Library of Congress > Collections > The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Musical Styles  >  Popular Songs of the Day


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections that "topped the charts" back in the day.

  • My days have been so wondrous free

    This song, by Francis Hopkinson, was written in 1759 to a poem by Irish clergyman Thomas Parnell. Scored for voice and harpsichord, the song is America's earliest surviving secular composition. The tenor soloist is Lambert Murphy.

  • Home, sweet home

    Regarded as America's first bona fide hit song, presented here in a performance by the famous Australian soprano Nellie Melba. The song was adapted from Henry R. Bishop's 1823 opera "Clari, Maid of Milan," with lyrics by John Howard Payne. It was widely sung throughout the nineteenth century and subsequently recorded by many early recording artists.

  • Parodies of [three] popular songs

    Comic vocalist Billy Murray performs a medley of three popular songs of his day: "Why don't you try," "Dearie," and "Waltz me around again, Willie".

  • Laughing song

    The Seven Musical Magpies performs an upbeat song for three voices accompanied by banjos and piano.

  • Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile!

    This famous song by Felix Powell and George Asaf about staying positive during wartime is performed by soloist Edward Hamilton (Reinald Werrenrath) backed by chorus and orchestra.

"Popular songs" can be broadly defined as songs that are at least intended to reach a broad audience via some form of commercial distribution, such as broadsides, sheet music, song collections, touring musicians or musical production and from the 1890s on, commercial recordings. Being made to travel, popular music is most likely to represent a broad range of influences, including ones from folk, church and other popular music sources.

Though clear distinctions between popular, classical, folk and other broad areas of music are recognized today, it was not always so. Much music of the 17th and 18th centuries now called "baroque" or "classical" was broadly popular and not enjoyed solely by the upper classes. Songs of composers such as Handel and Haydn were not only widely heard in their day, but also were performed in private homes and public settings by amateurs for their families and friends. Melodies were sometimes appropriated from such sources, and repurposed as dance tunes or melodies for ballads and hymns. Hymns were often sung recreationally as well.

Although it was not until the mid-19th century that distinctly American popular song styles emerged, they did not emerge from a vacuum. Political differences notwithstanding, Americans living before and after the Revolution were willing consumers of British music, theater and literature. Many people of the day, including America's first notable composers, were fortunate enough to be exposed to a broad mixture of art music, folk music, hymnody, and a wide range of songs that were disseminated though popular "ballad operas" of the days such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera from 1728, as well as in song collections from England such as Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in several editions between 1698 and 1720, and George Bickham's The Musical Entertainer (1736-1739)

Well into the 19th Century, the popular music of the United States was largely that of Great Britain. From the early 18th century on though, popular songs were being written and published as broadsides, single sheets of paper containing lyrics for a song and indicating a well-known melody to which they should be sung, usually a British one. Some of the most memorable lyrics start to appear in the 1760s, when disgruntled colonists found a voice for their complaints against authority in "Liberty songs," humorous and bitter attacks on the Crown, the British Army, and colonial power figures that made ironic use of patriotic British melodies. This practice continued through the Revolution and beyond, and it is one of the ironies of our musical history that both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" use appropriated British melodies.

In this period, America's first composers also emerged. In 1759, Francis Hopkinson and James Lyon, each from Philadelphia, both set words to their own original music; Irish poet Thomas Parnell's "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free ," in Hopkinson's case, and an ode for a graduation ceremony in Lyon's. Though neither work had great impact at the time, both men soon contributed important early American music publications. In 1761, Lyon published Urania, a collection of sacred music melodies. In 1763, Hopkinson published his own collection of religious melodies, Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Lyons remained primarily a hymnist, but Hopkinson branched out, writing patriotic works during the American Revolution, including what he held to be the first American opera, The Temple of Minerva, staged in Philadelphia in early 1781. Although this seems to have been the first publicly performed opera written by an American, a writer using the pseudonym of "Andrew Barton" earlier had written Dissapointment, or the Force of Credulity, a ballad opera that mocked George III, as well as prominent citizens of Philadelphia. Its premiere performance in 1767 was cancelled, and it was not performed publicly until 1976, at the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the libretto was published in 1767 and sold well, with a revised edition published in 1796. It is likely that some of the songs in it were popularly sung into at least the early 18th century.

The New England psalm-singer, or American chorister

Detail from page 133 of The New-England psalm-singer, or, American chorister by William Billings.

William Billings of Boston, though primarily a religious writer and composer, occasionally worked in what could be regarded as the popular realm. Several of his hymns are more topical than they are liturgical, such as "Chester," which invokes God's name as it rails against tyranny, and was a favorite of Continental soldiers throughout the Revolution. "Lamentation Over Boston," based on "By the Rivers of Babylon," bewails the city's fate under British occupation. His "Modern Music" is not religious at all, but a humorous account of an audience at a concert.

Native topics became the subject of songs as well. Tobias Hume, a British soldier and composer, celebrated one of the New World's most important cash crops in his 1605 song "Tobacco Is Like Love." British poet Anne Hunter, impressed with a travelers' account of an air he said was sung by Indians facing death wrote "The Death Song of the Cherokee Indian" in 1784. It was soon set to music and became enormously popular in the United States, and is sung by a character in Royall Tyler's "The Contrast External," a 1787 satire of former colonists following British fashion too closely that was the first comedy by an American ever staged.

British influence on American music continued to be strong in the early 18th Century. Companies of British actors, as singers and musicians toured the former colonies staging old favorites such as Gay's The Beggar's Opera, Thomas Arne's Love in a Village, and Samuel Arnold's The Children in the Wood. New productions were mounted. One that deserves mention is Clari, The Maid of Milan an opera by English composer Henry Bishop with a libretto by an American, John Howard Payne. It premiered in London in 1823, and reached the United States the same year. One song caught on almost immediately, and might be regarded as America's first truly national hit song: "Home, Sweet Home," which was sung throughout the 19th century and recorded many times by early recording artists.

Popular music flourished in the home in this period. Music publishers supplied a steady stream of love songs and other sentimental material to eager consumers. Among the most enduring songs of this period was "The Old Oaken Bucket," an American poem by Samuel Wordsworth set to an English melody by George Kiallmark. The song expressed nostalgia for old American ways of life of only a generation or two earlier, and was still being sung in that spirit in the early 20th century, when a group known as the Old Homestead Double Quartet recorded it.

Detail from Morris Brothers minstrels from Boston, organized Dec. 14th, 1857--The model troupe. Ledger Job Printing Office (Philadelphia, Pa.) Reproduction Number LC-USZC4-4438. Prints and Photographs Division.

Charles Dibdin's The Padlock, a popular British comic opera of 1768, featured a singing character named Mungo, ostensibly a West Indian slave. He was a comic character played by white actor in blackface, a practice that became widespread beginning in the 1840s, with the emergence of minstrel groups. These were bands of white performers masquerading as southern black slaves, playing a mixture of music that they appropriated or attributed to slaves, as well as comic versions of popular and classical pieces. Minstrel shows were enormously popular, and continued well into the 20th century. Black performers took up the practice, even to the point of donning blackface themselves, especially after the Civil War. Many minstrel troupes toured abroad, and were the first exposure many Europeans had to American popular music.

The minstrel shows promoted and reinforced many of the worst stereotypes of African-Americans, but their importance to the development of American popular music is inescapable. At their best, they presented a uniquely American blend of absurdity and pathos, and freed musicians and actors from the restrictions of old world performance styles. In 1843, " Old Dan Tucker" was the first minstrel song to be a hit, and celebrated the antics of an irrepressible, rough hewn character who made mischief and spread cheer wherever he went. Audiences of the time found in the song both an American character and a truly American musical style. Its origins are uncertain, but it was popularized and published by the white minstrel performer Daniel Emmett, who later composed " Dixie."

Also in the 1840s, a singing group from New England known as the Hutchinson Family toured the country to great acclaim, performing concerts that mixed nostalgic celebrations of the not so distant past with topical songs on the abolition of slavery, temperance, women's rights, and labor issues. One of their most popular songs was called "Get Off the Track," an anti-slavery piece set to the tune of "Old Dan Tucker." The Hutchinsons firmly established topical song in the mainstream of American popular music, and the compositions and songs associated with them remained popular throughout the 19th century.

Detail from Stephen Collins Foster. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-56944. Prints and Photographs Division.

It was in this era that America's first great popular songwriter achieved prominence. Stephen Foster was proficient in both the sentimental styles of the mid-19th century and the lively new minstrel styles. In his best work, he expressed a new emotional depth. One of his early successes, "Old Folks at Home," is sung in the voice of an aging African-American of the day, one who is pining for his home on the old plantation. It is not clear why the singer is so far from home. He may have been sold to and transported elsewhere. He may have gained his freedom, and then traveled afar. Foster does not say. The song is written in the stereotypical dialect of the minstrel show, and includes a slur, and many of the sentiments are those of earlier American songs that celebrated home and bygone days and ways. Still, Foster's flourishes of literary eloquence made the singer a character of depth with whom a wide audience could empathize in an era of great change and little certainty:

One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love
Still sadly to my memory rushes,
No matter where I rove.

The Civil War inspired literally thousands of songs. Northerner Daniel Emmett published "Dixie" in 1859, and the song was well known throughout the Confederate States by the beginning of the war in 1861. Some soldiers added humorous verses of their own to Emmet's original, while others toughened the lyrics to declare their readiness to die for their home. Similarly, there were two versions of "Maryland, My Maryland," one a blunt call for the state to secede, the other, an idealistic defense of the Union. One of the biggest hits of the war was "The Battle Cry of Freedom," by George F. Root, which sold some 350,000 copies in sheet music form and was still being sung and recorded more than fifty years after its publication.

Like many of the best Civil War songs, Root's composition reflected a new native musical confidence that carried over into the post-war era. American marching bands came of age during the Civil War. The greatest bandleader of the day was the Irish born Patrick Gilmore, whose band accompanied Union troops to the front, and who composed "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." After his death in 1892, Gilmore's place was taken by John Philip Sousa, who would prove to be an even greater influence on American music, contributing numerous standards to the band repertoire, and popularizing new musical styles such as cakewalk and ragtime.

