Pop, Jazz and Country
Of all the cultural influences that have come out of the United States in the 20th century, it’s likely that none has been so far-reaching as popular music.
But the sound of jazz and rock and roll and more recently, country music, can be heard on records, tapes, radio and television in the big cities and in the most remote villages of almost every nation on Earth.
What, precisely, is popular music? In the United States this term has acquired a variety of meanings but it refers to the kinds of music enjoyed by a broad public and stands in contrast to the classical music of the Western European tradition.
During the present century, the dominant strain of popular music coexisted with regional pockets of folk music kept alive by the nation’s many immigrant groups – Scots, Irish, German, French Canadians, Italians, Jews, Poles, His-panics. Since popular songwriters have always looked for fresh approaches, each of these ethnic
music would eventually contribute its flavour to the rich stew of contemporary American music.
As the 20th century progressed, the line between popular and serious music became blurred. George Gershwin, for example, was a popular composer whose music has always been admitted in cultivated circles.
Jazz has always been a music of freedom, and maybe that is why it’s been called the most truly American art form. The sense of freedom is inherent in its improvising, in the way each musician defines himself in his own turn, in the feeling that the possibilities are limitless.
In terms of its fountainhead, jazz remains the creation of the black American, but today more than ever the rapid spread of communications has established it as a world-wide art form, one that will be characterized by future generations as the genuine classical music of the 20th century.
The growing international enthusiasm for American country music overseas is an extension of what has happened in the US since 1950s: music that was strictly regional in its appeal has gained currency across the nation.
It was created by the rural people of the Appalachian Mountain region who were by large isolated from the industrial growth and urbanization of much of America. They began with the English and Scottish ballads of their immigrant ancestors and built upon them, often with instruments they made themselves. They sang about the things that touched them most intimately: their poverty, their God, their crops, their families. They found consolation and common ties In the music.
The classic rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s with its hard-driving guitar beat, the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and others, has long since evolved into a profusion of styles.
Today, for example, among the music’s myriad subgenres are the black variants, soul music, heavy metal and its opposite, soft rock, country rock, folk rock and rockabilly; the Caribbean influences, and the most recent attempts to recapture rock’s rhythmic power, rap music and art rock.
Contemporary American pop-rock music can be shaped into high art for which there is a large and appreciative audience.