfing[?]) invented surf rock, and Britain, where mod and merseybeat bands (such as The Who (The Who Sings My Generation) and The Rolling Stones) (The Rolling Stones (England's Newest Hitmakers)[?]) began playing their own version of rock that drew more heavily upon American blues pioneers like Howlin' Wolf ("Evil"), Muddy Waters ("I Be's Troubled") and Jimmy Yancey ("The Fives").

The early 1960s saw four centers of American musical innovation

In addition, Britain's new generation of blues rock gained popularity in parts of their homeland, especially cities like Liverpool, and cult fame in the States. The popularity of folk singers like Peter, Paul & Mary ("Puff the Magic Dragon") and Bob Dylan (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan[?]) influenced all of these groups as they became more closely aligned with the counterculture and drugs. The national sound was moving towards an electric, psychedelic version of rock. In 1962 (see 1962 in music), The Beatles (Please Please Me) emerged from England and popularized British rock, while The Beach Boys' success brought harmony-laden surf music to the forefront of the American scene. With country and soul musicians unable to maintain their hipness, both faded from mass consciousness. The mid-1960s saw the collapse of The Beach Boys as a result of singer and songwriter Brian Wilson's mental problems after releasing one of the most influential rock albums in history, Pet Sounds. The Beatles went on to lead the psychedelic revolution of the end of the decade, with few Americans able to challenge them, exceptions including The Mamas & the Papas ("California Dreaming") and Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced?[?]). The most hard-edged psychedelic bands, like Americans Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow) and The Grateful Dead (American Beauty), achieved limited success; the Grateful Dead, the first jam band, could also be considered the first cult act.

In the late 1960s, popular music underwent a sea change. Psychedelia-inflected rock dominated black and white audiences. During this period, most of American musical styles for the next forty years began in one form or another, including heavy metal, punk rock, electronic music and hip hop. Perhaps most importantly were two developments. First was the popularization of the LP as a distinct artistic statement. Prior to the early 1960s (and later in most cases), an LP was nothing more than a collection of singles bound together with filler. As the psychedelic revolution progressed, however, lyrics grew more complex and LPs developed to enable the artists to make a more in depth statement than a single song could allow. In addition, rules as to what could be allowed in popular music were lessened -- singles lasted longer than three minutes (Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone[?]" was the first of these); singing could be gruff, guttural and not classically beautiful and lyrics could focus on more than simple tales of youth, love songs and ballads to include politically and socially aware lyrics. The idea that popular music could and should change the way one feels and lead social change largely developed during this period, though it was certainly not unheard of before.

Black music in the late 1960s diversified. Artists that had previously been best-sellers found themselves unpopular with the new sound. Many, such as The Temptations and The Supremes, never fully recovered, unable to adjust to the changes in music. Soul music, led at the time by singers like James Brown ("Sex Machine"), developed into psychedelia-influenced funk. Bands like Parliament (The Mothership Connection[?]), War (All Day Music[?]) and Funkadelic (One Nation Under a Groove) merged soul with psychedelic rock to cult acclaim but little popular success. Meanwhile, Sly Stone (Stand![?]) and other similar artists achieved popular success with their mixture of soul and psychedelia. The move towards socially aware lyrics in black music could be said to have begun with the success of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. They both described the gritty realities of ghetto life with funky, danceable beats and led to the dominant sounds of soul in the 1970s, such as Philadelphia soul[?].

A few bands popular among only a small crowd of devoted followers emerged in the late 1960s. The Nice (The Nice[?]) and The Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed[?]) (both British) began releasing a series of complex, classical tinged concept albums that began a sound known as progressive rock. Other British bands like Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin I) and Black Sabbath (Paranoid) emerged with a form of hard-edged electric blues that came to be known as heavy metal music. The Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat[?]), Blue Cheer (Vincebus Eruptum) and The Stooges (Raw Power) also emerged with fatalistic, artsy lyrics and a fast-driving energetic sound; this was the beginning of punk rock.

In the early 1970s, singer-songwriters like James Taylor ("Fire and Rain") and Carol King[?] (Tapestry[?]) topped the charts while prog rock, heavy metal and punk began to differentiate themselves from mainstream music. Heavy metal bands like Blue Oyster Cult (Agents of Fortune) began to attract some mainstream attention, while punk influenced the developing glam rock scene. Taking its cue from the energetic, dirty psychedelia of The Doors, glam musicians like David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars) rose to prominence in the early 1970s. Jamaican immigrants, most notably including DJ Kool Herc, moved to New York City and brought with them the practice of speaking over isolated percussion breaks from popular songs during long dance parties called block parties[?]; this was the beginning of hip hop.