In 1892, "After the Ball," a sentimental song launched in a Broadway show the year before, sold two million copies of sheet music, strong evidence that music publishing was a well established business, and songwriting a genuine and potentially lucrative profession. "Tin Pan Alley," a stretch of 28th Street in New York City was the hub for this growing industry (listen to a relevant curator talk by Nancy Groce), and drew aspiring songwriters from all over the country, and soon, the rest of the world. Popular music would soon reflect many sources and influences, and offer Americans an ever changing mix of music in the coming 20th Century.

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These two versions of the sea shanty “Hoist up the John B Sail” are taken from a WPA field recording made in Key West, Florida in 1940. The traditional song was later made famous in a pop version by the Beach Boys on their album “Pet Sounds” in 1966.

  • Hoist up the John B Sail

    Performed by Robert Butler at Key West, Florida, on January 23, 1940.

  • Hoist up the John B Sail

    A jazz version of the traditional song performed by Theodore (Tea Roll) Rolle, piano, at Key West, Florida, on January 23, 1940.

Like the term jazz itself, a precise definition of jazz song is elusive. One way to think about it is that a jazz song is anything sung by a jazz singer, since the term ‘jazz’ usually refers to a style of performance rather than to a method of composition. A jazz song might have lyrics, but not necessarily. It might be a vocalese performance, with lyrics written and sung to a pre-existing instrumental solo (i.e. the work of King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, or Lambert, Hendricks & Ross). It could be a “standard” song taken from what is often referred to as the American Popular Song Book. “Standards” come from a variety of sources including popular songs by Tin Pan Alley composers from the beginning of the 20th century, American popular stage, or Hollywood movie musicals. In addition, a jazz song can be based on blues, pop songs, a poem or any instrumental in the jazz repertoire. It might incorporate elements of scat, or nonsense syllables sung in horn-like fashion. Or it might be a contrefact; a variation on pre-existing chord changes, such as “Donna Lee,” a song composed by Miles Davis using the chord changes of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”, or “The Flintstones Theme” which is one of many songs based on the chord changes of “I Got Rhythm” by George and Ira Gershwin.

Occasionally original jazz compositions speak directly to political and social issues of the day such as “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, “We Insist (Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite),” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” written in a gospel style by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas. There are also songs specifically created as jazz vehicles, for example Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogie” (With the Floy Floy) or Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” These and other such songs cannot be properly sung without a jazz feeling.

Whether it is an original work, or an adaptation, a “jazz” song is defined through its use of instrumentation, improvised solos, or the general approach to performance rather than the form or structure of the composition itself. Jazz vocals often utilize elements of swing, or an idiomatic approach to syncopation, often laced with improvisation. That is how and why Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter or Mark Murphy can take a straight pop song or something written for a Broadway show and transform it into a jazz song through idiomatic phrasing, syncopated placement of the beat, or improvised theme and variation. To illustrate how a traditional melody can be transformed through a “jazz” performance, see the Playlist sidebar.

The Music Division has many examples of jazz songs in the papers and special collections of Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, Carmen McRae, Billy Eckstine and others.

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Recordings from the The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip.

  • Shorty George (1939)

    Performed by Smith Casey, guitar. In 1965, The Byrds adapted the song for "He was a Friend of Mine," a tribute to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

  • Diamond Joe (1939)

    A field holler performed by Charlie "Big Charlie" Butler at State Penitentiary, Camp #1; Stockade Hall, Parchman, Sunflower County, Mississippi

  • Early in the mornin' (1939)

    A work song performed b ya group of convicts at State Penitentiary, Camp #10, Parchman, Sunflower County, Mississippi

"The blues" is a secular African-American musical genre that has had broad influence in popular music. Blues songs deal with a variety of topics and emotions, though it is often mistakenly thought that they deal almost exclusively with sorrow and protest.

Although there are no recordings of blues songs made before the 1910s, it is generally accepted that a musical style recognizable as blues was being played and sung by African-American musicians in the Southern United States by the 1890s. The songs drew freely from earlier African American styles, such as work songs, field hollers, spirituals, minstrelsy, as well as from Anglo and European derived forms. Blues singers emphasized "blue notes," usually the third, fifth and seventh degrees of the scale, which they often slurred or "bent" upward a quarter tone or more, sometimes mimicking or echoing these effects on accompanying instruments, such as the fiddle, harmonica or guitar. Although they did not always seek to tell a story, singers used imagery that reflected their audience's language and world. Moans, cries, shouts and grunts were often interpolated. The so-called "12 Bar Blues" became the dominant blues song form early on, and remains so to this day. In it, verses are three lines long, with the first line repeated, and the third line usually completing a thought or making a point:

I hate to see the evening sun go down,
I hate to see the evening sun go down,
'Cause my baby, he's gone left this town.

W. C. Handy

Portrait of William Christopher Handy, 1941. Carl Van Vechten, Photographer.

African-American composer W. C. Handy (1873-1958) said that he first encountered blues music in 1903, and subsequently found that forms of it were widely popular with African Americans. He began publishing adaptation of blues themes then in vernacular circulation in 1912, and eventually reached a broad national and international audience with them. He published his most famous song "St. Louis Blues" in 1914, which is quoted above. The Victor Military Band recorded it in 1916, as part of a medley that also included another early blues, "Joe Turner Blues."

Countless blues songs were published in the wake of Handy' success, though many were blues in name only, with the word "blues" being attached to a title in much the way "rag" had been earlier, in an attempt to be in line with the newest song fad. Still, the new style spread quickly, and became a vehicle for songs that were both comic and tragic. White singers such as Al Bernard and Marion Harris drew on black vocal styles in their blues recordings of the late 1910s and 1920s. In 1920, African-American singer Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," a song about frustrated love reached a national audience, and started a vogue for women blues singers in band settings.

African-American blues artists were now recording regularly, and other urban and rural blues styles that had been developing throughout this time, made it on to records for the first time. Great blues artists who emerged in the 1920s and 1930s include singer-guitarists such as Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie. Son House of Mississippi, recorded commercially in 1930 without success, though he is now considered one of the greatest of all "Delta" blues artists. House was an associate of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, and taught the young McKinley Morganfieldd, later known as Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, he made field recordings for Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress, such as "Depot Blues"
and "Low Down Dirty Dog Blues."

Though many songs only reflected the history of the time in a general way, some recordings did deal with current events, such as Patton's account of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, "High Water Everywhere." Blues songs were composed about experiences with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Work Projects Administration (WPA) as well. Georgia blues artist Buster Ezell celebrated the African-American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis in this blues from 1943. Ezell also recorded this topical song about WWII, "Roosevelt and Hitler." Buster Brown, who enjoyed a major blues hit in 1959 with "Fannie Mae," also recorded a 1943 blues about World War II.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, many blues songs reflected experiences of the "Great Migration" as millions of southern blacks moved to northern cities such as Chicago and Detroit in search of work. Songs such as Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" sang of this journey in an optimistic way in the 1930s. Another Mississippi singer-guitarist of the era, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, sang this version of it at the Library of Congress in 1978.

Other blues expressed some nostalgia for the south, as Muddy Waters did in "Louisiana Blues," and "Feel Like Going Home" in the late 1940s. In this period, blues was increasingly played by amplified groups that featured drums and electric guitars. Leading blues artists in this style include Waters, Howlin' Wolf , Elmore James and B.B. King. The electric guitar became the dominant instrument in urban blues in this era, though harmonica players such as Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter enjoyed considerable success, too.

Singers such as Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris found success fronting groups that mixed blues with the jazz and swing styles of the 1940s, and the blues fostered early rock and roll in this era. The music began to reach an international audience, in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually becoming a well recognized and widely practiced form throughout the world, even as its original audience in the African American community has waned.


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Five webcasts from concerts at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium that include modern country music artsts.

  • 2010 Country Music Association Songwriters Series

    This December 4, 2010 performance featured host Bob DiPiero with Brett James, Little Big Town and Lori McKenna.

  • 2011 Country Music Association Songwriters Series

    The November 6, 2011 performance featured host Bob DiPiero with Clint Black, Patty Loveless and Tim Nichols.

  • ASCAP Collection Concert

    A May 11, 2010 performance that included singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander and Nashville songwriter Wayland Holyfield, whose music has been recorded by Randy Travis, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba McEntire, Ernest Tubb, George Strait and George Jones.

  • We Write the Songs: ASCAP 2011

    A May 10, 2011 performance that included singer-songwriters Brett James and Lyle Lovett.

  • We Write the Songs: ASCAP Concert 2012

    A May 15, 2012 performance at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium that included singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, whose music has been recorded by George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley.

Country music encompasses everything from fiddler Eck Robertson to the arena-pop of Taylor Swift. The origins of country music can be traced to the 17th century, when European and African immigrants to North America brought their folktales, folk songs, favorite instruments, and musical traditions. Country music has seen various developments since the first commercial recordings, but whatever form it takes, country music speaks to particular American musical traditions and values.

The first commercial country music recordings date to the 1920s. In 1922, the Victor and Okeh recording companies recorded the first country music artists, among them fiddler Eck Robertson, who performed "Arkansas Traveler" and "Sallie Gooden" for Victor Records. Both were staples of the traditional repertoire, a status that was reinforced by the success of the recordings.

If tradition informed the music, commerce and technology, in the form of recordings and radio, helped it spread. Budding country artists of the 1920s could purchase musical instruments, as well as songbooks and printed music, through the Sears catalog. WLS Radio in Chicago introduced the National Barn Dance on April 19, 1924. The influential program was broadcast throughout the Midwest and ran in some form until 1968. It had many imitators, and directly led to the Nashville-based Grand Ole Opry.

In 1927, Ralph Peer of Victor Records held an audition for new talent in Bristol, Tennessee and discovered two defining and influential acts: The Carter Family, who made more than 250 recordings, many of them now standards, in the next fourteen years, and Jimmie Rodgers, an erstwhile railroad worker soon to gain fame as "The Singing Brakeman." Rodgers' career was cut short when he died in 1933 at the age of thirty-five, but his influence can be felt not just in modern country music but in modern pop music. In 1997 Bob Dylan assembled an all-star cast for The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, a tribute album that included performances of Rodgers' songs by Dylan, Van Morrison, Bono, Jerry Garcia, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson, and Dwight Yoakam.

