The Birth of American Music

By David Eaton

While attending the 6th World Media Conference in 1983 in Cartagena, Colombia, I had the opportunity with several other musicians to meet with UTS founders, Reverend and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon. In the gathering, Rev. Moon expressed interest in the creative process pertaining to musical composition. He encouraged us to study and master the classical tradition, calling it “the foundation” upon which we could carry out our creative endeavors. He then suggested we combine the best elements of other genres — Rock, Jazz, Gospel, Folk — with the classical tradition in an attempt to create “New Age Music.”

In recollecting that meeting, I came to realize that in many ways American music was something akin to what Rev. Moon alluded to. Owing to America’s immigrant nation heritage, American music is a rich amalgam of highly varied styles and influences that arrived from many places. In a very real way American music is “World Music.”

When the Pilgrims landed in 1620 they not only brought their faith tradition, but also the music that accompanied it. Some of the earliest musical expressions of colonial America were Christian hymns sung in churches and schools utilizing the technique known as “shape-note” singing. Many of these were eventually published in 1835 in the hymnal known as Southern Harmony, including the “Garden Hymn,” a song known to Unificationists as “Song of the Garden.”

Eighteenth century Appalachian folk music was also indicative of the cross-fertilization highly evident in most American music. Immigrants from Scotland, Wales, England, and Ireland brought their ballads, jigs, reels — and their instruments — with them, and these musical influences found their way across the land.

Gospel Music also had religious roots. The “call-and-response” mode of music-making dates back to the early 1600s. As it evolved from 17th century Negro Spirituals and field hollers, it was the Christian revival movement and Holiness-Pentecostal movement of the late 19th century that spawned this new genre. Gospel historian Robert Darden noted the first published use of the term “Gospel” to describe this music style was in 1874 when Philip P. Bliss edited a revival songbook titled Gospel Songs for use in evangelical meetings and revivals.

It’s often said that Jazz is “America’s classical music.” Because Jazz has its roots in a variety of musical traditions — European harmonic syntax, Caribbean melodic elements, African and Latin rhythms, Negro spirituals, field hollers, Ragtime, Dixieland and the Blues — its polyglot origins reflect the melting-pot culture that gave it birth. In his seminal book, The Story of Jazz, Marshall Stearns posits that the genesis of the Jazz idiom resulted from the synthesis of the musical traditions of Europe and West Africa that took place over three centuries. Stearns points out that the conjuncture of European harmony (predicated on equal temperament) and African drumming that found its way to the Caribbean were the primary musical elements that fashioned the Jazz idiom.

Harold Courtlander, in his study of Haitian culture, avers that the African-Americans who arrived on American shores “never forgot the drum rhythms of their own countries, nor their ancestors and deities. They never forgot how to make fine drums. And whether the drum was of a Congo pattern, or Ibo, or Arada, all men listened to it, and danced in the light of smoking oil lamps.”

A key figure in the origins of Jazz was the gifted pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-69). From a part-Creole family in New Orleans, Gottschalk’s formidable technique landed him in front of Frederic Chopin, who was greatly impressed with his pianistic abilities. Gottschalk eventually traveled to the Caribbean and South America where, upon hearing the music of those cultures, he began to incorporate the syncopated rhythms of Latin music into his “serious” compositions. Gottschalk’s first symphony, composed in 1858, “A Night in the Tropics,” was first performed in Havana.

A performance of Gottschalk’s “El Cocoyé, Grand Caprice Cubain di Bravura for Piano” by Thomas Fischer.

Because much of Gottschalk’s piano music was published, he was widely known, and before long, these distinctly Latin rhythmic elements would find their way into the Rags of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) as well as the music of other Ragtime pioneers: James Reese Europe (1881-1919), Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (1890-1941) and Will Marion Cook (1869-1944). Morton referred to the Latin rhythms in Ragtime as “the Spanish tinge.”

Cook, who studied with the iconic Czech composer, Antonín Dvorák, and brilliant Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim, aspired to be “the black Beethoven.” Joplin studied piano with German-born piano teacher, Julius Weiss, growing up in Texarkana, Texas, and would eventually compose dozens of Ragtime compositions, a ballet and two operas.

