We tend to talk about American music (or more accurately the composition of American music) as though it is just one thing. It isn’t. Just as America is a “melting pot” of many cultures, American music is the sum total of all of the musical threads from the many cultures that have cross-pollinated each other over the years. At family and community celebrations, out comes the music from countries like Russia, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Africa. It is preserved by tradition, from one generation to another, even if, as a group, these threads have radically changed American composition.
How did each one of these threads change American composition? This is the key question addressed in this and following Segments.
For example, how did Russian music influence African-American music? Or was it the other way around? How did folk czardas influence Antonin Dvorak; how did Dvorak, a close friend of Victor Herbert’s, influence Herbert? Or is the music of The Fortune Teller an accident of nature?
For example, we know that the Scotch-Irish folk music has become part of the rich music of Appalachia, the Mid-West and the Western United States. Alone, Scotch-Irish music would have developed into folk, country and western. However, when Scotch-Irish music was infected with the brightness of the African banjo, we developed the joyous exuberance of bluegrass music. Think of “Dueling Banjos.”
Perhaps very little of pure African polyrhythmic music exists, unchanged, in America; but certainly we still have African-American work songs, Gospel and Spirituals, ragtime and blues. Even as this African-American music affected other musical threads, we still have a rich tradition of the original African-American music.
How did these various musical threads influence each other? Let us give you our hypothesis. In a country populated by émigrés from many lands, one composer may hear a musical strain coming from another composer, singer or musician; and the listener will naturally appreciate and then “borrow” some or all of the sounds he or she heard in the first place. Thus, the listener is now the composer; the sound is now a composite; but it is a new sound in a new land.
On Broadway, an Irishman, named Victor Herbert, raised in Stuttgart, trained in Germany and Austria, came to New York in 1886 and became not only the best cellist of his time but the Father of the American Musical Theatre. Yet, Herbert was clearly influenced as early as 1901 by ragtime and latin rhythms.
Additionally, we have the more subtle influences: Herbert influenced a child prodigy named Jerome Kern, who, in turn, influenced Richard Rodgers. We see this as a generational progression.
In the following Segments, we will get into more detail, as we discuss how various musical threads influenced American composition; however, before we do, we would like to caution you to guard against something called “purity” in music. This term has been coined by people who see themselves as “keepers of the flame.” Their sole purpose in life is to keep one form of music from being “infected” or “modified” by any other form of music.
There were any number of people who criticized and even vilified Louis Armstrong because he mixed jazz and popular music on his recordings. Patsy Cline was criticized for leaving her “country” roots when she recorded the Decca cuts (e.g., “Crazy”). Leonard Bernstein was criticized for mixing jazz and broadway with his “serious” symphonic music.
There are two serious consequences that result from the efforts of the purists to keep their form of music pure: one, the music they love ossifies; and two, they start to believe (and lead others to believe) that only their music is worth listening to.
Unfortunately, the reputation of Broadway composers can suffer from the snobbery inflicted on them by purists, especially when the purists claim that Broadway composers are not first-rate composers. These purists also complain that Broadway composers allow other forms of music, such as marches, blues and ragtime, to contaminate the operetta form that came from Europe. The list of complaints goes on, but you get the idea.
We would like to give you a different message: enjoy the music you presently listen to and don’t let anyone else spoil your enjoyment. However, we suggest that you expand your music “vocabulary” by listening to other forms of music. Learn to enjoy as many forms as possible. They all have merit; your personal favorites may change over the years; but they can’t change unless you listen to many different types. By all means, love “Puccini;” but perhaps you will learn to love “Piaf”, as well.