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, 1931 Photo courtesy of the BCMA Museum

With the arrival of talking pictures in the late 1920s, Hollywood westerns popularized the image of the cowboy as the face of country music. Gene Autry was known as "America's favorite singing cowboy," but he had competition in Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers.

In 1939, John Lomax and his wife, Ruby, began a recording tour through the South for the fledgling Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. The Lomaxes recorded hundreds of performances of ballads, blues, cowboy songs, field hollers, spirituals, and work songs in nine southern states. Ethnomusicologists consider the recordings made on this field trip to be among the most important in this genre.

The same year Lomax began his journey, the Grand Ole Opry, which had been airing on radio station WSM of Nashville since 1925, made its first nationwide network broadcast on NBC. The broadcasts brought country music to a wider audience and led to Nashville's stature as the home of country music.

The Grand Ole Opry's host at this time was fiddler and singer Roy Acuff. In 1942, Acuff, with Fred Rose, established Acuff-Rose Publishing, Nashville’s first country music publishing company. Country music grew in national popularity in the 1940s, and absorbed many aspects of mainstream popular music. Acuff-Rose benefitted from this move to the mainstream, but also from the harder edged honky-tonk styles that were also gaining in popularity when they signed future country music legends like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

During World War II, the Special Service Division of the military introduced hillbilly bands to a wide audience of soldiers in USO shows. Honky-tonk, bluegrass, and other country standards spread across the world along with the America soldiers, and as the music spread, so did its influences. Western and Cowboy Songs developed throughout the 1940s and 1950s and gave rise to major country artists like Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman in the 1940s, and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s. Read more about Western Swing and Cowboy songs here. Read about Bill Monroe and other Bluegrass artists here.

The rock 'n' roll era ushered in yet another development in country music, with rockabilly and crossover artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Read more about Rockabilly here.

In the 1960s, country producers and artists continued to mix popular, more urban styles into their performances, and the resulting fusion was dubbed "Countrypolitan." It was in this era that female singers and songwriters came into their own as star performers. In the 1950s, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline paved the way for Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Dottie West, Connie Smith, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton. Country music is primarily thought of as a white rural music, but in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Charley Pride rose to the top of the country music charts as the first black performer to excel in the genre. Even as much of country music absorbed pop music influences, many country artists sang topical songs about contentious issues such as divorce, birth control, poverty and the war in Vietnam.

During the 1960s, California became the center for a West Coast country music style known as the Bakersfield Sound, led by southwestern migrants such as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, which blended honky-tonk, western and rockabilly styles. Contemporary artists like Dwight Yoakum continue this style.

Westerner Willie Nelson's career in country music goes back to the 1950s, but it was in the 1970s that his outlaw persona brought him crossover acclaim from rock and pop audiences. In 1976, he and Waylon Jennings, Jessie Colter and Tompall Glaser appeared on an anthology called Wanted: The Outlaws, which epitomized and gave a name to the non-mainstream music and lyrics coming out of Austin, Texas. A variation on the cowboy persona of country music artists, musicians like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams, Jr., also personified the country music outlaw in their 1970s recordings.

"Countrypolitan" artists enjoyed popularity into the 1980s, but elements of western swing and bluegrass came to the fore in mainstream country music as well. Artists like Asleep at the Wheel, George Strait and Reba McEntire personified this sound. Ricky Skaggs infused his New Country with driving bluegrass instrumentals, while Randy Travis used a more traditional "lonesome" vocal style influenced by Lefty Frizzell.

A new generation of country music television grew in the 1980s. The Nashville Network debuted in 1983. MTV Networks created CMT (Country Music Television) to air country programming, including news and music videos, in a twenty-four hour format.

In the 1990s, honky-tonk, bluegrass, pop, and new country contributed to crossover appeal on the pop charts. Country-rock artists like Emmylou Harris stayed close to their traditional roots, while breakout stars like Garth Brooks brought an arena-rock sound to country music.

Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett performing at the Coolidge Auditorium, May 10, 2011. Photo by Patricio Padua.

Since 2010, the Library of Congress has hosted the annual Country Music Association Songwriters Series. This popular concert series features performances from contemporary country songwriters and performers like Jim Beavers, Clint Black, Brett James, Little Big Town, Patti Loveless, Lori McKenna, Ronnie Milsap, Lorrie Morgan, and Tim Nichols. View webcasts from previous CMA Songwriters Concerts here: 2010, 2011.

Modern country music artists have also performed at the Library in Congress in concerts celebrating the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). The 2010 ASCAP concert featured singer-songwriter Jessi Alexander and Nashville songwriter Wayland Holyfield, whose music has been recorded by Randy Travis, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba McEntire, Ernest Tubb, George Strait and George Jones. In 2011, the ASCAP concert included singer-songwriters Brett James and Lyle Lovett.

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Western and Cowboy Songs


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • Starving to death on a government claim

    A pioneer song sung by folklorist Vance Randolph, who learned it in Kansas in his youth.

  • The Darned Old Wheel

    A comic cowboy song about the arrival of the bicycle in the West sung by Lum Wilson "Bill" Jackson in 1941.

  • Night herding song

    Composed and sung by Harry Stephens. An example of a work song composed by a cowboy for herding cattle at night.

  • Ragtime cowboy Joe

    Sung by Bob Roberts, Lyrics by Grant Clarke, music by Lewis F. Muir and Maurice Abrahams, 1912. An early example of a highly successful "cowboy song" composed for the popular market by those with little or no experience of the West.

  • The Bar J Wranglers: Cowboy Music from Wyoming

    A webcast of their performance at the Library of Congress, October 2, 2008.

Although it is often spoken of in the same breath as "Country" music, "Western" is a distinct area of American popular music whose roots reach into the frontier era of the 19th century.

Distinctly "Western" songs began to emerge in the mid-19th century, reflecting the Texas, Arizona and Oklahoma region's unique mix of peoples of Anglo, Celtic, Spanish, and Other European; African; Native; and Central American heritage. In addition, the great trail drives of the 1860s to the 1890s drew young men from all over the country and abroad to work as cowboys. They refashioned old folk and popular song forms to their own tastes, and added serious and comic lyrics about their lives and work, as well as specials calls and hollers to herd cattle and communicate with each other over the vast expanses of the trail. Cowboy poetry also flourished. The westernmost terminals of the railroads became points where cowboy songs were sung, shared, and then taken to new parts of the West by the cowboys returning home. For example, the railhead at Abilene, Kansas brought cowboys together from many Southwestern territories. The pioneer song "Home on the Range," written by Dr. Brewster M. Higley and set to music by Daniel Kelly in about 1874, not far from this railhead, was spread rapidly across the West in the 1870s by cowboys on cattle drives.

As the settlement of Mexico included portions of what became the Western United States in 1848, the Corridos, or ballads, sung by those close to Mexican culture often include both United States and Mexican history. An example is "Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros," which concerns the taking of Matamoros by Mexican revolutionary forces in 1913, a battle that had an impact on the United States as many people of the town fled the violence by crossing into Brownsville, Texas. (See also, "Mexican American Song.")

Gene Autry

Gene Autry, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. 1953. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-5863. Autry, who grew up on a ranch in Texas, popularized cowboy music on stage, television, and radio beginning in the early 1930s.

Songs of the pioneers, Texas Rangers, and the gold rush also became part of the mix that we call Western music today. Some examples of pioneer songs include "Root Hog or Die," and "Freighting from Wilcox to Globe," and the Mormon pioneer song "St. George." A song of the difficult life of the Texas lawmen is "The Texas Ranger." There are many gold rush songs including "Clementine," about the California Gold rush, and "The dreary Black Hills," about the South Dakota gold rush.

The Western frontier was mythologized in the popular press, and numerous songs celebrating cowboys, Indians, outlaws and the wonders of the western lands were written by tunesmiths who had no firsthand knowledge of the West. Traveling shows such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West were similarly dramatic, but more authentic, and featured frontier personages such Buffalo Bill Cody himself, sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull. Buffalo Bill's show traveled with a full brass band, playing popular favorites of the day, cavalry marches and program material such as Karl I. King's "The Passing of the Red Man." "At the Bully Wooly Wild West Show" by the Peerless Quartet, is a 1913 evocation of these shows.

The region produced distinctive social dance music as well, as Mexican musicians adapted the accordions played by German and Bohemian immigrants to their own music, and even gave their waltzes and polkas distinctive Spanish interpretations. Texas fiddlers developed a repertoire markedly different from that of fiddlers elsewhere in the country, playing many waltzes and other European forms, and favoring tunes with three or more parts, in contrast with the two part tunes that dominated Appalachian and other fiddling traditions. In the 20th century, the Texas "long bow" style of fiddling blossomed, and incorporated blues and jazz influences.

The era of the great cattle drives ended in the 1890s, but even with the closing of the frontier, the appeal of cowboy songs and western music endured. Though cowboys no longer rode the Chisholm Trail north, there was still plenty of work with cattle to be had on ranches and in rodeos, and in songs, drama, popular fiction and movies, the cowboy had fully emerged as an authentic and truly American hero, a kind of knight of the plains. In the cities, this could be somewhat anachronistic, and it was the site of a young Brooklyn boy dressed up as a cowboy that inspired the 1912 song "Ragtime Cowboy Joe," which has since become as standard of the western repertoire. But for those who still own, work, or live on ranches in the west, "real" cowboy songs are generally those written by the people who shared that life as well as pioneer songs of the west that made their way into the cowboy repertoire. Cowboy songs are still written and sung today. Examples available in this presentation include concerts by D.W. Groethe of Montana and South Dakota,The Bar J Wranglers of Wyoming, and Wylie Gustafson and Paul Zarzyski of Montana.

In 1908 and 1910 two pioneering print collections were published: Jack Thorp's Songs of the Cowboy and John Lomax's Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. Both helped ensure that in the future at least some of the best known cowboy songs could be traced back to real cowboys. A few such songs were recorded commercially, some even sung by former cowboys such as Jules Verne Allen and Harry McClintock, or by singers with first hand experience of the West, such as Carl T. Sprague, who popularized "When the Work's All Done This Fall" and "The Dying Cowboy." [1] Beginning in 1933, John Lomax and his son Alan recorded the songs and stories of many real-life cowboys in English and Spanish as they gathered field recordings for the Library of Congress.

