What does American music sound like? You know what the music of Germany, Spain, Ireland, Japan, and many of the other countries of the world sounds like. Each country with it’s own distinctive culture has an identifiable musical sound that comes from that culture. But what about the United States?
America was settled by people mainly from Europe. The early music of America was basically European music. There was quite a variety of musical forms to be heard and some people might say that is still true in America today. But, there are common elements in today’s music that did not exist in the early settler’s music.
It was the influence of the African slaves that brought changes to American musical forms. African culture was suppressed through slavery. Their religion, language, and general overall culture was taken away from them. But, since the African culture was one of oral traditions it was impossible to eliminate their entire cultural way of life. Many aspects of their musical heritage were retained.
Before the days of radio, movies, or TV, folks had to entertain themselves. Dances and music in general were the main focus of entertainment in the early settler’s lives. Slaves were quick to learn that by becoming musicians themselves, they could somewhat improve their lives because good musicians were valued in those early days. They learned European music and musical instruments of the time. But, to this European music they brought the influence of their own musical culture as well.
There were aspects of the African musical background that were quite different from the Europeans. It would take a book to fully explain those difference, but they can be simplified into two different aspects. One has to do with a more complex rhythm pattern and the other has to do with the variations in notes of the Western musical scale that the Africans added to the music. They brought these variations to both their playing of instruments and their singing. And, in the end white folks grew to like it.
While these influences can be heard in early American music at the beginning of the 19th century especially in church music, it did not develop into a different musical form until after the Civil War. With freedom the African Americans were able to travel and experience a mixture of musical know-how from other white and black musicians. Slowly a new musical style was born. It was called the blues.
There is a lot of misinformation and confusion about how and when the blues began. Even Blues scholars do not agree. But, basically the music of the 19th century, which was mostly played by African Americans on the banjo which was an adaptation of an African instrument, changed at the end of that century when cheap guitars became available. The importance of the guitar was that unlike the banjo it could sustain notes. The blues player’s goal was to have his instrument mimic the human voice. The guitar, through bending strings and sliding between the notes, could be made to sound like there vocal techniques where notes were sung between the standard Western music notation. This is what the blues was all about.
There is a very important term that must be understood. It is called the “Folk Process” by music historians. It means simply that music changes. Either one musician or a group will, because their own abilities or creativity, change and interpret songs their own way. That is why there were different musical sounds developed in different parts of the country. Different folks will just play and sing a song if different ways. That is where styles come from. The singing and guitar playing styles popularized by the blues musicians were adapted to other music. This “Folk Process” is how blues singing and guitar methods became part of the American musical culture.
If you pay attention to modern music you will see that these guitar techniques and vocal phrasings are used is most styles of American music. That can be explained by the fact that most American music of the 20th century evolved from black blues and is mostly just a case of white boys playing the blues. That statement really bugs some folks, but the fact is that no mater what style of music you can name, country, jazz, pop, bluegrass, rock, or whatever, those musical elements that were introduced by slaves and refined by blues players are present. It is what gives the various styles of American music a similar coherent feel. It is all different but somehow the same. It is all rooted in the blues, the granddaddy of American music.