The mid-1970s saw the development of power pop, the marriage of glam and heavy metal to form hair metal and the emergence of disco. By the late 1970s, disco, an electronically-based dance music, dominated the sound of the US, aided by the breakthrough success of Saturday Night Fever. Originally associated with urban blacks and gay white males, disco spent a few years at the top of the charts just as country rock and prog rock achieved their greatest mainstream success. Country rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd (Second Helping[?]) and pop-prog bands like Chicago (Chicago II[?]) and Styx (Kilroy Was Here) dominated the portion of the market not listening to disco with long, bizarre progressive pieces and electric blues based southern rock. Country rock had developed primarily from British blues, and added an element of popular country. At the time, outlaw country[?] artists like Willie Nelson (The Red Headed Stranger[?]) and David Allan Coe ("You Never Even Called Me By Name") dominated the country music charts with tales of cowboys and rebels.

The late 1970s also saw the coalescence of what eventually became known as punk music. Arty singers like Patti Smith (Horses) and grungy bands like The Ramones (The Ramones) emerged from New York, based out of the popular club CBGB's[?]. Just as The Clash (The Clash[?]) and the Sex Pistols (Nevermind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols) defined and popularized the sound of punk in the UK, a similar scene was developing throughout the US. In the early 1980s, disco died a quick death. The popular reaction against disco was swift and final, and the music had ended its reign of commercial influence by 1982 (see 1982 in music). New Wave filled in as the dominant American sound. It had developed out of arty punk bands like the Talking Heads (More Songs About Buildings and Food), and was popularized by Depeche Mode (Speak and Spell[?]), Duran Duran (Rio) and others.

New Wave's mainstream popularity was brief. By 1984 (1984 in music), hair metal, long a dormant part of the Los Angeles music scene, started its reign on the charts. Led by hypermasculine bands like Quiet Riot (Metal Health), Van Halen (Van Halen) and Mötley Crüe (Shout at the Devil), glam metal reached its popular peak in the late 1980s with Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction and Def Leppard's Pyromania.

Black music in the 1980s focused on two developments. A smooth, ballad-oriented pop-soul evolved and dominated the pop charts, especially in the early part of the decade. Lionel Richie (Can't Slow Down[?]), Michael Jackson (Thriller), Whitney Houston (Whitney Houston[?]) and Prince (Purple Rain) exemplified this field. The other major development in black music was the rise of hip hop as a commercial force. Hip hop began its course to mainstream popularity with occasional fringe success in the 80s -- Kurtis Blow (Kurtis Blow[?]) and LL Cool J (Radio) introduced the sound to white listeners, while Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force[?] ("Planet Rock") and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five ("The Message[?]") cemented the sound of rap. Distinct regional variations including Miami bass, LA electro hop, DC go go and Chicago hip house became popular locally and influenced later artists. Of these, bass artists like 2 Live Crew (2 Live Crew Is What We Are[?]) became most famous for sexually explicit lyrics and controversy, while hip house has proven enormously influential on the then developing house music scene and would go on to influence much of electronica and techno.

In the 1980s, punk music began incorporating reggae, ska and other international influences, while heavy metal diversified in the wake of the success of hair metal. Thrash, death and power metal emerged. Pop bands like U2 (The Joshua Tree) and R.E.M. (Murmur[?]) also led an interest in the alternative rock scene. All around the country, pop- and hard rock-oriented bands evolving in a state of popular dismissal but critical acclaim had developed a unique sound. Bands like the Pixies (Doolittle) and Hüsker Dü (New Day Rising[?]) made only minor waves on the charts, but fomented a serious revolution in music. A new generation of listeners hated the bombastic, corporate sterility of formulaic hair metal bands, and reacted against them.

The result was the grunge explosion in the early 1990s. By 1992 (1992 in music), hair metal bands were massively unpopular as grunge groups like Nirvana (Nevermind), Pearl Jam (Ten) and Alice in Chains (Dirt) dominated the charts. Their success lasted only a few years, however, as bands found it difficult to maintain their "alternative" sound after going mainstream. In addition, former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre (The Chronic) brought gangsta rap to pop audiences. By the mid-90s, alternative rock groups had died out among mainstream listeners, and gangsta rap took over. The middle of the decade also saw a boom in techno music's popularity. Developed primarily in Britain (though Detroit and Chicago were also influential), techno's many permutations achieved some mainstream success throughout the last half of the decade. Bubblegum pop like the Spice Girls also returned after a decade of more-or-less dormancy during the period of hair metal and grunge, both highly opposed to clean, slick and shiny content.

