Country Music is a style of music that originated in the southern United States in and around the Appalachian Mountains in the 1920s. European immigrants brought with them the music and instruments of Europe for almost 300 years and over time these styles began to mix and evolve. This early mix created a uniquely American form of folk music and forms the roots of Country. Country Music often consists of ballads (story songs) and dance tunes with generally simple forms (structures) and harmonies and is usually accompanied by guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and harmonicas. The term “Country Music” gained popularity in the 1940s and replaced the previous name used to describe the style – “Hillbilly music.” It also came to encompass Western music which evolved at the same time from similar roots but in the western states (cowboy songs). Country Music can be divided into 6 distinct generations since it started to be called “Country Music” in the 1920s.
The First Generation:
The first generation of Country music to emerge began in the 1920s in Atlanta, Georgia. During this time, many Appalachian people moved to Atlanta to work in its cotton mills and they brought their music with them. Over time, Atlanta became a major recording and performance center and produce a large number of Country records and musicians. One of the very first commercial recordings that was considered Country Music was “Turkey in the Straw” recorded by fiddlers Henry Gilliland and Eck Robertson in 1922.
Jimmy Rogers is considered by many to be the “Father of Country Music.” Otherwise known as the “Singing Breakman” and the “Blue Yodeler,” Rogers was known for his rhythmic yodeling and for blending hillbilly, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk. Many of his best recordings were his own compositions including “Blue Yodel” which sold over a million records and established Rogers as the premier singer of early country music. Rogers recorded 13 different “blue yodels” but the first was known as “Blue Yodel (T for Texas)”
Born and raised in the Virginia Appalachian Mountains,the Carter Family were the first vocal group to become country music stars. Over their career (1927-1956) they recorded over 300 old-time ballads, traditional folk tunes, country songs, and gospel hymns. The original group consisted of Sara Carter on lead vocals and Maybelle and Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) singing harmony. Maybelle’s distinctive guitar playing became a hallmark of the group. Known as the “Carter Scratch” Maybelle would play melodies on the lower sounding strings with her thumb while rhythmically strumming the upper strings with her other fingers. One of their most famous songs is “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” which was an adaptation of a hymn by a similar name.
The Carter Family continued to play music even after the original group broke up with Maybelle performing with her three daughters (Anita, June, and Helen) under the name “Maybelle and the Carter Sisters.”
Building the Foundations of Early American Music
As with all music, the development of early American Music was deeply rooted in the traditional music of the past while evolving to include the experiences of the lives of those in the present. To more fully understand the foundations of American music, one must look to the cultural traditions of those who settled here throughout the 16th and 17th century. This included migrants from all over Europe and people from Africa who were forced into slavery. It is this mixing of cultures and the wide range of music styles and traditions they brought with them that formed the unique conditions for a new music to emerge – American Music.
During the 16th and 17th century (1500s-1600s) large groups of settlers from the British Isles , France, Germany and Spain immigrated to the 13 colonies of America. Along with the belongings they could fit on the ship, they brought with them their languages, style of dress, religious beliefs and their cultural heritage. This included folk, sacred, and art music.
Of particular importance to the the formation of new music in the 13 colonies was the music of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). While each nation of the British Isles had its own unique forms of music and instrumentation, the music shared many common characteristics. Migrants from the British Isles continued to perform the story songs (called ballads) and dances ( jigs, reels, ayres, etc.) in their homes and community gatherings. In the early churches of America, parishioners would sing the same hymns that were sung in the Old World. The classical art music performed in Europe during the Renaissance and the Baroque Eras continued to be performed in the New World.
Folk Music – The Ballad
Though the largely secular form of music known as the ballad has its roots in medieval French dance songs (shares the same French root as “ballet”), ballads became especially popular and associated with the poetry and song of the British Isles. Originally, the poetry set to the French “chanson balladée” would be sung by the dancers in time with the dance. Over time, these songs became a type of poetry and song in and of themselves and began to be performed apart from the dance. Ballads were most often performed in the local language and dialect, were passed down orally from generation to generation, and were heavily influenced by the region from which they came. Most ballads have no known author, have many variations, and tell stories and legends of all types (tragic, romantic, historical, comic, etc). These characteristics made ballads particularly influential in the creation of early folk music of the Americas.
French Dance Music – Chanson Balladée
Scottish Ballad (poetry) – “The Twa Corbies”
Scottish Ballad (song) – “The Twa Corbies”
English Ballad – “Robin Hood and the Tanner”
Folk Music – Instrumental Dance Music
Although the instrumental dance music from across the British Isles had many musical characteristics in common, each country has its own unique style and quality. The folk dance music of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland shared certain commonalities such as the prevalence of the fiddle, accordion, pipes, hand-held drums, and flutes, as well as the importance of dance tradition and folk music to community life. They also share common popular dance forms like the Jig, Reel, and Hornpipe.
The Jig is a lively dance in compound meter – the division of the beats are felt in 3. The Jig originated in England in the 16th Century but was quickly adopted throughout the British Isles and Europe (including France, Italy, and Spain).
Medley of Traditional Irish Jigs
The Reel is another form of lively dance music but is played in simple meter – the division of the beats are felt in two.
Medley of Scottish Reels
The Hornpipe is another form of dance music that can be either fast or slow and is thought to have been influenced by the dances of 16th century sailors. It is also performed in simple meter but the division of the beat is felt in swing time – the first part of the division is longer than the second (“long, short, long, short”). This gives the music a bouncy feel.
