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The Formative Years In The United States

The year 1865 was an important year in the United States.  America was only about 90 years old.  In 1865, the Civil War came to an end.  At this time, America was still trying to find its national identity in music.  Many Americans were of European descent who brought their own influences of opera and folk music to the U.S., but America still lacked its own originality.  There were a number of factors that occurred during and after the Civil War that helped propel music in the United States.


1. African slaves were free, and as a result, they could participate more in society and contribute to music.  This was instrumental in the blues style of music and subsequently, in ragtime, boogie woogie, and New Orleans jazz.


2. Just before 1865, a man by the name of Steven Foster developed a book of songs, which are still treasured today.  Foster was known as the “father of music” and composed well known songs, including: “Swamy River”, “The Camptown Races”, “O Susana”, and “Beautiful Dreamer”, to name a few.  These songs, along with many others, cultivated the essence of being an American.  


3. Marching bands were pervasive during the Civil War.  When the war ceased, these bands returned home to form their own bands, which were known as community bands.  During this time, musicians became experimental by combining multiple instruments together.  For instance, in a marching band setting, you have a snare drum, cymbal, and bass section.  These musicians started combining these instruments together so only one musician could play instead of three different ones.

4. Another notable name emerged during this time.  John-Philip Sousa, a music composer and conductor, played an integral role in American culture.  Sousa was instrumental in transforming music from parade to concert.  He would perform in front of thousands of people in concert halls.  Presently, we often associate the guitar, drums, and vocals as popular/contemporary instruments.  This same popularity of today is what the music of Sousa was during his time!

Fun Fact! When you listen to second line music in New Orleans, you will hear a fusion of European and Afro-Caribbean styles.  On the drums, the bass drum and hi-hat are often playing a two-beat feel, which derived from European marches.  The hands are often playing a 2-3 clave in a loose and swing feel.  The clave is the main phrase to all of Afro-Cuban music.  The reason these styles came together is because European descendants brought their marching influence to the U.S.  Since New Orleans is in the Deep South located close to the Caribbean, many individuals from this part of the world moved to New Orleans and brought their musical nuances to North America.  As a result, New Orleans styles offer a blend of Caribbean and European music!

The Style of Blues Music

As we learned, when slavery ended in 1865, this loosened restrictions for Africans.  As a result, they started to play an integral role in the development of music.  A style that first developed during this time was blues.  While many people associate blues with contemporary musicians like B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughn, the reality is that blues goes way further back!  During slavery dating all the way back to the 1600s, North America, Central America, and South America were known as the New World.  The West Indies, which is the subregion of North America and the Caribbean Sea comprising lands like Cuba, were known for their rich agricultural resources.  Because of the warm climate, European colonies exploited resources like cotton, sugar, and rice for all cheap labor.  As many as four million Africans were shipped to these areas of the world.  Stripped from their cultural identity and languages, they were forced to conform to the norms of the culture they served.  As a result of this difficult time, music, rhythm, and dancing all became integral factors for them.  After long days of labor, they would sing out loud, which became known as field hollers.  They sang while walking, working, and talking.  This ultimately gave birth to the style of blues music.  Here are some characteristics that define the essence of the blues style:

*Blues music was passed down orally through stories, legends, and techniques from generation to generation.  This is often known as oral tradition.

*While we often think of the electric guitar as a primary instrument of blues, singing was the prevalent characteristic in its earliest roots.  Specifically, chanting, hollering, and shouting were all used. 

*Blues music was derivative of folkloric style and spiritual songs, which were birthed in Africa.  Blues style eventually gave birth to gospel and dance music.

*We may perceive blues music as a “happy” emotion with the harmonic chords of the guitar in today’s music; however, the term “blues” implied depression or drinking alcohol.  Because blues was formed in a difficult time of slavery, the context was feeling lowly and depressed.


 *As blues music developed over time, African Americans incorporated a spiritual element where Christian songs and worship were often tied with the style.  This subsequently changed the whole dynamic from being depressed to being uplifted and joyful.

*When the blues style became an artform/style of music, Robert Johnson and Ma Rainey were key influences of the evolution of this style.  Rainey was known as the “mother of blues”, and Johnson was known as the “master of blues”.

Fun Fact! The common form of blues music is a twelve-bar blues.  W.C. Handy, a blues composer and musician who was born in 1873, developed a three-line verse that was collected from calls and responses from slaves in the fields in the earliest stages of blues.  This developed into twelve-bar blues phrasing, which classifies the style. 

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