A few cowboy songs found their way to other genres. In 1923, Massachusetts-born baritone Royal Dadmun recorded art song settings of two cowboy songs: "Rounded Up in Glory," a song collected by John Lomax, which was set to music by Oscar J. Fox, a Texan from a ranching family who set other cowboy songs; and "A Roundup Lullaby," written by cowboy poet Charles "Badger" Clark, and set to music by composer Gertrude Ross, who taught composition to Eleanor Remick Warren. "A Roundup Lullaby" found a wide audience and was even sung by Bing Crosby in a 1936 film, Rhythm on the Range.

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. 1953. National Broadcasting Company, 1954. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-126394. Roy Rogers formed the cowboy music group The Sons of the Pioneers with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer in 1934.

When sound films arrived in the late 1920s, the singing cowboy became a staple hero of Westerns. Ken Maynard, a rodeo cowboy and veteran of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, started in silent films, but came into his own in the talkies as the screen's first singing cowboy. Many singing cowboys followed, and Maynard was eventually eclipsed by enormous success of Gene Autry, who came from a Texas ranching family, and Roy Rogers, an Ohio native who cofounded the Sons of the Pioneers, a Western singing group whose other members hailed from Oklahoma, Texas and Canada.

Autry enjoyed many national hits, some of which he co-wrote such as his theme song "Back in the Saddle Again" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine." Before he left the Sons of the Pioneers to pursue his movie career, Rogers recorded "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" with the group, a major hit, and a celebration of the romantic image of the wandering, footloose cowboy. The Sons of the Pioneers regrouped without Rogers, and continued to great success with a combination of tight harmonies, western themes, and the unique swing flavorings that Hugh and Karl Farr, two Texas bothers of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee descent, added with their fiddle and guitar work.

In the 1930s a large migration of people fleeing the dust bowl of the Southwest and Midwest occurred. A large portion of these people heading for California to become migrant workers. They brought their music with them, and so this migration had an impact on Western music as traditional music of agriculturalists blended with the popular Western music that was emerging. Most notably, singer Woody Guthrie emerged as a singer and songwriter who called attention to the plight of the dust bowl migrants. His album Dust Bowl Ballads, published in 1940, was the most successful album of his career. [2]

In this period, the style now known as "Western Swing" emerged. Groups such as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownie and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys led the way, playing an often raucous mixture of Western, pop, jazz and folk influences, and featuring electric guitars and drum kits, setting themselves apart from the Appalachian based styles produced by the emerging country music establishment in Nashville, Tennessee A western swing tune might feature an old fiddle tune enlivened with blues and jazz phrasing, a bit of a German or Czech melody played with a Spanish lilt, set to a fast, driving Dixieland rhythm. Western Swing also took western music all the way west to California, where many artists entertained before huge audiences of recent arrivals from Texas and Oklahoma in the 1940s and 1950s.

Texas and Oklahoma singers such as Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman also emerged in the 1940s. Though they were not thought of as Western Swing artists, they incorporated its influence in their style. Their songs often celebrated (or cursed) what Hank Thompson called "The Wild Side of Life" in one of his songs. By this time, the influence of the western scene was so strong that country artists began to copy it. Hank Williams, a native of Alabama, called his band "The Drifting Cowboys," and their sound owed much to the Western style.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of Western singers and songwriters emerged with a style influenced by Western artists, as well as a frank, plainspoken lyrical approach that set them apart from the Country and pop music establishments. Bakersfield, California, where many westerners had settled in the 1930s and 1940s, became a new center for western music, with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard leading the way. Texas born artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings returned to Texas after sojourns in Nashville, and pursued their individual styles to eventual great success. George Jones, considered by some to be the greatest singer in the Country or Western fields, is also a native of Texas.

In the 1970s, Western Swing experienced a revival in popularity that has carried it down to this day. Merle Haggard recorded two tribute albums to Bob Wills in 1970 and 1973, and performed Wills's material live with many original Texas Playboys. Young groups such as Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen played Western Swing for audiences raised on rock. More recently, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett has incorporated and adapted much Western Swing into his work. Riders in the Sky, a highly skilled trio inspired by the Sons of the Pioneers achieved wide popularity and even hosted a children's television show with a mix of classic Western Swing and the singing cowboy styles of Hollywood. Today, young groups like the Quebe Sisters, a trio of fiddlers from Fort Worth, are keeping Western music alive and swinging in the 21st Century.


  1. This presentation includes field recordings of "The work's all done next fall" sung by Beal Taylor and "The dying cowboy" (also known as "Bury me not on the lone prairie") sung by Frank Goodwin. [back to article]
  2. This presentation includes songs of dust bowl migrants collected in California by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in 1949 and 1941. See the article: "Songs of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Migrants." [back to article]
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Recordings from Library of Conrgess Collections

  • The Not Too Bad Bluegrass Band

    This Indiana group performed at the Library of Congress on October 13, 2010.

  • "White House Blues"

    The Bluegrass Cardinals performed their version of a ballad about the assassination of President McKinley at the Library of Congress on April 25, 1977.

  • Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver

    Bluegrass and Gospel Music from Tennessee in performance at the Library of Congress on September 13, 2006.

  • "Cripple Creek"

    An old-time dance song that became a popular bluegrass song, performed by The King Family in the old-time style. Recorded by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin, 1941.

Bluegrass music is a tradition-based modern style of string band music. Typically a bluegrass band consists of four to seven performers who sing while accompanying themselves on acoustic string instruments such as the guitar, double bass, fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, and Dobro. Bluegrass combines elements of old-time mountain music, square dance fiddling, blues, gospel, jazz, and popular music. Like jazz, bluegrass allows performers to improvise and take turns playing lead. Its distinctive timing surges slightly ahead of or anticipates the main beat, creating an energized effect. Its vocal range is rather high, forcing vocalists into their upper ranges and creating a tight, almost austere, sometimes called "high lonesome" sound. Bluegrass makes frequent use of close-harmony duets, trios, and quartets.

The bluegrass style first became popular in the 1940s, largely through the efforts of Bill Monroe (1911-1996) and his Blue Grass Boys (Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Joel Price). Previously, as one-half of the Monroe Brothers act, Bill had starred as mandolinist, fiddler, radio performer and recording artist with his brother Charlie. In 1938 he formed the Blue Grass Boys, naming the band after the nickname for his home state of Kentucky. Deeply rooted in country sounds, the group combined elements of swing with a surging fiddle and syncopated banjo picking to create a wholly new genre. As instrumentalists, each member of the band is regarded by performers today as a model of all that's best in bluegrass playing. As singers, the group created a unique sound. Today the recordings of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys are landmarks in country gospel, both critically and popularly acclaimed. The band members may have changed over the years, but the band's sound and the quality of its compositions remained strong throughout.

As with other popular music of the time, bluegrass developed regional shadings. Honky tonk sold well in the Midwest. Southern influences crept northward up the Atlantic coast. In Nashville bluegrass was definitely infused with mainstream country. The West Coast seemed to encompass all shadings. Many in the audience considered the music "country" or "hillbilly," but purists recognized bluegrass as a separate entity.

Bill Monroe at a festival in Franklin, Ohio, September 1968. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer; used with permission.

In the 1950s rock and roll took over the country while bluegrass performers faded in popularity. However, by the 1960s country and bluegrass music had become infused with new energy as part of a folk music revival. In 1965 singer-promoter Carlton Haney and folklorist Ralph Rinzler produced the first genuine bluegrass festival at Fincastle, Virginia. Bluegrass moved from the bars and tour buses, to which it had been relegated in the 1950s, to the open air and the airwaves. When younger performers started adding elements of jazz, pop, and rock to the traditional country base, bluegrass somehow mutated into "newgrass." Bluegrass music has never truly left the musical stage; it has merely adapted to meet new challenges. Since Bill Monroe's first time on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, pickers and singers have been keeping his style alive even as they have added new elements to it, just as Bill did when he created bluegrass in the 1940s.

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Rhythm and Blues


Recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • Barbara Lynn (webcast)

    The Texas Rhythm and blues singer and song writer in performance at the Library of Congress, November 18, 2009.

  • The Birmingham Sunlights (webcast)

    This Gospel group from Alabama sing in several musical styles, including doo-wop, in this presentation at the Library of Congress in 2005.

The term “rhythm and blues,” often called “R&B,” originated in the 1940s when it replaced “race music” as a general marketing term for all African American music, though it usually referred only to secular, not religious music. The term first appeared in commercial recording in 1948, when RCA Victor records began using “blues and rhythm” music as a descriptor for African American secular songs. The migration of African Americans to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest during the early twentieth century helped to bring various regional styles of African American music together to influence one another. The migration also created new markets for these styles of music. Early on the term “rhythm and blues” was used for boogie woogie, African American swing, jazz, and blues. All of these styles influenced the development of what is called rhythm and blues today.

The meaning of the term continued to change over time, and today it is still used as an umbrella term for many different African-American musical forms. Historically speaking, though, “rhythm and blues” as we understand it today most often describes a style of music that developed after World War II that combines elements of pop, gospel, blues and jazz with a strong back beat. The African American styles that emerged in those years were often played by small groups that emphasized rhythmic drive over the instrumental and harmonic complexity of the swing orchestras. Their vocalists often sang in an uninhibited and emotionally direct style. In major cities, teenaged vocal groups with little or no instrumental accompaniment were a growing presence. They took their inspiration from both gospel singers and successful African American pop stylists such as the Ink Spots. The term “doo-wop” is well known now, but it was not applied to these groups until much later, and it refers to the vocables and nonsense syllables these group sang to compensate for their lack of instruments. All of these styles were significant to the development of rock and roll a few years later.

Barabara Lynn

Texas Rhythm and blues singer and song writer Barbara Lynn performs at the Library of Congress, November 18, 2009.