Sacred Music – The Hymn
Early European immigrants to the “New World” brought with them their religious views and traditions including music. There are many types of religious music but the “hymn” is of particular importance in that it is often sung by the congregation of the church and not just the choir. A Hymn is a religious song specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration, or prayer. Though hymns are not exclusive to Christianity, the main religions of the early immigrants to the Americas were forms of Christianity. Many of the early settlers left the British Isles seeking religious freedom and many were part of the Protestant Reformation – a split within European Christianity.
Though we have little record of the hymns sung by the first American settlers, two types of hymns are almost certain to have been performed in the early American Christian Churches. Some early American congregations followed the “regulative principle of worship” in which not only the hymn but also the style of performance was highly regulated. Congregations who followed this style of hymnody would only sing hymns taken directly from the Bible (Psalms), stripped out almost all forms of accompaniment, and sang the text to very simple melodies. This was known as exclusive psalmody. One psalter most likely used in the early Americas is the Genevan Psalter which is a collection of psalms created under the supervision of John Calvin who was a principal figure of the Protestant Reformation and whose followers are known as Calvinists. Some of the earliest American settlers were Calvinists.
Psalm singing of Back Free Church (in Gaelic)
Other churches followed the “normative principle of worship” in which a greater variety of hymns were sung and the use of harmony and accompaniment were allowed. One of the leaders of this style of worship during the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther who not only encouraged the use of harmony and texts outside of the Bible for hymns but also wrote many famous hymns still in use. Many of these hymns were sung by choirs and congregations alike in four part harmony and are known as “chorales.” Many German immigrants to the early Americas were Christian followers of Martin Luther and would have brought this style of hymnody with them.
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
Art music is a term used to describe formal music that is often written down by composers and played in concert halls or formal settings. The early European settlers of the “New World” would have brought with them knowledge of this music and would eventually create their own ensembles to play in this style. The timeframe of the largest migration of Europeans to the Americas took place during what we call the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music.
The Renaissance Period took place from around 1400-1600 and started as a cultural movement in Northern Italy that later spread to the rest of Europe. It is considered to be the “bridge” between the Middle Ages and modern history in which there was a rise in humanistic thought (focus on the ability of humans’ rational thinking and science rather than faith or doctrine), a return to the classic arts of Rome and Greece, the development of diplomacy, increased innovation and discovery in all aspects of life, the rise of a middle class in Europe, and the Protestant Reformation. During this time the Gutenberg Press was invented (wooden printing press) which allowed for the wide distribution of affordable music. With a rise in music education in the middle class, art music became part of the day-to-day lives of many families.
During this period, the secular art music (non-religious) began to flourish along side sacred music and there was greater development of polyphonic singing (2 or more vocal parts played or sung at the same time to create harmony).
One form of secular vocal music that became very popular during this time was the Madrigal – an unaccompanied, polyphonic piece written for small ensembles (2-8 voices) and often set to poetry dealing with themes of love. This style originated in Italy in the 1520s and became popular all over Europe. In each country where the madrigal became popular, a regional form of the madrigal would emerge with composers writing madrigals in their own language and style. The early settlers of the Americas from the British Isles would most likely have heard and played music in style of the English Madrigal School. One of the most famous of the English Madrigal composers was Thomas Morley who was a composer, organist, and singer who’s music is still sung to this day.
Thomas Morley – “Now Is the Month of Maying”
Another major development in art music of this time was the development of the symphony. Early Renaissance composers typically did not specify the instruments they were writing for in these large scale instrumental works; they simply worked with what instruments they had in a given ensemble. However, by the 1700’s, this began to change. Composers such as a Claudio Monteverdi knew exactly what sound they wanted and called for specific instruments. This new Renaissance orchestral ensemble begins to resemble our modern day orchestra that is organized into sections.
Claudio Monteverdi was an Italian composer, singer, gambist (early version of a Cello) and Roman Catholic Priest who helped bridge the gap between late Renaissance music and early Baroque Music (1600-1750). One of Monteverdi’s most important contributions to music of the Baroque Era was opera – a form of performance art that combines vocal and instrumental music, acting, scenery, costume, and dancing. His operas also included instrumental sections (called sinfonias) that helped to further develop the symphony.
Claudio Monteverdi – “Sinfonia” from L’Orfeo
By the 1700’s, the term “symphony” had been standardized to mean a work typically consisting of multiple distinct movements or sections (often four), with the first movement in sonata form. The word symphony is also used to refer to the orchestras that typically perform them. During this time the violin, viola, cello, and bass became central to the Baroque orchestra. Musical leadership in the Baroque orchestra came from the keyboard instruments, with the harpsichordist or the organist acting as leader.
The German violinist, harpsichordist, singer, and organist Johann Sebastian Bach was a major composer of the Baroque Period and wrote in this new symphonic style. Johann Sebastian Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer of the Baroque period, and his orchestral music is considered some of the best of the Baroque period. His music and the music of other composers of the Baroque Era would have been known by many of the later European settlers in the America’s during the 1750s and 1800s.
Johann Sebastian Bach – “Brandenburg Concerto No. 1”
The European immigrants who migrated to the “New World” brought with them a wealth of cultural traditions including music of all types. The early music of America almost certainly looked much like the music of the settlers home countries. European settlers would have brought with them their vocal and instrumental folk songs (ballads, jigs, reels, etc.), knowledge of the art music of the Renaissance and Baroque Periods (including the madrigal, symphony, and opera), and their sacred music (hymns). Over time, this music would begin to mix with the music of other Europeans and Africans and form the basis for a form of music the world had never heard – American Music.