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The Andrews Sisters, the dominant female singing group of the first half of the 20th century, had their first hit, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” in 1938. As music historian Elijah Wald observes in his insightful, yet peculiarly named, history of American popular music, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll, their recording was “an English language version of a song” that “a Black duo [sang] in Yiddish at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”

As Wald points out, the three sisters, who were of Greek and Norwegian descent, then made hit covers of a Nazi German import, “Beer Barrel Polka”; an Italian tune, “Ciribiribum”; Fat Waller’s “Hold Tight (I Want Some Seafood, Mama)”; the Russian “Pross-Tchai”; and the Cuban “Say Si, Si (Para Vigo Me Voy).”

American popular music dominates much of the world’s musical taste, much as Hollywood has left an indelible mark on global cinema. This has been true since the time of Stephen Foster in the pre–Civil War era and partly reflects American music’s ability to absorb an incredible variety of cultural influences, much as Hollywood attracted foreign actors, composers and directors. But it also reflects American music’s vitality and dynamism and its exceptional ability to express the sentimental and nostalgic, the humorous and the rebellious.

Above all, American music is distinctive in that it’s a product of the cultural blending and mixing that has contributed to its extraordinary appeal. Of course, viewed from another perspective, the history of American popular music is a record of cultural appropriation, expropriation, exploitation and theft.

Popular music is the soundtrack of our lives. Many of us wake up to music when our alarm clock goes off, listen to music on our earphones or car radios as we go to school or work, and hear it subliminally when we ride elevators or dine in restaurants or shop. We vocalize when we take showers or drive, use music to set a mood when we socialize, and dance to popular music for entertainment.

Today, popular music looms particularly large in the lives of adolescents, who use music to express their identities, pass time and alter or intensify their emotions. Music styles define the crowds and cliques teens run in. Musicians also provide models for how the young act and dress.

Popular music can be analyzed from multiple perspectives:

  • As literature, by analyzing the themes, literary tools and messages embedded in its lyrics.
  • As historical documents that convey values, beliefs and events of the time period in which particular works were composed.
  • As sociological documents that represent the trends, motivations and experiences of the people who wrote them or for whom they were written.
  • As performance, which gives expression to particular cultural styles.
  • As a form of auditory communication that uses pitch, rhythm, timbre, melody, harmony, instrumentation and other elements to evoke emotions, provoke thought and provide aesthetic pleasure.
  • As a business that produces products that consumers are willing to pay to listen to.
  • As a history of shifting technologies, from sheet music to wax cylinders, phonograph records, radio, jukeboxes, tapes, CDs, music videos and streaming that have not only shaped the way that music is distributed and consumed, but even song’s length, as well as the status, income and opportunities of performers, composers and lyricists.

Popular songs, in short, are rich, complex works with their own distinct language that need to be read as carefully as any other cultural text. Students need to learn how to:

  • Attend to the nuances and subtleties of musical language.
  • Situate songs in particular cultural and historical contexts.
  • Interpret a popular song’s meaning and significance and understand how it fits into popular music’s ongoing history.

Certain long-term trends characterize the history of American music. These include the decline:

  1. In familiarity with and the popularity of symphonic music and classical music.
  2. Of music lessons and musical education.
  3. The popularity of the piano and the acoustical guitar and banjo.
  4. Of protest songs, work songs and movement songs.
  5. Of participatory singing.
  6. In the influence of original Broadway musicals and especially the musical comedy.
  7. In attendance at live musical performances.

There are certain generalization that we can draw from the history of American popular music. Here are a few:

  • Before the late 19th century, there was a wider variety of popular music than there is today. Popular genres including work songs, political campaign songs, labor songs and reform songs. Today, in contrast, much popular music focuses on a single theme, romantic love, including romantic fantasies, love obtained, love lost and love betrayed or abused.
  • In the past, many kinds of music were largely invisible to the mass audience. Now, folk music, regional musics and ethnic musics can reach a national and even a global audience.
  • Prior to the invention of the phonograph, almost all music listening was social. Today, consumption of music often takes place individually, as many listeners use earphones to block the sounds of the outside world.
  • Music that in the 19th century was played and sung has increasingly given way to music intended to be listened or danced to.
  • Before the late 19th century, much consumption of music was noncommercial, and many people, especially young women, were performers of music. Even many working-class and farm families had a piano, a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin or a violin or fiddle. During the 20th century, commercialization tended to make songs more formulaic and standardized and to lead listeners to associate particular songs with specific singers or groups.
  • Consumption of music has become increasingly divided by genre and style, in contrast to the 19th century, when music was consumed more promiscuously and concerts often included a mix of operatic arias, patriotic marches, theater songs, sentimental parlor songs and fast-paced or nostalgic minstrel songs.