The gospel group the Birmingham Sunlights also presents two religious songs in doo-wop style, “If you missed me from singing” (at time code 5:00), and "We're going to move in the room of the Lord" (at time code 00:20:50), in the video of their concert at the Library of Congress in 2005.

Though it began as a general term for African American music, the synthesis of styles that became what is now called rhythm and blues caught on among a wide youth audience during the post war period and contributed to changing the racial divide in American society and music of the mid-twentieth century. Initially, white artists such as Elvis Presley performed and recorded, or “covered,” rhythm and blues works by African American composers in order for those songs to be marketed to white audiences. But the effect was to bring both audiences and artists with an interest in this style of music together. The development of rhythm and blues occurred just as segregation became a growing social issue in American society. Both Black and white young people wanted to see the popular performers of the day, and mixed groups of youths sang doo-wop together on the street corners of many urban centers. This provoked a strong reaction of proponents of segregation and was one reason why rhythm and blues and early rock and roll were often seen as dangerous to America’s youth. But with young people of all backgrounds identifying with these new musical styles, a generation was becoming ready for a more equal society.

In the 1960s, a rhythm and blues style known as “soul” emerged in which the influence of gospel vocal style was stronger, though the lyrical emphasis was usually very secular. In this presentation is a video of a concert at the Library of Congress by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Barbara Lynn, a successful soul artists of the mid-1960s, performing her style of Texas rhythm and blues in 2009.


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During the early 1900s, America's musical heartbeat was syncopated and seemingly omnipresent. Although the classic piano works by Joplin and others of his ilk were not part of the recorded repertoire, there was plenty of raggy music committed to record. Here is a diverse group of performers from a cimbalom soloist to a military band demonstrating their take on this popular style.

Ragtime, a uniquely American, syncopated musical phenomenon, has been a strong presence in musical composition, entertainment, and scholarship for over a century. It emerged in its published form during the mid-1890s and quickly spread across the continent via published compositions. By the early 1900s ragtime flooded the music publishing industry. The popularity and demand for ragtime also boosted sale of pianos and greatly swelled the ranks of the recording industry. Ragtime seemed to emanate primarily from the southern and midwestern states with the majority of activity occurring in Missouri — although the East and West coasts also had their share of composers and performers. Ragtime's popularity promptly spread to Europe and there, as in America, soon became a fad.

The Ragtime Nightmare

The Ragtime Nightmare by Tom Turpin (St. Louis, MO: Robt. DeYoung & Co., 1900). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

It is not easy to define ragtime. Like jazz, another distinctly American musical art form, ragtime's composers, practitioners, and admirers each see its boundaries differently. However, these groups are distinguished by subgroups of purists who generally agree on, and stand by, a precise definition:

Ragtime — A genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over a rhythmically steady bass. A ragtime composition is usually composed three or four contrasting sections or strains, each one being 16 or 32 measures in length.

This definition describes much of the music of the itinerant pianists who traversed the South and Midwest and eventually congregated in Missouri to produce an oeuvre of core ragtime compositions. These roving composers include Scott Joplin, Charles Hunter, Thomas Turpin, Louis Chauvin, Charles L. Johnson, and many others.

Some ragtime scholars point out that ragtime is composed chiefly for an audience — a pianistic work not meant for dancing. It is a genre distinct from other types of syncopated musical compositions from about the same period — for example, “coon songs” and cakewalks — the latter especially composed for dancing.

But our definition cannot be cut-and-dried, for “ragtime” once described the peppy, syncopated treatment of almost any type of music — that is how it was known to the public at large. Ragtime became a very real fad that covered a wide range of styles and even grew to describe things non-musical. Much like rock 'n' roll, heavy metal, jazz, and other popular genres of music, ragtime invited “the curiosity and even devotion of the young at the same time it disquiets the staid and established ... ragtime created an attitude and defined an era that reached beyond the music.” (Real Ragtime booklet, 4)

Ragtime, the word, probably began life as a description of musical meter and certainly preceded the advent of the music of Joplin, Scott, and others. It was part of the late 19th century-lexicon to use “-time” as a suffix to describe a kind of music by the characteristics of its rhythm. For instance, waltzes were referred to as being “in waltz-time.” “March-time” and “jig-time” also described the meter, basic rhythm, and function of style. Almost certainly, however, the term is a contraction for “ragged time,” denoting a style of playing piano or banjo where the melody is “broken up” into short, syncopated rhythms while a steady overall beat is either played (piano) or implied (banjo). Taking a simple, conventional, and unsyncopated melody and breaking up the rhythm was known as “ragging,” therefore, the resulting music was said to be in “ragged time.”

Americans were first exposed to ragtime, en masse, at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. It is reported that some 27 million people passed through the Fair gates between May and October of that year. In 1896 “rag” and “rag time” were used to describe some newly published “coon songs,” complete with outrageous parodies of black culture and speech. Among them was “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” composed by black entertainer, Ernest Hogan. The second chorus offered a syncopated accompaniment, composed by Max Hoffman, along with the caption “Choice Chorus with Negro 'Rag' Accompaniment.” Also during 1896, the cover of Ben Harney's song “You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You Done Broke Down” featured a banner proclaiming “Original Introducer to the stage of the new popular 'Rag Time.'” The following year saw the first published piano rags beginning with W. H. Krell's “Mississippi Rag.”

Syncopation — The “Misplaced” Beat

Ragtime was both exciting and threatening to America's youth and staid polite society, respectively. The excitement came from syncopation—the displacing of the beat from its regular and assumed course of meter. Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, swing, and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public at large. The threat came from the very same displaced beat that evoked a strong connotation to the “low-class” Negro music found in brothels and saloons. The Midwest, particularly postbellum Missouri, was rife with saloons, brothels, and cabarets—all places where a pianist with a decent repertoire could earn a decent living.

The syncopated motif:

Example of syncopation

when counted in 2/4-time yields a feel of “short - long - short,” (with a fourth sound added for definition), is the most common syncope found in ragtime. It comes from the cakewalk, a high-stepping dance popularized on the minstrel stage and which often served as the show's finale. Syncopations in the genre of piano ragtime are varied and intricate as well as simple.

This motif and more complex syncopations were commonly heard in “head” music (music played totally by ear) performed in the Caribbean, the southern states, and the Georgia Sea Islands. However, they are rarely found in published American music prior to the mid-1880s.

The complexities of non-written or “head syncopations” heard in rhythms of black slaves are addressed by music historian H. Wiley Hitchcock. He explains that the “...emphatic use of syncopation by American Negroes, partly derived from African drumming, partly derived from Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms.” He then quotes from an 1835 letter to Edgar Allan Poe in which a friend describes a musical performance of some slaves in a practice known as “clapping Juba” (“Juba” is thought to refer to the English dance-name “jig.”) The text is a remarkable testimony to the survival of syncopated elements in African drumming:

“There is no attempt to keep time to all the notes, but then it comes so pat & so distinct that the cadence is never lost. . . Such irregularities are like rests and grace notes. They must be so managed as neither to hasten or retard the beat. The time of the bar must be the same, no matter how many notes are in it.” (Music in the United States, 120)

Much of what became the key ingredients of ragtime came from self-taught and largely uneducated musicians: slaves; hill folk of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas; and minstrel-troupe musicians. The popularity and portability of the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and violin made these the instruments of choice for these itinerant musicians.

Banjo and Fiddle

It is not easy to tell when and where this lively, rhythmically propulsive music began, but it is possible to point to some very specific roots and to see it bear fruit. Though the evidence is not negligible, few contemporary writings chronicle the role that the banjo played in the development of ragtime. In a noteworthy comment made in 1881, the essayist Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “Did you ever hear negroes play the piano by ear?... They use the piano exactly like a banjo. It is good banjo-playing but no piano-playing.” (Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music, 54, 58) In 1899 the music critic Rupert Hughes used the term “banjo figurations” to describe the piano ragtime that he had heard.

These peculiar rhythms and melodies had another source — the fiddle music that British Isles immigrants played to folk dances such as the jig and reel. “Turkey in the Straw,” also known as “Old Zip Coon,” for example, is thought to be of Scottish origin. This string music reveals the origin of a commonly used rhythmic device in ragtime, known as “secondary rag” — a simple, repeated, three-note motif that gives the listener a temporary off-center feeling by imposing an even pulse of three over a series of duple measures.

Image depicting pulse of three over series of duple measures

By the mid-1850s these ragged rhythms were finding their way into published banjo solos and methods. Much of this earlier published material came from the minstrel stage and was given an “Ethiopic" theme meant to evoke the plantation and the South. Not all Ethiopic themed music contained syncopation—quite a bit of it consisted of sentimental songs that evoked the themes of fondness for the South, the plantation, “Massa,” and other aspects of slavery. But, syncopation rarely found its' way onto the printed page—a nod perhaps to the notion that it was difficult music to play unless you had an innate feeling for it.

The Heart of Ragtime

Missouri, located in the center of America, was the heartland of ragtime. As noted by popular music historians David Jasen and Gene Jones, “There were more rags—and more good rags—from Missouri than anywhere else.” (That American Rag, 1) Perhaps it was the robust pioneer spirit that thrived in Missouri that created the environment for music like ragtime to flourish.

“...Missouri was destined by its location to be an area of commercial, social, and cultural change. Since the early nineteenth century, St. Louis has served as midpoint and stopover for north-south traffic on our largest river, and when going west was a national imperative, the city was the 'Gateway to the West.'” (TAR, 1)

During the 1880s, black entrepreneurs prospered in the sporting district of St. Louis, known as Chestnut Valley. John L. Turpin, a black businessman from Savannah, Georgia, made St. Louis his home in 1887 and opened a saloon called the Silver Dollar.

Turpin's teenage son, Tom, followed closely in his father's footsteps and by 1897 had opened his first saloon. That same year, young Turpin, also a self-taught pianist, had his composition “Harlem Rag” published by a local lawyer. “Harlem Rag” was a defining piece of piano ragtime and a model for its composers.

By 1900 Tom Turpin had acquired sufficient capital to open a new saloon and brothel, the Rosebud. His two young protégés, Joe Jordan and Louis Chauvin, frequented the establishment. With the constant rollicking, buoyant sound of ragtime, Turpin, Jordan, Chauvin, and many other enthusiastic proponents of the new music, made the Rosebud and St. Louis the capital of ragtime.

