American Popular Music History

Did you ever wonder how the music of today became what it is? Music has been around as long as man has been around. He may have stumbled upon the sound of music by cleaning an old bone or maybe he discovered that his own voice could make musical tones. As civilization grew, so did the invention of musical instruments.

Classical Music

When European people first came to the Americas, they, of course, brought their European music with them. Classical music was the music that was enjoyed by the aristocracy of the day.

Classical music probably was labeled as such because the ruling class could afford to pay for the best instruments and singers of the day. The ordinary people created songs about the joys and struggles of everyday life. The difference in these two types of music is the rhythm. Folk songs were rhythm driven and classical music was more polyphonic, using many different instruments to make up the sound.

African Music

Because of the many different peoples that moved to America, there were many different types of folk music. As America grew, the musical boundaries became blurred. The biggest influence on folk music was African music. The rhythms of this culture forever changed the face of music in the world, eventually, but it began in the United States of America.

Classical music has not changed much throughout the years. It starts with a melody and then, adds the rhythm. African music begins with a rhythm and grows with a melody. Rhythm and timbre are a part of the African language and African people learn to play music at the same time they learn to talk. Percussion and music are a form of expression and language for the African culture. When these people were enslaved and brought to America in the 1700’s, the Methodist and Baptists began converting slaves to Christianity.

The music that was created by these new Christian slaves were called spirituals and they were hymns. Because black people were segregated, many of these black men began preaching and would begin interacting with their audience in a form of call and response singing.

As time went on and freedom was finally gained, the black man still had to face a world of bigotry, prejudice and inhumane treatment by white people. He picked up the guitar and began using his guitar to interact, using the same call and response styles to do this. During the Reconstruction period after the civil war, many of the British ballads were adapted to the blues.


The Bluesman

Because black slaves had been encouraged by the slave holders to have extramarital affairs for breeding purposes, sexual promiscuity was a way of life. Many of the songs that they sang were of a very sexual nature, which were frowned upon by white people. Blues music started to become metaphoric and the bluesmen used double talk in their songs to hide the true meaning of the songs.

Minstrel Shows

Blacks were still shunned by whites and many blacks played their music in speakeasies and minstrel shows. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that white people began openly enjoying music by blacks, however, they were still discriminated against throughout the United States.

This blues music was performed by blacks and paid to see by whites. Blacks were not allowed in many of these clubs, therefore, could not be an audience and they did not want to spend their hard-earned money on this form of entertainment. In the 1930’s, this type of blues music started becoming popular among blacks, as well.

Gospel Roots

During the 1920’s, gospel music starting becoming popular with blacks in their churches. In the 1930’s, some singers started performing these songs in night clubs. The most popular formats was a quartet, who sang and kept time by snapping their fingers. Females wore the church’s dresses and clapped their hands to the beat. This was the prerequisite for the pop groups of the 1960’s.

Rock and Roll Is Born

Another type of music emerged in Chicago at the same time in the 1930’s, called boogie woogie. Although it was faster than the blues, it had the same chord progressions as the blues. This type of music set the stage for the rock ‘n’ roll era of the 1950’s.

Rock ‘n’ roll ended up influencing our American culture and became a world wide sensation during this time period. Rock and roll changed a generation and the future of America.

The Birth of Country Music

In the Southern Appalachians, there was a style of music known as Old Time Music that consisted of fiddle tunes. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that the first recording of what is known as country music was made. Fiddlist A.C. Robertson recorded a song called “Sallie Gooden” for Victor Records in 1922. The first country singer to have a hit was Vernon Dalhart, in May, 1924, with the song, “Wreck of the Old ’97.”

Two of the most influential acts of country music were Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family. They laid the foundation for this type of music and James Charles Rodgers, or Jimmie, became the “Father of country Music.” The Carter Family was known as “The First Family of Country Music,” and they stayed on top of the popular music charts for the next twenty years. The original Carter family consisted of A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara and his sister-in-law, Maybelle Carter. They sang mountain gospel music, which showed off the beautiful harmonies of this type of music.

