American music is, at its heart, the story of the immigrant experience. Even the Native Americans, the continent's oldest inhabitants, originally came from overseas. These immigrants brought their culture, and music, with them. A few managed to preserve their music traditions intact, but many more adapted their songs, their dances and their instruments to better fit their lives in the New World helping give birth to America's vibrant, mongrel pop music.
African slaves had no choice about America. Plantation owners, scared that slaves would foment rebellion with their drums, often outlawed traditional African drumming, so that slaves turned to European instruments such as the fiddle and guitar not to mention the banjo, a uniquely American instrument thought to be adapted from the West African banza. There were also concerted efforts to convert this new population to Christianity. Religion largely took hold among the slaves, and African-Americans developed a religious aesthetic all their own.
The " Negro spiritual," as it was called, really became known after the Civil War. It wasn't until the early 20th century that gospel music as we now know it really began, featuring singers like Mahalia Jackson. But if gospel was the sound of Sunday morning, the blues was Saturday night. While both forms employed the pentatonic scale prevalent in West Africa, and similar 12-bar melodic structures and syncopated rhythms, blues was the obverse side of the coin of gospel.
Early blues made a star out of gifted singer Bessie Smith, but when the acoustic or Delta style (named for the Mississippi Delta) was first recorded in the 1920s, that took over in popularity, giving rise to remarkable talents like Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, and remaining a vital force through World War Two. Once that conflict ended, things changed, as more and more blacks exchanged rural poverty for the opportunities of urban living. In Chicago, Muddy Waters plugged in his guitar, added a rhythm section and essentially played electrified Delta blues. Over in Detroit, John Lee Hooker had also amplified his instrument, offering a more monochordal, African style of blues.
The other great strand of African-American music was jazz. Much like blues, no one can give an exact starting point, but in the early part of the 20th century bands like those of King Oliver were playing jazz in New Orleans. In the hands of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, one of its greatest stars, this roughshod form took on a greater sophistication. Improvisation was at its heart, and Armstrong was a master. After the First World War the music went global, transforming quickly as it melded with other styles, such as Jewish klezmer, and ending up as the smoother swing. Since then it's developed many strands, from bebop to avant-garde and jazz-rock.
If Africans came to America in chains, the European immigrant experience was a flight to freedom and economic empowerment. The early English and Scots-Irish settlers who ventured into the Appalachian mountains and beyond carried their ballads, many of which survived intact, or only barely changed, some 200 years later as collectors scoured the region, and they, along with tunes played on fiddles, formed the basis of American folk music. Out of that grew "hillbilly" music, the sound of Appalachiathe early country of the Carter Family, the singer-songwriter Jimmie Rodgers (who borrowed a lot from blues) or the wilder instrumental antics of outfits like the Skillet Lickers.
One of early country music's most distinctive features was its "high lonesome" vocal harmonies, evident in the Louvin Brothers, and Monroe Brothers, among others. Bill Monroe would keep that vocal sound, allying it to fast rhythms and sprightly melodies, all played by virtuosos, for a new hybrid called bluegrass, which has become firmly established as part of American's musical landscape. It's the diametric opposite of old-time, which tries to faithfully preserve the old mountain styles on tunes, although the actual mountain musicians, like guitarist Doc Watson, were always less precious with their music.
Many Irish arrived in the United States to escape the famine of 1847, settling predominantly along the East Coast and in New Orleans, and their strong communities kept their music alive. As the years passed, it took on its own flavour, developing its own traditions (both musical and in emigrant ballads) and leading figures, like fiddler Michael Coleman. By the 1980s Irish-American music had developed a wider audience. The music has spawned a generation of superb instrumentalists, like Solas and the women of Cherish the Ladies, who've gained international fame with this American hybrid.
For the Jews, America promised religious freedom after centuries of European oppression. Settling most around New York, the immigrants from all over Eastern Europe had a common language in Yiddish and a common music, klezmer. In the New World, however, klezmer began to take on urban colors, as the record companies began releasing discs that proved surprisingly popular, with clarinettist Dave Tarras an early star. The clarinet took center stage in this revamped music that looked more toward the dance floor than the old village square. By the late 1930s klezmer, and many things Yiddish, had largely passed as a new generation became assimilated into mainstream America. But in the 1970s, a gradual klezmer revival began in California, although it soon became centered in the New York area, with groups like the Klezmatics. Currently, klezmer is probably at the strongest point it's seen since the 1920s.
Of course, immigrants from many other countries brought their music too. The French, who had to leave Canada when it became British settled in LouisianaAcedie, as they called itdeveloped the region's distinctive French Cajun music, which also draws on English and Caribbean musical traditions. However, after state authorities banned the French language in schools in the 1930s, the culture began to go into decline. Somehow the music stayed vibrant, however, reinventing itself with more of a country sound. Yet it's kept its heart intact, and the revival of Cajun music and culture that began in the 1970s has seen grown strong, with groups like the Balfa Brothers and Beausoleil finding international fame.
Zydeco, which is often seen as Cajun's African-American cousin, began after the Second World War, mixing Cajun with Creole la la and blues structures. The accordion came to the fore, with a washboard keeping rhythm. Its greatest exponentthe aptly titled King of Zydecowas Clifton Chenier, whose powerhouse accordion work helped break the music beyond the local dance circuit. Although the music became electric, younger performers such as Geno Delfose have reverted to a more acoustic, older soundyet it can still get the feet moving.
Latin music has long had an influence on America. During the late 19th century, down in Texas, German immigrants brought their accordions and polkas and mixed them with sounds from across the border in Mexico to create Tex-Mex or conjunto music, which still thrives in the hands of people like Flaco Jiménez. Los Angeles, too, boasts a large Mexican-American population, and has the musical muscle to match: acts as diverse as East L.A. homeboys Los Lobos and the late corrido singer Chalino Sanchez have helped make Los Angeles the Mecca of Mexican Regional music in the U.S.
New Orleans also incorporated Latin sounds into it's multiethnic musical gumbo: absorbing the sounds of Cuba and even Spain long before the United States even existed. In the 19th and early 20th century Cuban sounds had long been a part of New Orlean's musical palette, influencing jazz and even early rock and roll.
But the biggest impact of Latin sounds has been in New York, where immigrants from across the Caribbean and Latin America have fired up music for many decades. Cuban music and the sound of son also made an impact in Manhattan, with the Latin jazz fusions of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, and Latin big bands led by the likes of Machito in the 1940s. By the 1950s the style called mambo had developed from son; it was more danceable, and it became a sensation for bandleaders, notably timbale player Tito Puente, who'd grown up in New York of Puerto Rican parents. He became the main man, with mambo and cha-cha, leading his band at the Palladium.
The '60s were generally a moribund time for Latin music, which musical ideas and record sales in decline. But that would change at the start of the next decade with salsa (literally "sauce"). It offered both grit and flair, with fiery horns and roaring percussionand a new singing star in Cuban-born Celia Cruz, who became the Queen of Salsa with her powerful, expressive voice. By the 80s, other Latin "tropical" genres such as Dominican merengue and bachata were making headway in the States. The 90's saw a crossover Latin pop explosion fuelled by the likes of Ricky Martin and J. Lo, while rock en español reached the mainstream for the first time. The new millennium saw the rise of "Latin urban" music, driven by rap and by reggaeton, which combines Jamaican dancehall-inspired sounds with Spanish-language raps. Chris Nickson