The regular flow of traffic through St. Louis and the rest of the state created a demand for accommodations and amenities for travelers. “As Missouri gentrified it became a state where a piano player could make a good living.” (TAR, 2) As their salaries usually were nominal, the nomadic pianists made their best money from tips provided by the patrons of the many saloons and brothels that employed them.

It should be noted that when their music was eventually published, however, their royalties, although welcomed, were insignificant. About a dozen brave publishers risked putting some of this engaging, new music on sale to the public.

The most influential and memorable publisher was John Stark, a Civil War veteran and peripatetic ice cream salesman who loved music. He settled in Sedalia in 1886, opened a music store, and eventually turned to publishing. Stark met Scott Joplin in 1899 when the latter came into Stark's store to demonstrate his still unpublished “Maple Leaf Rag.” Although Stark was impressed by the musicality of the piece, the technical difficulty of the piece led him to question its salability.

After some encouragement from his son, John Stark agreed to publish “Maple Leaf Rag” thus beginning a profitable business relationship for himself and Joplin and insuring immortality for ragtime. By 1914 “Maple Leaf Rag” had sold 1 million copies and Stark had amassed over 50 rags in his catalog.

In addition to Joplin, Stark's stable of ragtime composers included James Scott, Joseph Lamb, Artie Mathews, J. Russell Robinson, and others. Stark's original assessment and question about ragtime became a reality—it was delightful to the ear and heart although difficult to perform. He came to refer to the rag selections in his catalog as “classic rags.” Composed by musicians of very high standards, they required a refined pianistic ability to perform them correctly. As a result, most of the “classic rags” were not bestsellers.

Missouri was also home to composer Arthur Pryor, who was born in St. Joseph in or around 1870. Pryor grew up playing in his father's band. Best known as a trombonist, Pryor wrote some of the most successful ragtime selections of the era. Some of his better-known rag titles are: “A Coon Band Contest,” “Razzazza Mazzazza,” “That Flying Rag,” and “Frozen Bill.” Although these compositions were published as piano solos, they achieved greater fame as band selections.

As assistant conductor and solo trombonist for the famous band of John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor helped spread the ragtime craze to Europe when the Sousa band toured there in 1900. Not only did he compose most of the band's ragtime material, but he also taught the Sousa musicians how to play the syncopations in a relaxed, unhurried way—the way that he heard it back in Missouri.

The Sound of Ragtime

By the early 1890s Americans had become infatuated with the multi-strained “March and two-step,” which was basically the same as a march. Always in 2/4 or 6/8 meter, there was something stirring and optimistic about these pieces. Both meters yield a “two feel,” but 6/8 has its intrinsic triple feel that creates a far-reaching swing. In fact, 6/8 two-steps were often referred to as “swings” as were the steps danced to them.

The ragtime compositions by Joplin and his circle were solely in duple meter and had a different sort of swing to them. A 6/8 two-step encouraged a more aerobic style of dance due to its broad swing. Ragtime's syncopations within the measure (and often over the measure), however, led to smaller and more gyrating dance steps, resulting in a series of popular “animal” dances such as the grizzly bear, bunny hug, turkey trot, and others.

Syncopation in ragtime was varied and more complex than the simple cakewalk. The syncopated rhythms found in the best rags were meant to evoke a looseness, natural flow, and drive recreated by reading and performing the music exactly as written. If performed correctly, the effect of the syncopation against the steady duple meter bass created an air of excitement and spontaneity not inherently found in most published music of the time.

The Fad

Ragtime was everywhere by the early 1900s—in sheet music, piano rolls, phonograph records, and ragtime piano playing contests, as well as in music boxes, vaudeville theaters, and bordellos. Publishing houses churned out piano rags and ragtime songs at a furious pace. Ragtime also appeared in arrangements for orchestras and wind bands. The majority of this music was the popular sort of ragtime that was cranked out mostly by Tin Pan Alley hacks. As with all types of music, there is always a bigger market for a less subtle, more digestible version of the original, more complicated, form.

The overabundance and popularity of ragtime was not always met with enthusiasm. For example, at the 1901 convention of the American Federation of Musicians in Denver, “Resolutions were adopted characterizing 'ragtime' as 'unmusical rot.' Members were encouraged to 'make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5/14/01, 1)

Similarly, at a 1902 meeting of the Lincoln Women's Relief Corps, a motion was made by the Grand Army Encampment of Music chairman E. B. Hay, that the bands in the Corps' “great parade be allowed to play 'Ragtime,' to break up the monotony of patriotic and martial airs...” The motion was met with great indignation, noting it “sacrilege to require Civil War veterans to march along Pennsylvania Avenue to 'ragtime' strains.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8/11/02, 11)

The press overreacted about ragtime eroding mores. In January 1900 the music monthly The Etude, in a piece entitled “Musical Impurity” noted: “The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one's suspicions of their sanity.” It went on to describe the melodic rhythm of ragtime as “double-jointed jumping jack airs that fairly twist the ears of an educated musician from their anchorage.”

The Fad Fades

“Ragtime” as a catchall name for syncopated popular music remained popular through the 1910s. Ragtime's popularity faded around 1917 with the rise of another catchall term—“jazz”—used to describe peppy, noisy, popular music. Note that musicians active in New Orleans during the early 1900s who were later recognized as “jazz musicians” frequently, if not always, referred to the hot music they played as “ragtime.”

It can be stated categorically, however, that the ragtime music of Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, and others had become nearly forgotten by 1920. Joseph Lamb's own daughter did not find out that her father was a well-known composer of ragtime until the dawn of his comeback during the 1950s. Ragtime did not disappear, nor was it “replaced” by jazz. However, it seems to have been supplanted by the novelty piano style that was ironically based on many of the traits found in ragtime—traits that had become anachronistic by 1920.

Novelty and Stride Piano

The technical demands of playing the works of Joplin, et al., are not inconsiderable. Their music demanded technique as a means to expression. What remained in the public's ear by 1920 were the virtuosic, technical aspects of piano ragtime. The genre was known as “novelty piano” — often referred to today as “novelty ragtime.”

Ragtime scholar Ed Berlin points out that “novelty piano” is a latter-day term that was never used by its composers. (Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, 162) Nonetheless, it sprang out of a parody on the sound of ragtime played perhaps too fast—replete with wrong notes, humorous harmonic effects, the already clichéd secondary rag, and even the sound of a player piano slightly out of adjustment.

Novelty piano is not a disrespectful or nonmusical art. On the contrary, it incorporates both technique as a means to itself and the harmonic devices found in older classical piano music. The first hit of this genre, “Kitten on the Keys,” appeared in July 1921. Composed by Elzear “Zez” Confrey (1895-1971), the piece was filled with tricky syncopations, unusual harmonic devices (such as strings of augmented chords, whole tone runs, parallel fourths) that somehow gave the listener the impression of humorously played wrong notes, and sudden shifts of key. Despite being difficult to play, “Kitten on the Keys” sold 1 million copies during its first year of publication. (Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History, 215)

Similarly, stride piano, which developed in and around Harlem, New York, during the 1910s by primarily black pianists, was never referred to as ragtime. Nonetheless, its composers and performers—such as James P. Johnson, Thomas “Fats” Waller, C. Luckyeth “Lucky” Roberts, and others were certainly well acquainted with ragtime and used its components as a point of departure.

The strong kinship among stride, novelty, and ragtime was the fact that all three were usually composed as multi-strained pieces. They were also pianistically conceived and were not meant for dancing. Both novelty and stride piano are typically performed at ragtime festivals today.

Ragtime Returns

Although ragtime was not a big attraction during the 1930s and 1940s, it was still played, and not just by pianists. Oftentimes a dance band recorded an up-to-date swing version of “Maple Leaf Rag.” But more often than not, ragtime, when offered, would be played as quaint nostalgia with its characteristics parodied.

But ragtime also had advocates—its composers, practitioners, and admirers. Of latter, Rudi Blesh was greatly responsible for re-popularizing ragtime. Blesh, a student of art, architecture, and early jazz, came to New York from Berkeley, California, in 1945, while writing a book about the history of jazz. He and his colleague and companion, Harriet Janis, began Circle Records shortly thereafter.

Circle was the first record label to issue recordings from Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 recordings made at the Library of Congress. These recordings prompted much enthusiasm about early jazz styles and ragtime. Circle Records also issued a 3-disc album by jazz clarinetist Tony Parenti and his “Ragtimers,” an ad-hoc jazz band playing ragtime based loosely on old stock arrangements. The album included Joplin's “Swipesy Cake Walk” and James Scott's “Grace and Beauty.” The combination of these jazzmen's sensibilities combined with the formality of the old written arrangements yielded outstanding results.

Blesh and Janis set about researching ragtime in earnest. Their monumental book They All Played Ragtime was published in 1950.

During the 1950s ragtime was the theme of many record albums, but usually was treated as a caricature. Ragtime was frequently played on pianos especially rigged to sound out of tune or perhaps with thumbtacks in the hammers to evoke the sound of old-time saloon pianos. Despite such comical treatments, ragtime began to be heard with more frequency and respect than it had been in three decades. In 1959 and 1960 Max Morath, a talented pianist and entertainer who had some experience directing in television, produced a successful 12-part program entitled “The Ragtime Years” for National Educational Television. Since then, Max Morath and ragtime have become inextricably linked in the public's mind.

The 1968 Columbia Records release of “The Eighty-Six Years of Eubie Blake” was another milestone in the comeback of ragtime. Blake, a skilled composer and pianist was also one of the creators of the 1921 show “Shuffle Along” an important and ground breaking all-black music revue. As a child Blake studied piano formally at home in Baltimore. But he used to sneak out at night to hear the pianists in the low-down saloons nearby.

Blake's wide range of musical endeavors (including an ever-growing classical technique) led him to become familiar, even expert in ragtime. He ultimately composed a number of fine rags himself. As his 1968 recording shows, he was a vastly entertaining, vital performer—dexterous of hand and quick-witted.

