The Patchwork of American Music
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.