Dvorák taught at Jeannette Thurber’s National Conservatory of Music in Harlem from 1892-95, and it was his contention that it would only be a matter of time before America found a unique voice in the music world. His intuition proved to be correct. Novelist and film director, Rupert Hughes, writing in Etude Magazine in 1920, echoed Dvorák’s contention:

“American Ragtime or ‘Jazz,’ which is Ragtime raised to the nth power… behind it there is a gem of something wonderful, which the composer with ears made in America may well build into the master music of tomorrow.”

The multi-talented James Reese Europe played the violin, mandolin and piano and became one of the most influential musicians in New York in the pre-World War I era. A highly regarded music director, arranger and a successful cabaret pianist, J. R. Europe was a key figure in developing black musical theater in the city, as well as the founder of the first musician’s union for African-Americans who desired to make their way into the music industry.

The Clef Club Orchestra with James Reese Europe, 1912 (courtesy Eubie Blake Collection, Maryland Historical Society).

In 1910, J. R. Europe formed the Clef Club Orchestra (later renamed the Southern Syncopated Orchestra), that performed both Ragtime and concert music. Will Cook became the Clef Club’s choral director and occasionally conducted the orchestra as well. In 1912, the Clef Club made history when it presented a concert at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of the Colored Music Settlement School in New York City — the first Jazz ensemble to play at that esteemed venue. It is hard to overstate the social importance of that Carnegie Hall concert in the history of Jazz in the United States.

In the opinion of Jazz historian and composer, Gunther Schuller, James Reese Europe “had stormed the bastion of the white establishment and made many members of New York’s cultural elite aware of Negro music for the first time.” Jazz legend Eubie Blake called J. R. Europe “the savior of Negro musicians, in a class with Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King.” The Clef Club’s Carnegie Hall concert was particularly significant in that it demonstrated the power of art and music to assist in the process of overcoming the barriers of race and class.

David Mannes, concertmaster at the time of the New York Symphony Orchestra, and director of the Colored Music Settlement School, was of the opinion that music was a universal language that could serve as a catalyst in bridging racial divides. Mannes’ views regarding the social power of music were echoed by his colleague, the noted ethnomusicologist and civil rights activist, Natalie Curtis, who said, “If anything can bring harmony from the present clashing of the two races during this difficult period of problems and adjustment, it might as well be the peace-giver, music.”  She was a resolute advocate of the promotion of African-American music and the idea this music could be a factor in promoting American cultural development and “the spirit of Democracy.”

Delta and Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, et. al.) arrived a generation after Cook, Joplin and Europe, but the influences of the Ragtime composers and their Blues brethren would have a lasting influence on the evolution of American music for decades. We simply cannot imagine the contemporary iterations of Pop, Blues and Rock music without acknowledging the influence of these iconic musical pioneers.

A documentary clip on James Reese Europe and the Hellfighters of World War I.

Another socially important aspect of American popular music is how it came to represent the life and times of the “common man.” With the emergence of the middle class after the Industrial Revolution, the distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” musical expressions were militated by the increased democratization of American life. As social conditions changed, music — and people’s response and expectations of it — also changed.

Popular music didn’t receive the same critical analysis that classical art music did as it was to be enjoyed in a way that was free from an intellectual or elitist gaze. Commenting on this condition, Roger Scruton observes that American popular music is “democratic and global… able to defeat any rival simply by its refusal to believe in rivalry, happily appropriating every sound that could be reissued as a song.”

It is undeniable that American popular culture has become one of America’s most influential cultural exports. As Scruton asserts:

“One conclusion to draw from the history of American popular music is that we should take the word ‘popular’ seriously… this music was not imposed upon the American people by an unscrupulous ‘culture industry’ [the neo-Marxist supposition of Theodor Adorno, et. al.]. It arose ‘by an invisible hand’ from spontaneous music-making, with a large input from Afro-American music, both secular and religious.”

As such, it was music very much of the people, by the people and for the people. This development caused some consternation among the intellectual class, whose tendency to promote the “sacralization” of high art as something higher or nobler, led to the practice of making distinctions between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” tastes in music. As Scruton points out, this was due to the “common man” aspect of American music, and because “it gets up the intellectual nose, precisely because it seems to leave no opening for the would be ‘priesthood.’” Intellectuals often have a difficult time accepting the idea that “the spontaneous choices of ordinary people might be the final explanation of their social world.”

In the prologue of his influential book, Highbrow, Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine cites several instances in which his friends and colleagues took him to task for not making qualitative distinctions between American popular artists and their “more serious” European counterparts. Yet, the idea of musical cross-fertilization can be said to be in accord with Cheon Il Guk: two becoming one.