Blake swiftly found a new career—traveling the world and appearing on the concert stage. He also was a frequent guest on late-night television talk shows, where he was always introduced to the millions viewers as a ragtime pianist.

In 1970 ragtime experienced a huge renaissance. Nonesuch Records was the first classical label to issue an album of ragtime; “Piano Rags by Scott Joplin,” performed by composer, conductor, and musicologist Joshua Rifkin, created a sensation and quickly became a bestseller. Rifkin's approach was that of a classical pianist. At the same time he was respectful of the low-down element as well without resorting to any type of caricature. His playing of Joplin exhibited an understanding of the inherent swing and looseness that these pieces were meant to evoke. The first album was a remarkable success and was quickly followed by two more volumes.

The 1974 motion picture “The Sting” introduced the widest audience yet to the music of Scott Joplin. Although the choice of Joplin's music for a story set in the 1930s was historically inaccurate, the music underscored and supported the action on the screen perfectly. As a result, Joplin's “The Entertainer” went to the top of the pop record charts.

In 1972, Scott Joplin's ragtime-infused opera, Treemonisha, was revived. Joplin spent the last years of his life struggling to find a producer for his opera. He managed only to have it twice performed, once staged, and once done as a read-through. Joplin died in 1917, broken by the struggle. However, Treemonisha was later accorded its due—in 1976, it earned a special Pulitzer Prize and in 1983, a postage stamp was issued bearing Joplin's likeness.

Since the 1970s and the renaissance of ragtime there has been a great deal of activity in the areas of live performance, festivals, and scholarship in the field. Public radio has featured several series devoted to ragtime such as Terry Waldo's “This is Ragtime” and Galen Wilke's “It's Rag Time!” Talented composers such as Trebor Tichenor, David Thomas Roberts, Scott Kirby, and many others have made lasting contributions to the ragtime repertoire. There are ragtime organizations throughout the nation such as The Classic Ragtime Society of Indiana, The Northern Virginia Ragtime Society, The Sacramento Ragtime Society, and many others. There is even a ragtime-influenced fusion style called “terre verde” for which some contemporary ragtimers are actively composing and performing.

There have also been great advances in ragtime scholarship. Many fine books about ragtime have been published and there have been numerous theses and dissertations written on the subject.

Ragtime, like any other music, must be heard and really cannot be defined by words—just as words cannot be defined by music. But through more than 100 years, ragtime has had no trouble making its presence known and its composers, performers, and admirers all look forward to its future.



Berlin, Ed. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

Berlin, Ed. Reflections and Research on Ragtime. New York: Institute for Studies in American Music, Brooklyn College, 1987.

Jasen, David, and Gene Jones. That American Rag: The Story of Ragtime from Coast to Coast. New York: Schirmer, 2000.

Jasen, David A., and Trebor Jay Tichenor. Rags and Ragtime: A Musical History. New York: The Seabury Press, 1978.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Hasse, John Edward, ed. Ragtime: Its History, Composers, and Music. New York: Schirmer, 1985.

Periodicals and Newspapers:

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. May 14, 1901:1.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. August 11, 1902:11.

“Musical Impurity.” Etude 18 (January 1900): 16.

Recordings: Compact Discs:

“Real Ragtime: Disc Recordings from its Heyday” (Booklet notes by Richard Martin and David Sager). Archeophone Records, Arch. 1001A.

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Rockabilly music arose after World War II and is one of the earliest styles of rock and roll. Mixtures of country music with swing and boogie woogie styles preceded it in the 1940s. As early as the 1930s, Western swing artists such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies freely mixed Black and white styles of music. In the 1940s, the “Honky Tonk” style of country music emerged in the mid-1940s, as artists such as Lefty Frizell, Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells and others brought a frank, adult sensibility to their lyrics, and delivered them over amplified accompaniment, including drums and electric guitar, that showed the influence of western swing as well as of boogie woogie and blues at a time when much other country music was increasingly influenced by pop music of the period, and adding string arrangements and full choral backing.

At the time country music was called “hillbilly” music. As early rock and roll, itself a mixture of several African American styles of music with Western swing and country music, the style that mixed rock and roll with “hillbilly” music became known as “rockabilly.” Early recordings by Elvis Presley, such as his 1955 rocked-up version of the bluegrass song “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe, and “Heartbreak Hotel” by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton (1956), helped to define the rockabilly style as a distinct style within the emerging genre of rock and roll then sweeping the country. It was Presley who inspired Buddy Holly to combine the country style music he had grown up playing with rock and roll in compositions such as “That’ll Be the Day,” released in 1957. At the same time rhythm and blues star Chuck Berry recorded songs influenced by country music, such as “Maybellene” (1955).

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly, half-length portrait, facing front, snapping fingers. James J. Kriegsmann, photographer. General Artists Corporation, 1958. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62

Though it began in the South and Southwest, the rockabilly style inspired young musicians around the country. Eddie Cochran, best known for his 1958 hit “Summertime Blues,” was born in Minnesota and raised partly in California, but is regarded as one of the top rockabilly artists of all time. Cochran also became a direct and vital influence on English rock musicians when he toured England in 1960.

This presentation includes a concert by rockabilly singer/songwriter Sonny Burgess with his group the Pacers, presented at the Library of Congress in October, 2006. In the early 1950s Sonny Burgess was playing boogie woogie music in dance halls. In 1954 he formed a group, the Moonlighters, named for the Silver Moon Club in Newport, Arkansas where they performed. The group combined elements of boogie-woogie, rock and roll, and country. When Elvis Presley played the club, they opened for him, and subsequently opened for him several more times. It was Presley who suggested that they record. They expanded, renamed themselves the Pacers, and, in 1956, released a single with two songs by Burgess, "We Wanna Boogie" and “Red Headed Woman.” This recording is among those that defined rockabilly. The group continued performing until 1972, when rockabilly was on the wane.

By this time, however, a major revival of interest in rock and roll of the 1950s was underway, spurred on by the Broadway show “Grease” (1971), the film “American Graffiti” (1973) and the television series “Happy Days.” (1974-1983). First generation rockabilly stars such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and many others found new audiences at home and abroad. The death of Elvis Presley in 1977 sparked a further resurgence of interest in rockabilly music, not only in the United States but in Europe. Sonny Burgess and the Pacers re-formed, and the group continues to perform today.


  • Dregni, Michael, ed., 2011. Rockabilly: the Twang Heard ’Round the World: the Illustrated History. Forward by Sonny Burgess.
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Hip Hop/Rap

In the 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of hip-hop in the African-American communities of cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles, took longstanding African-American musical traditions in new directions. The style was generally known as “rap” in its early days, and this term is still interchangeable with “hip-hop” when discussing the genre broadly. Hip-hop artists like the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, NWA, Public Enemy and Run DMC drew on the legacy of old African-American musical forms like field hollers and the blues to create a distinctive art form grounded in social protest which used spoken word poetry, sampling, scratching and drumming as the main agents of change.

Hip–hop songs, or rap songs, have roots in much older traditions of African-American poetry and song. “Toasts,” are poems, sometimes chanted, that frequently center on the life of an individual, but sometimes told of events as well. Toasts seem to have emerged in the late nineteenth century and, though largely replaced by newer forms, are still performed in some parts of the United States. “Shine and the Titanic,” is an example of a well-known toast which exists in many versions, as is often the case in folk traditions. In this example, O.C. King recited “Shine and the Titanic” for folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942. Willis James recorded a chant about World War II performed by two groups in 1943. First, a group of African-American singers from the small community of New York, Georgia, perform “What a Time,” chanting rhymed couplets that are characteristic of toasts. Gospel groups would not ordinarily perform toasts, but, no doubt, the subject matter of the ongoing war was important enough to make an exception. Also, the lead vocalist is a woman, which is unusual for a toast. The Golden Jubilee Quartet also sang their own version of “What A Time,” using a different chorus, which they inserted into the text more frequently, so that the result is more musical. In their 2005 concert, the Birmingham Sunlights provided a comparison of toasts and hip-hop, using an old toast about Noah’s Ark, with the first verse chanted in the style of old toast, or, as they call it, "old rap,” and as a modern hip-hop song in the second verse. The chorus is sung in Gospel quartet style: “It's gonna rain," (go to the time code: 00:43:00).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation built on these older forms and created works that mixed spoken word, and poetry with rhythm and blues, soul and jazz. In 1968, Africa-American comedian “Pigmeat”Markham had a major hit with a comedic rap about the Vietnam War called “Here Come The Judge.” That same year in New York, a group eventually known as “The Last Poets” formed in Harlem, and went on to record several albums of topical rhyming poetry and free verse declaimed over jazz accompaniment. Later in the decade, artists such as the Sugar Hill Gang began rapping over repetitive portions of dance records, and scored the first hit record in this emerging style, “Rapper’s Delight,” in 1979. “Rapper’s Delight” was a humorous record, but the style soon proved apt for more dramatic and topical material, such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” a tense description of ghetto life released in 1982. In 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop artists emerged from all over the country, and “gangsta rap,” which reflected, and sometimes even glorified, urban violence, became a prominent facet of hip-hop, while groups such as De La Soul, The Fugees and Arrested Development drew on different musical sources such as jazz, soul, reggae and rock and dealt with both personal and social issues in their in their lyrics. hip-hop continues to be a vital area of popular music, and often serves as a vehicle for topical observation and commentary.

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Minstrel Songs


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

Blackface minstrelsy, which derived its name from the white performers who blackened their faces with burnt cork, was a form of entertainment that reached its peak in the mid-nineteenth century. Using caricatures of African Americans in song, dance, tall tales, and stand-up comedy, minstrelsy was immensely popular with white audiences. These caricatures usually featured the uncultured, parochial, happy-go-lucky southern plantation slave (Jim Crow) in his tattered clothing, or the urban dandy (Zip Coon or Dandy Jim), frequently presented as slow-talking, mischievous and gaudily overdressed. Both were dim-witted, lazy, and were intensely fond of both watermelon and chicken. For several decades these two stereotypes remained the most enduring of American minstrelsy.

The classic age of blackface minstrelsy began in the late 1830s, when performers began to regularly form duos, trios, and occasionally quartets. By the 1840s, the show typically was divided into two parts: the first concentrated largely upon the urban black dandy, the second on the southern plantation slave.

