Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Patchwork of American Music

Last week’s exercise in futility of trying to determine the most representative song in a genre, in this case country music, seems to have proved what I have been preaching on the Bus for going on three years now: Music, the music of North America in particular, is a beautiful quilt sewn from many different scraps of cloth.

I believe the trouble starts when we try to define any music into a neat little square. Country music is a relatively new musical genre, created through the interweaving of many other styles, many of which are hybrids in there own right. Country music as a commercial art form came about in the 1920s as rural musical styles were spread via radio and records. Many would classify the music of Fiddlin’ John Carson as Old-Time, but wasn’t one of the foundations of country music the style we know as old-time? And wasn’t old-time music a blend of traditional English ballads, minstrel, and vaudeville, with an additional African influence? As rural music showed a commercial viability on radio and records the popular songwriting factories of New York known as Tin Pan Alley began turning out sheet music with a down-home feel.

For example, Stephen Foster was one of the pre-eminent songwriters of the 19th century and although he only visited the South once during his life, many of his songs are considered standards in the old-time, country, and bluegrass styles. "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", and "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") were all written by Foster in his native city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Foster was a professional songwriter, he earned his living writing and publishing his music. His inspirations included the popular, but often risqué, music of the blackface minstrel performers, but Foster wrote lyrics more suitable to be sung as the popular parlor songs of the day.

The colors in our quilt overlap. English ballads, blues, minstrel, and popular music became the early country music. Regional differences blended country with other styles to form new sub-styles. Country blended with the blues and a bit of jazz in Kentucky formed the beginnings of bluegrass. The string bands of the Southwest blended country, western (or cowboy), polka, and the jazz-based swing music of the Big Bands to create western swing.

It was a two way street, though, with ideas and influences flowing freely between genres and sub-genres. Although western swing was born of country music, it gave one of its most recognizable features, the wail of the peddle steel guitar, back to country music. During the Great Dust Bowl many musicians followed displaced farmers to California, where the guitar styles and peddle steel of western swing were transformed in the honky-tonks into a style that would become the Bakersfield sound of the 1950s.

In Memphis, country music (aka hillbilly) was intermingling with the blues of the juke joints and the jazz sounds from New Orleans to form the beginnings of rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison hit the stage with songs that were either covers of blues records or covers of country records played in a style that combined the two and threw in a dash of jazz to boot.

Where does one begin to draw the lines? I suppose I got caught up in the challenge without thinking about the futility of the task. After all, I have been writing about the crazy quilt of American music for going on three years now. I dedicated an entire week of posts to the influences on the music of America – the “Into The Flow” series (Part 1 - England, Part 2 - Spain, Part 3 – Germany & Eastern Europe, Part 4 – France, Part 5 – Africa). This discussion could have been about any American musical genre, not just country music. One of the main purposes of theses daily ramblings on the Bus is to discover the interconnectivity of American musical styles.

Today I have posted a few songs that were all recorded earlier last century and each one has been covered by an artist in our lifetime. Sometimes the newer recording remained true to the original style, while others were adapted to suit a later audience or musical style. Each of these songs was a hit for the original artist as well as for the later remake.

Roy Hogsed - Cocaine Blues.mp3

Roy Acuff - Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.mp3

Nick Lucas - Tip Toe Through The Tulips.mp3

Cannon's Jug Stompers - Walk Right In.mp3

Memphis Jug Band - Stealin'.mp3


Anonymous Ray said...

The quilt analogy is a good one, but I bristle a bit when you use ‘England’ as a catch-all term for the British Isles. Not to denigrate England’s importance, but it’s arguable that influences from Ireland and Scotland have been more significant in shaping country music, and I believe that it’s an important distinction to make.

January 14, 2008 5:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was once a white man, then an Anglo-Saxon, and now, I'm Caucasion. I understand the difference that England is not Great Britain nor the United Kingdom. But please don't add another phase "British Isles", we colonists can't take it.

January 14, 2008 4:18 PM  
Blogger Ed said...


One would assume that the music of Ireland and Scotland where of more importance in the development of rural American music, as I had once believed.

A few years ago I was corrected when I inferred that the Scots/Irish was the dominant influence. It seems that folks with book-learning about such matters have researched the Hell out of the influences of American music and have concluded that it was the English ballads of the 16th and 17th centuries that played the predominant role.

Francis James Child was the foremost collector and chronicler of the migration of music from the British Isles to America. His 10 volume “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” published between 1882-1898 documents many hundreds of traditional songs and divides them into 305 “families.”

During the late 1800s, researchers were surprised to find that many of the mountain ballads of the Southeastern United Sates were direct derivatives of these Child Ballads, as the collection has become known. Mr. Child and later researchers found that the majority of the ballads that had made it to America were from English folk songs and ballads, with a much smaller portion, perhaps 20 percent, with direct links back to Scotland or Ireland. The folksongs of the English countryside in the 16th and 17th centuries (perhaps earlier) were very different from the popular songs of London and other urban areas.

Other ethnomusicologists have come to the same conclusion. The songs collected by the famous Lomax family, documented in the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress and in the books by Alan Lomax tend to bear this fact out. I have an original 1960 printing of Alan Lomax’s “Folk Songs of North America” and I would roughly say that the 20 percent ratio tends to hold up here as well.

John Jacob Niles, an important figure in the folk music revival (the Folk Scare) of the 1950s, collected and documented many American ballads in eastern Kentucky between 1910 and 1917. His books, beginning with “Songs My Mother Never Taught Me” in 1929, document the songs he collected, the majority of which can be linked to English Ballads. For an excellent reference see Niles’ 1961 “The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles.”