This, again, is what our founder suggested in the juxtaposing of varying styles and genres. Assimilation has been the American way, but we can easily ascertain it’s the heavenly way as well.♦

David Eaton has been Music Director of the New York City Symphony since 1985. In addition to his conducting career, he has been an active composer, arranger and producer with 55 original compositions and over 700 arrangements and transcriptions to his credit. One of his recent compositions, “70 and Counting!”, was performed at the United Nations as part of its 70th Anniversary concert in 2015. In 2016, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by UTS.

Photo at top: The music for the “Garden Hymn,” known to Unificationists as “Song of the Garden,” from the 1835 edition of the Southern Harmony hymnal.

9 thoughts on “The Birth of American Music

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  1. Hi David,

    What a very nice article to read first thing in the morning. Thank you. I love music history. Although I play the music of my era, my exposure in college to music theory, choir and chorale singing really is a good foundation for folk, folk rock, Celtic singing and bluegrass. I was able to figure a path through many songs while trying to play pieces I never heard. It also helps me compose originals.

    I love our country and if more of the world could hear the beauty of our American music that uplifts or soothes or opens one up to bliss, to hope, to new thought, then there’s real transformative power.

    Thanks for your sticking to your calling, friend, for it encourages others.

  2. I would appreciate if you could somehow become more concrete and start a series like the 100 best albums and suggest for the people who are used to listening to lower level music a higher range from Jazz to Blues to Rock and Roll to classical music, etc. As a German, I can see a very high standard (people playing those classical giants) and a very low standart (Schlager), but rarely something in between.

  3. Thomas,

    There have been a number of popular and jazz artists who looked to classical music for inspiration. Duke Ellington was known for his “composed jazz” which included a terrific jazz-style arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet music (Google it). William Grant Still pre-dated George Gershwin in his synthesizing classical-jazz-blues idioms. Miles Davis’s album “Sketches of Spain” is an iconic work in this regard as well.

    Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Chicago, Procol Harem, and the Beatles were some of the popular bands that incorporated classical ideas into their music. Jazz-Rock fusion artists and bands like Neil Larsen, Michael Brecker, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Seawind and Weather Report were very adventurous in their cross-fertilization efforts.

  4. Thank you, David. Recently I discovered Sarah Vaughn singing Duke Ellington. Going out of my way. It seems to me that the political dimension of a nation is reflected in the music. Germany’s history was dominated by aristocrats and genii, on the other hand we have the proletarian taste. Therefore, nothing similar to The Beatles in Germany. The American soldiers introduced Jazz and Blues. British and American music expresses the democratic ideals. I wonder what German song the Blue Tuna Band could have played against The Wall?! It’s the music we go for, and the Russian music really does not express democracy. So it’s better to stick with “The Eye of the Tiger”.

  5. Thomas,

    There is a mistaken conception that “classical music” was European’s pop culture. That was not really the case. Classical music was for the most part a minority taste — and still is.

    One thing that I find appealing in certain music of Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan-Williams and Bartok is how they integrated the folk music of their countries into their more serious compositions. Composers such as Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Boris Blacher, and Dmitri Shostakovich, upon hearing Jazz, began incorporating jazzy elements into their scores. They were infatuated with Jazz.

    Commenting on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the eclectic musical elements in the score, musicologist Richard Taruskin said, “Apparently Beethoven took his democracy straight.”

    Obviously, it’s impossible to summarize all of the elements that found their way into American music over 250 years in an 1,800 word essay, but suffice to say that there was a “democratic” aspect to its development.

    1. Thanks for taking your time. I just want to mention that two authors chose Shostakovich as their hero: William T. Vollmann in “Europe Central” and Julian Barnes in “The Noise of Time”. I started to read the first novel, but it is incredibly heavy. In Munich, too, they played the 10th symphony of DS. The artist surrounded by destructive forces. How does he cope with that? This seems to be the question.

  6. I was in Japan recently and heard the NHK Symphony perform Shostakovich’s 10th. His life was filled with emotional torture. When he visited the USA in 1949 he was dumbfounded that so many artists in the U.S. had an infatuation with Communism. Having experienced communist tyranny first hand he couldn’t believe American artists could be so naive.

  7. Thank you for this enlightening and very enjoyable article. The world of music has something for everyone, and can often put us in touch with the Divine…and the Divine in each other! Blessings!

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