Primrose & West's Big Minstrels

Primrose & West's Big Minstrels. N.Y. : Strobridge Lith. Co., c1896. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number:LC-USZC2-1773

A significant change in minstrelsy was the development of troupes composed of black performers. Whereas the few that had existed in the early days had not been considered important, the impact of black companies was realized after the Civil War. The troupes provided a showcase for the talents of black musicians. In addition to plantation scenes and caricatures popularized by white performers, black troupes often incorporated African American religious music in their shows. The more popular included the Original Georgia Minstrels, Haverly's Colored Minstrels, Sprague's Georgia Minstrels, and W.S. Cleveland's Colored Minstrels. By the turn of the century most professional troupes had turned from classic minstrelsy to burlesque, the predecessor of the Broadway musical, and a form only marginally connected with minstrelsy. Nevertheless, among amateur performers and producers, minstrelsy continued as a popular form of American entertainment well into the 1920s.

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Recordings from Library of Congress Collections

  • Shorty George (1939)

    Performed by Smith Casey, guitar. In 1965, The Byrds adapted the song for "He was a Friend of Mine," a tribute to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

  • 2010 ASCAP Collection Concert

    Featuring performances by Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts.

  • Chris Hillman

    The guitarist, in an appearance at the Library of Congress in 2009, speaks about his prolific career, including his time with The Byrds.

  • Bo Diddley

    An interview with the guitarist conducted in the 1980s by retired music executive Joe Smith.

  • Little Richard

    A 1988 interview conducted by retired music executive Joe Smith.

The term "Rock and Roll" was applied to several related forms of music broadly popular with youth starting in the mid-1950s. Some styles were already well established with certain audiences, or used musical devices that had been around for some time, but in the mid-1950s, they achieved national popularity, and soon became the driving forces in much of popular music.

The social common denominator for the many styles of rock and roll that emerged in the early days was a target audience of teenagers and pre-teens. The artists themselves were usually quite young and their adaptations of earlier styles often reflected a simplified approach to them. The songs dealt with familiar subjects by and large, but frequently with a new irreverence or directness sometimes due to the influence of blues and country & western lyrics. Teenagers that a generation or two earlier would have already been in the work force, now formed a new social class and a ready market, and their interests became the subjects of rock and roll songs about fashion (Carl Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," the Sparkletones' "Black Slacks," the Royal Teens' "Short Shorts"), cars (Chuck Berry's "Mabellene, Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88"), school (The Coasters' "Charlie Brown," Chuck Berry's "School Day"), romance (Dion and the Belmonts' "Teenager in Love," Pat Boone's "Two Hearts") and youthful frustrations (The Students' "Too Young," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"). On occasion, a rock and roll song might reflect earlier history, such as Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans," a narrative of Andrew Jackson's victory over the British at the end of the War of 1812, set to the melody of a traditional fiddle tune known as "The Eighth of January," written at the time to commemorate the battle.

The musical common denominators are a little harder to define, given the range of styles, but the  various forms of "rock and roll" were generally simpler in their melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure than much recent popular music had been, and they could be played by smaller ensembles. Though not always the case, rock and roll was generally perceived as being louder and faster than earlier forms of popular music, and being overly reliant on a strong "back beat," or a delayed emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the measure.

Dion DiMucci

Dion DiMucci, of Dion and the Belmonts, in performance at the Coolidge Auditorium, May 11. 2010. Photograph by Abby Brack.

Although the producers of many early rock and roll hits took full advantage of the large ensembles available to them for recording, the additional instruments were often used simply to reinforce the song structure, rather than augmenting or extending it. The popular dance orchestras of the 1930s and 1940s typically featured anywhere from twelve to eighteen instrumentalists, complimented by male and female vocal soloists and groups, performing highly developed, and sometimes daring and complex arrangements. After World War II, bandleaders found it difficult to make enough money to tour with large ensembles, and vocalists came into their own as recording stars, but recordings still featured large groups, and vocalists often recorded with full symphonic accompaniment.

But most rock and roll could be performed by groups of three to seven members. Smaller groups, aided by electronic amplification of their voices and instruments, had been making inroads in popular music for many years, and their insistent dance rhythms appealed strongly to teenagers, who found them an ideal vehicle for both line and couples dancing.

Some of the earliest rock and roll was made by young vocal groups who could perform with little or no instrumental accompaniment, using their voices as substitutes. Elvis Presley's first recordings featured only two guitars, a bass and his voice. The first major, nationwide rock and roll hit, Bill Haley and the Comets "Rock Around the Clock" featured a group of seven players, including a pedal steel guitarist, though this instrument never caught on in rock and roll the way it did it in country and western. Haley based his style on western swing artists such as Bob Wills, Louis Jordan's "jump" or "jive" blues songs of the 1940s and uptempo blues "shouters" such as Wynonie Harris and Big Joe Turner. His successful mix of urban and rural, as well as black and white styles paved the way for other artists to attain national and even international success with their musical blends of the most energetic elements of earlier forms. This was not always universally accepted, and many white artists frequently covered songs that had originated with black artists, altering the style for their own audience, and sometimes bowdlerizing risqué lyrics. Hank Ballard and the Midniters, for instance, recorded the comic and suggestive "Work With Me Annie," which was reworked and released by Georgia Gibbs under the title "Dance With Me Henry."

Elvis Presley, who started recording in Memphis in 1954, achieved unprecedented national success in 1956, performing a mixture of rockabilly, country, blues and pop. Though he too occasionally softened the lyrics of songs, as he did with Smiley Lewis' "One Night," which went from being a song about the consequences of "one night of sin" to being a plea for "one night with you," his style was marked by a compelling blues feeling, and an unrestrained emotionalism, and no other singer of the era matched his stylistic impact and influence.

Rock and roll, and music directly influenced by it, was firmly entrenched in the musical mainstream by the early 1960s. At this point, it began to reflect many more influences, both old and new. Although traditional music and song had been a significant part of rock and roll from early on, a self-conscious "folk-rock" style emerged in the early 1960s. Some of it actually contained less traditional content than did the songs of Bo Diddley or the Everly Brothers, but took much of its initial inspiration from popular groups such as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, who had found success with a blend of older folk songs and newer, socially conscious material, played with chords and harmonies not specific to any particular style of traditional music, but which could be learned quickly and invited audience participation. The Byrds, a rock group formed in Los Angeles who rivaled the Beatles in popularity for a short time in 1965 and 1966, successfully added drums and electric instruments to songs first played in acoustic form such as Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changing" and Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn." On their second album, they reworked the lyrics of Smith Casey's "Shorty George," recorded for the Library of Congress in 1939, into a lament over the death of President John F. Kennedy entitled "He Was a Friend of Mine."

The success of folk-rock brought many young musicians schooled in acoustic folk music or blues into the rock field, and helped-shaped other rock genres, such as psychedelic-rock, blues-rock, country-rock. Rock was also mixed with classical, jazz, Latin, African, and other styles.

Throughout this whole period, rock was a frequent vehicle for topical songs about current events and issues. "Kicks" by Paul Revere and the Raiders critiqued the emerging drug culture, while "Break on Through" by the Doors hailed it. "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield was directly inspired by street clashes between police and teenagers over a curfew law in Los Angeles in late 1966, but was received by the larger population as a reflection on the protest movements and urban violence of the period. "Pleasant Valley Sunday," written by Carole King and recorded by the Monkees in 1967 commented on materialism in the suburbs. "Requiem for the Masses" by the Association was ostensibly about a matador's death before a bullring audience, but evoked television coverage of deaths in Vietnam in an arrangement that mixed chants from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead with military snare drum and bugle accompaniment.

Through it all, rock and roll based on 1950s sources persisted, though sometimes at the margins, or in glitter or hard-rock, which greatly increased the amplification and theatricality of the music, along with the role of soloists, while holding onto much of the chordal and melodic stock of early rock and roll. A major wave of 1950s nostalgia swept the country in the early 1970s, and several new versions of 1950s songs were hits. In late 1971, singer-songwriter Don McLean released the number one hit "American Pie," a collage of images from popular culture and common history from the previous fifteen years, celebrating much of it as well as lamenting the country's loss of innocence. Mickey Newbury, a young country music singer-songwriter looked further back into American history when he released "American Trilogy" the same year. Newbury's composition combines three Civil War era songs, reflecting the Northern, Southern and African-American experience of it: "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and the spiritual "All My Trials." Newbury's song would prove to be enormously popular, though not in the same way that McLean's was. His version was a medium-sized hit, but was subsequently covered by Elvis Presley, who made it a fixture of his stage act, and it has since been recorded by over four hundred other artists.

Fewer topical songs have found favor with rock audiences since the early 1970s, but rock songwriting continued to develop and reflect history and culture in compelling ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists such as Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp found a broad audience for songs that commented on the changes experienced by working class families as industry declined. Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (1985) decried the fate of many Vietnam War veterans still trying to adjust. In 1989, Billy Joel strung together historical incidents and images from the previous forty years, much as Don McLean had earlier, in the song "We Didn't Start the Fire." Many rock songs have also been rediscovered or repurposed, as Styx's "Show Me the Way" and Bette Midler's "From a Distance" were during the first Gulf War.

In more recent times, the Association's "Requiem for the Masses" has been revived as a piece for school choirs. In 2005, as the second Gulf War entered its third year, the Irish-American punk rock band Dropkick Murphys released a version of "The Greenfields of France," a moving description of a latter-day visit to a World War I cemetery in France. Originally known as "No Man's Land," it was written in 1976 by Scottish-Australian folksinger Eric Bogle, who incorporated words from the American cowboy song "The Streets of Laredo" into the chorus. The song was a major hit in Ireland in the 1970s, and was well known in the Irish-American community of the United States before the Dropkick Murphys successfully adapted it as a rock song, bringing both a 19th century cowboy song and Bogle's 1976 composition into the twenty-first century.

Such a complex mix and variety of influences is not unusual in popular music, but it has been a distinguishing facet of rock and roll and its offshoots since the beginning, and in all likelihood, will continue to ensure that it endures as a popular creative musical outlet that can reflect both musical and social history

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