I could go on with the documentation. As I say, I was once corrected on the matter and worded my statement carefully in light of what I have learned.

January 14, 2008 4:30 PM  
Blogger kjk said...

regarding the "category" discussion: coincidentally, i just finished a book, This is your Brain on Music, which has an excellent chapter on how we categorize music (and other things). it reads very much like the last few days of posts!

January 14, 2008 9:02 PM  
Blogger Ed said...


I have been tempted to pick that book up based on it's title alone. It sounds like a good read.

January 14, 2008 9:09 PM  
Blogger kjk said...


Try to find it in a library, first. It's good, but not a keeper, IMO. You can find my review here:

January 14, 2008 9:29 PM  
Anonymous Ray said...

Thanks, Ed. A good response, well made and soundly backed up. I’d only plead that distinctive Scottish and Irish contributions be acknowledged – given relative population sizes, 20% is a significant proportion, and they certainly merit their separate patches on that quilt. We could open another can of worms by considering the roots of Southern instrumental music (especially fiddle tunes), which seem to me to owe much more to Celtic traditions than English, but I haven’t any references to hand that supports this assertion, so it’s probably best not to!

Re Anonymous’s point – the reason for using “British Isles” is that it’s the only phrase that might encompass the Republic Of Ireland. The others (“Great Britain” or “United Kingdom” don’t, although the latter includes Northern Ireland). I know you could fit the whole lot of it into Texas, with space left over (or at least so my old geography teacher used to tell us), but it could be useful to know these distinctions, especially if planning any trips that might involve visits to Dublin pubs.

January 15, 2008 5:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, "England" means England alone. "Great Britain" is England, Scotland and Wales. Add Northern Ireland to get the "United Kingdom". And to include Ireland one uses the term "British Isles". Well explained, thanks. I like the pipes. I've noticed their use in all kinds of music. Are they exclusive to the Scots?

January 15, 2008 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Bringing the conversation full circle: To understand the quilt, you need to be able to describe the separate patches (styles, or genres). One way to attempt to describe the separate patches would be to identify their common characterstics. Once the common characteristics of a style are identified, then it should then be possible to identify representative pieces (recognizing, of course, that some songs/artists can't be nicely fit into any one particular category). So I don't think its an exercise in futility, but it might be more helpful to focus on narrower swatches, rather than just "country."

The exercise of categorizing also helps us understand new musical developments by helping us identify new combinations of styles.

Thanks for triggering some interesting discussions. And I enjoyed hearing the Hogsed version of Cocaine Blues!

January 15, 2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

There is no denying the Scot/Irish influence on the rural music of early America. One of the most traditional of Appalachian instruments, the mountain dulcimer provides a sure-fire link. The mountain dulcimer has three strings, a noter and two drones, and is tuned in a mixolydian mode. Standard Highland bagpipes have three pipes, the chanter (which is noted) and two drones and are also tune in a mixolydian mode.

Many of the hornpipes, jigs and reels of the Scots/Irish made it into the American songbook as fiddle tunes and were played from New England to the Southern Appalachians.

To answer the question from anonymous, The Scots were not the only pipers. The Irish use a set of pipes, known as Irish Warpipes, similar to the large Highland pipes of Scotland that are familiar sights at parades and other regal events. Smallpipes are still very common in Scottish and Irish folk music. The Irish uilleann pipes, Northumberland of northeast England, and Scottish smallpipes (and the transitional Border pipes) are still very popular with many Celtic folk artists.

January 15, 2008 9:25 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

You make a good point. Perhaps a broad label such as “country” encompasses too many sub-genres or styles (not to mention regional differences) to select one single song that best represents the label. We would be better served, as you say, to “focus on narrower swatches.”

I agree that categories help us to understand the music, and in the case of American music it helps us to trace the influences of our hybrid musical styles back to their origins.

The discussions on this subject have been great! The input from the riders on the Bus has been lively and thought provoking. The thanks for triggering these wonderful discussions go to you, Paul, and your original post.

January 15, 2008 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ED,
Often I hear the question where are you from ? The response being New York. Oh, you're American. The response, Im a New Yorker. Zenophobic or just too proud to admit otherwise. Now when I hear oh, you're English. The reply, no Americain. The reply oh well, the same thing. This one turns the corner "a' grand allure".

I was wondering how you were going to get out from under the "country" survey. The quilt. Not bad. In fact all the ryders on this subject have been really interesting, clarifying the amalgams. Since music tends to cross border lines we at the theater have been getting the message out - the Old Blue Bus is an attractive energy - weight less than shadow.

Black dog chronicals - even a cloud leaves a shadow. Just a side trip...

Once again bravo ED.
all thoughts fly... k.

January 16, 2008 7:46 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I have book-learnin' degrees coming out of my wazoo, and they've helped me greatly in my career. However, I've learned more from your short entries than I've ever learned from the tomes I had to carry back to my dorm room. And that's no BS! I love this exchange of ideas. The bus has taken a serious detour (in a way), but this is very interesting. I hope we have enough gas money! As an aside, it sounds as though Tiny Tim was fairly faithful to the original version. Amazing.

January 17, 2008 6:06 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

I am honored by your kind words, as always.
I suppose we humans must apply labels to everything. As your New York/American/English/same thing story points out, the accuracy of such labels depends upon the importance of the subject to the inquisitors.

January 17, 2008 8:32 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

I figured you as a pretty smart fellow!
The discussions on the Bus this week have been engaging, and you know how much I enjoy when the discussions get lively.
When I found that Nick Lucas original recording years ago I was amazed that Tiny Tim had remained so faithful.

January 17, 2008 8:48 PM  

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