So how might those who are not musicologists or trained musicians integrate music into their classes?

1. Introduce students to the rich variety of the kinds of music Americans listened to in the past.

Acquaint your students with the sacred music, work songs, reform songs, campaign songs, ceremonial songs, dancing music, maudlin parlor songs and patriotic music, as well as the popular songs that earlier Americans listened to, including ballads, carols, folk songs and a variety of drinking songs. Music provides a valuable lens through which students can sense the mood and atmosphere of past times.

2. Acquaint students with American music’s ethnic traditions.

What makes American music different from music elsewhere is that it is an outgrowth of the interaction of distinct ethnic, regional and religious traditions. Let’s look very briefly at a number of those traditions.

This should include the ceremonial, game and healing songs that were parts of Native American communal ceremonies and social rituals, that were primarily vocal and not instrumental and that emphasized sounds (vocables) rather than words.

One should also include the various musical traditions that the English colonists brought, including love songs, fiddle tunes and especially the ballads that recounted memorable episodes, such as a disaster, a murder or an execution.

Of course, special attention needs to be paid to African traditions, which have exerted such a powerful and enduring influence on American music. Defining features include the dominance of rhythm and percussive instruments, intricate and irregular rhythms and tones (including blues notes and elisions), a high degree of rhythmic complexity, the use of vocables (including moans and shouts), the treatment of music as a kinetic experience inseparable from bodily movement, and a call and response pattern, in which a singer articulates a phrase and other singers respond.

Then, too, there are the Hispanic traditions, which blended Iberian, Indian and African traditions from the Caribbean and Central and South America and included religious folk songs like the alabado (songs of praise); corridos or topical folk ballads that gave voice to a spirit of pride and resistance; lyrical and sentimental cancion and instrumental ensembles, which would eventually produce the mariachi (including trumpets, violins, guitars and bass guitar); the conjunto of the music Norteño/a (including accordion, saxophone, guitar and trumpet and influenced by polka or waltz); and musical styles and dances from the Caribbean and South America such as the habanera, the tango, rumba, the samba, the mambo, the cha cha, the merengue and the bossa nova.

Scottish, Irish, German and Central European influences, too, deserve students’ attention, including the fast-paced jigs, the lyrical, sentimental, melancholy and nostalgic ballads and love songs and up-tempo, rhythmic comic songs brought by Irish immigrants; the German immigrant role in promoting formal music education and establishing singing groups that were “Americanized” in the form of school glee clubs and barbershop quartets; and the Central European introduction of the polka.

3. Expose students to key themes in American popular music’s complex history of American popular music.

  • The Commercialization and Professionalization of American Popular Music. With the emergence of the country’s first theaters, concert saloons, dance halls and variety shows and the advent of the first uniquely American entertainment form, the minstrel show, American music became a booming business that was highly responsive to shifts in public tastes. This was especially true beginning in the late 19th century, with the sudden growth of popularity of marches like John Philip Sousa’s and the rise of Tin Pan Alley, which centralized music production in New York City and had the effect of standardizing music around certain popular formulas, including:
    • The syncopated, ragged rhythms of ragtime associated with Scott Joplin.
    • The seemingly timeless, traditional songs like “When You Were Sweet Sixteen,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “In the Good Old Summer Time” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
    • The more boisterous, pugnacious, up-tempo songs like George M. Cohan’s.
    • The more complex and sophisticated standards that comprise the great American songbook by such figures as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers.
  • Music as Driver of Social and Cultural Transformation

    When the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald termed the 1920s “the Jazz Age,” he was referring to the way that jazz, with its fast-paced rhythms and improvisational style, symbolized the decade’s spirit of liberation from an earlier genteel Victorian culture.

    Popular music at once reflected and reinforced cultural change. Nowhere could that be seen more vividly than in the rise of new forms of dancing that involved closer physical contact between partners and less formal bodily movements.

    During the 20th century, music not only gave popular expression to evolving attitudes toward sexuality, gender roles and race relations, but helped drive those changes, whether through uninhibited bodily gyrations of Elvis Presley, the outspoken feminism of women singers like Helen Reddy and the expressions of Black pride by figures like James Brown.