A.P. searched and collected British/Appalachian folk songs and then arranged them musically for recording. The Carter family became one of the most popular musical acts in America during the late 1920’s and ’30’s. This was also the first time that a white musician used the guitar as a lead or solo instrument, but Maybelle Carter’s style of scratch style picking, which used the technique of playing the melody lines with the lower bass strings and strumming the rest of the strings for the rhythm. Even though the Carter’s became famous, they never really achieved financial success.

It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing

Western Swing was another form of country music that developed in the Lower Great Plains during the 1920’s and 1930’s. This type of music evolved from ranch dances that had guitarists and fiddlers performing this fast type of music. All in all, Western Swing incorporated the style of big band music, the blues, jazz, Hawaii and dixieland, all in one. There were fiddle leads and stomping, and for the first time steel guitar (Hawaii music) and drums were introduced to country music. Bob Wills and Milton Brown are credited with putting Western Swing in front of the mainstream.

The Era of the Singing Cowboy

Because of the development of the radio, many new radio shows featured “barn dance” shows, which featured country music and the show, the Grand Ole Opry was first broadcast on WSM Radio in 1925. Radio also paved the way for the next generation of country music, better known as cowboy music. In the 1930’s and 40’s, these singing cowboy shows migrated from the radio onto television sets and became very popular.

Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers are probably the best known singing cowboys in history. The singing group, the Sons of the Pioneers set the standards for singing groups that followed, with their perfectly superb harmonies and great arrangements.


In 1949, a new type of country music style was starting to emerge, called Honky Tonk, which embraced dancing and drinking, as well as, loving and losing in the themes of its songs. Hank Williams became one of the most enduring figures of this type of music. His music and this style has probably had the biggest influence on country music. Hank Williams had a string of hits during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, which are still loved by many people today, such as, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Jambalaya.” Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizell also became very popular writing and recording Honky Tonk songs.

That Slick Nashville Sound

The Nashville Sound was born in the 1940’s, with the popularity of the Grand Ole Opry and during the 1950’s, this type of music acheived its greatest success. This sound combined popular and country music, using the music of the big band jazz sound and combining it with the storytelling of folk and country music. The music of Jim Reeves, Eddie Arnold and Patsy Cline represent this style of American music best.


Bill Monroe was inspired by black musicians of the 1930’s. His sound consisted of a rhythmic playing that used the mandolin and banjo for its distinctive sound. Bluegrass became known for the sad,lonesome singing style of Bill Monroe. He influenced many young musicians of the day and bluegrass became a mix of gospel songs and folk music and is seeing a resurgance of popularity today.

The Outlaws of Country

The 1970’s was the era of the Outlaw. Bad boys took over the country airwaves. Men who had done time and wrote songs about the bad decisions they made became extremely popular. Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. This music was like the rock music of the 1970’s, but had a gritty, country edge to it, incorporating more electric guitar and drums.

Country Goes Pop

Country music in the 1980’s became more mainstream because of the movie, Urban Cowboy. Country artists were seeing cross-over hits on the pop charts. Basically, this type of music was the country music of the 60’s and 70’s with more polish and pop beats. Although most of the music from this era was forgettable, a few diamonds appeared, such as, the group Alambama, John conlee and Reba McEntire.

Country Finds Its Roots Again

In the 90’s, good old classic country music was back with more polish. What was old became new again and country music at that time produced the most popular country singer of all times, Garth Brooks.

Country music today is a mix of all of these types of music. Starting with the poorest of white people in America, the coal miners of the Appalachia, country music will forever be an integral part of American culture.

The music in America, is constantly evolving, just as the people of America continue to grow and evolve. We can choose to listen to any type of music we like and just because we may not like a certain style, most of it has started from the same place.

Whether we like it or not, today’s modern American music originated from the pain and heartache of the workers from the cotton fields of the deep South.