Gangsta rap in the 1980s had focused on the two coasts originally, with West Coast pioneers like Ice-T ("6 N Da Mornin'") and Too $hort[?] (Born to Mack[?]) and East Coast artists like Schoolly D (Saturday Night - The Album[?]) achieving fame among blacks and mainstream success being limited to hardcore groups like N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton), politically controversial groups like Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and fledgling alternative hip hop groups like De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising). East Coast rappers like Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick) had defined that coast's sound in the late 80s, and it had been far and away the center for hip hop until Dr. Dre's The Chronic put the West Coast on the hip hop map. Boasting a radio-friendly G funk sound, based primarily off funk samples, West Coast rap soon became the dominant sound among pop audiences with rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle) and Tupac Shakur (Me Against the World) achieving mainstream success. East Coast rappers like Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die) and Nas (Illmatic) tended to be more well-received critically, but were consistently unable to match the West Coast in pop sales. The rivalry between the two coasts came to a head by 1996 (1996 in music), when the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur rocked the world of hip hop. With West Coast head Suge Knight imprisoned (unrelated to the murders) and East Coast quickly becoming dominated by Puff Daddy's releases aimed at purely pop audiences, rap music splintered. A new generation of southern rappers like OutKast (ATLiens[?]) and Goodie Mob (Soul Food[?]) emerged from Atlanta, as well as vibrant scenes in St. Louis and New Orleans. The Fugees (The Score[?]) also fused hip hop sounds with dub, dancehall and reggae, popular Jamaican forms, to great mainstream success. East Coast rap's reputation among critics during its popular domination by watered-down pop acts like Puff Daddy (No Way Out[?]) and Mase (Harlem World[?]) was saved by the Wu Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)), DMX (And Then There Was X[?]), Busta Rhymes (The Coming[?]) and other rappers that used a distinctively East Coast sound without catering to mainstream markets. On the West Coast, a period of relatively poor sales for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and the imprisonment of Suge Knight, led to the subsequent collapse of Death Row Records[?] led to a drought in mainstream popularity. In the late part of the decade, Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP) emerged as one of the country's biggest stars. The Detroit born rapper achieved success early in his career with radio-friendly hooks and funky beats; he quickly became the first white rapper to cross over to mainstream audiences without losing his critical viability.

The 1990s saw several other trends as well. Power pop bands like Weezer (The Blue Album), jam bands like Phish (A Picture of Nectar[?]) and punk-pop and ska groups like Green Day (Dookie) and Sublime (Sublime[?]) rose to some prominence, with late punk and ska bands achieving the most mainstream success. No Doubt (Tragic Kindom[?]), Rancid (...And Out Come the Wolves) and similar bands released blockbuster albums in the middle of the decade. Soul music, languishing since the popular demise of Michael Jackson and Prince some ten years earlier, re-emerged with a return to the sounds early 70s soul; Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), Erykah Badu (Baduizm) and D'Angelo (Voodoo) spearheaded this movement. In hard rock, multiple trends developed. Thrash metal, invented in the late 80s by bands like Metallica (Kill 'Em All), achieved some mainstream success before mutating into nu metal (such as System of a Down (Toxicity) and Tool (Aenima)) in the middle of the decade. Rapcore bands (that mix hip hop and metal) also emerged; Limp Bizkit (Significant Other[?]) and Korn (Peachy[?]) were the most popular, drawing heavily upon early pioneers in the field like Pantera (A Vulgar Display of Power), Faith No More (Angel Dust[?]) and Anthrax (Among the Living). The 1990s also saw a boom in funk metal bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers (Californication) and female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos (Boys for Pele), relying on late 80s pioneers like Tracy Chapman (Trach Chapman[?]) and P.J. Harvey (Rid of Me). The other major musical style of the 1990s was pop-country groups, beginning with honky tonk crooners like Clint Black (Killin' Time), Alan Jackson (A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'Bout Love)[?]) and Garth Brooks (Ropin' the Wind[?]), the sound exploded into mainstream audiences with the crossover success of Shania Twain (Come on Over[?]), the Dixie Chicks (Fly[?]), Faith Hill (Breathe) and other female singers in the middle of the decade.

Since the turn of the millennium, two major developments in American popular music have occurred. The dominance of bubblegum pop like 'N Sync (No Strings Attached) and Backstreet Boys (Backstreets Back[?]) continued from the 90s, and also grew to include Latin stars like Shakira (Laundy Service[?]), Ricky Martin (Sound Loaded[?]) and Christina Aguilera (Christina Aguilera[?]). In addition to these slick sounds, a growing number of domestic and foreign garage rock bands have achieved notable success, including The Strokes (Is This It?), The Hives (Veni Vidi Vicious[?]) and the Stone Roses (Stone Roses[?]).

Related topics

State-specific music:

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