    Not surprisingly, music has also served as a cultural battleground, whether over rock ’n’ roll’s driving, insistent rhythms and suggestive lyrics or gangsta rap’s supposed celebration of street hustlers, urban gang life, misogyny and violence.

  • Music and Politics

    From “Yankee Doodle,” which gave popular expression to an emerging American identity, and John Dickinson’s 1768 “The Liberty Song” and William Billings’s 1770 song “Chester,” which echoed the calls for resistance to British tyranny found in political tracts of Thomas Paine and others, music has been an important avenue of political expression.

    Certainly, the music associated with the 1960s made political and social issues central to popular song The folk revival, the protest songs associated with Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Odetta and Peter, Paul and Mary and a host of other popular musical genres like soul music and psychedelic rock, dealt with issues—like war, sex, racial prejudice, sexism and drugs—never broached in the great American songbook.

    Especially striking in recent years is the growing association of country music with political conservatism. Earlier in its history, country music wasn’t aligned with a specific political perspective. Many country songs dealt with loss and heartbreak, sometimes defined in personal terms but often referring metaphorically to larger issues of displacement (as in the Bobby Bare’s song “Detroit City”).

    But beginning with Merle Haggard’s 1969 song “Okie From Muskogee,” country music became associated with traditionalism. This association gained additional currency when, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton dealt with accusations about her marriage by saying, “I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” The link between country music and conservative politics took on added strength with Lee Greenwood’s 1995 anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

  • Music and Race

    It is essential to introduce students to music under slavery that underscores certain basic facts:

    • That despite the slavery’s horrors, enslaved African Americans were able to sustain links to West and Central African traditions, resist oppression and forge a rich and varied forms of spiritual and cultural expression that included the field hollers, the rhythmic chanting of work songs that helped coordinate work routines, the deeply expressive, profoundly moving praise songs and spirituals that sustained faith in deliverance from slavery, and banjo tunes that contributed so much to the dynamic character of American music.
    • That while deeply offensive minstrel songs and the despicable late 19th century “coon” songs reinforced racial stereotypes and provided thinly veiled justifications for slavery and Jim Crow, African Americans nevertheless succeeded in repeatedly revolutionizing American popular music through the introduction of ragtime, the blues, jazz, gospel, soul music and hip-hop, transforming the American soundscape.
    • That songs not only played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, serving as a source of motivation, a resource against harassment and a link with the earlier struggles against slavery and Jim Crow, but the commercial music associated with Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International Records and Atlantic Records also helped erode prejudice and integrate American popular culture.
  • Music and War

    Every American war has had its own distinctive musical soundtrack. Wartime music has sought to boost morale, demonize the enemy, define the cause and give expression to grief and loss—even as some songs have offered pointedly antiwar messages and still others speculated about the war’s long-term impact, like “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).”

  • Music as a Source of National Unity and Division

    At certain times, popular music contributed to a sense that Americans inhabited a common culture. This was especially true during the Great Depression, when Americans, irrespective of age and race, embraced jazz and the big band sound of swing (even though adults listened to it and the young danced to it).

    At other times, musical taste has served as a marker of distinctive identities, which was evident as early as the 1920s in the growing popularity of the blues and “hillbilly” music and their respective successors, rhythm and blues and country and western.

  • Music and Youth Culture

    Even before the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1950s, music had begun to become a central defining feature of youth culture. The bobby soxers who swooned to Frank Sinatra helped elevate a new life stage, the teenager, to national prominence.

    Technological innovations, such as the introduction of the light, durable and inexpensive 45-rpm record by RCA Victor in 1948, allowed teens to create their own music collections, while the invention of the transistor in 1947 led to the development of portable transistor radios and an explosion in the number of car radios, along with the arrival of television, which helped transform teen culture into a national culture.

    It was rock ’n’ roll and its successors—hard rock, disco, grunge, rap, rasta, reggae, salsa and more—that spoke to the psychological and emotional frustrations of modern youth, with its prolonged schooling, delayed marriage and postponed entry into adult careers and its impulses toward cultural rebellion.

Let’s not treat popular music like Muzak, the canned background music found in public spaces or played while waiting for business calls. The study of popular music, contemporary society’s most omnipresent mode of cultural expression, is too important to be confined to schools of music.

Don’t let popular music go in one ear and out the other, and don’t treat these songs as inconsequential frivolities.

We must recognize that popular music isn’t just life’s soundtrack—it’s an essential vehicle for understanding how people at various times have defined their identities and given expression to popular attitudes and values.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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