Jimmie Rodgers, considered to be the "Father of American Country
(photo courtesy of the official Jimmie Rodgers site,
Cowboys & Indians, Part Deux, The Cowboys
The origins of American Folk Music.
In last month's issue you saw that the
music of Tin Pan Alley during the early 20th century produced a number
of songs that were represented as "Cowboy" or "western"
songs. Of course, we saw from the examples that the music was not at
all similar to what we know today as Country or Western music. There
is good reason for that. Though American folk songs existed practically
since the day settlers came to these shores, the phenomenon known as
Country and Western music did not emerge in this country until very
late in our history. Most of the songs we featured
last month were written before 1920. American country and western
music, the style we know today, did not emerge until around 1930, at
best, the late twenties.
That may surprise many people because the images associated
with that style of music is often the cowboy image. And, of course,
the cowboys flourished in the 1870s to the 90s. We have these movie
images of the cowpokes sitting around the campfire singing "Tumbling
Tumbleweeds" yet that song was not written until the 1930s. So
what gives? How can it be that the music we all thought was a long part
of our musical heritage is barely older than Rock and Roll?
Country music as a popular style has its roots in folk
music of rural southern America. That music had its origins in folk
music brought here by British and Scottish settlers. Then their music began to evolve
through a merge of Cajun, Afro-American and Latin American influences.
The earliest country music (originally called "Hillbilly Music")...
but, I'm getting a little ahead of myself. The question of whether or
not American "folk" music is a unique style or one that is
nothing more than a hybrid of continental and immigrant styles has been
hotly debated over the years. As early as 1893, R. Wallaschek wrote
in his Primitive Music that "Negro songs are much overrated.
As a rule, they are mere imitations of European compositions the Negroes
have picked up and served up again with slight variations". In
1914, H.E. Krehbiel refuted that position in his "Afro American
Folk Songs", by stating that African American songs were unique
and superior to American songs and that; "they were created in
America under American influences by people who are Americans".
Later someone else ( Erich von Hornbostel) said that the reason American
folk songs sounded like African songs is because they were being sung
by African Americans who added their own interpretation. Oww, now my
head hurts. Time for a song:
The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine looks like a "cowboy"
song, but is it? The
fact is, American popular song as well as American folk music by necessity
must be a hybrid of all of the traditions brought to us. At the same
time, because of the way our society has developed its own identifiable
culture, our music too has a unique and identifiable sound. The fact
that all of us here (except for Native Americans) are transplants and
so too were those who began to develop our early music styles seems
to require that our music was a new style that was developed from the
old styles brought here.
Now, back to "hillbilly music". The country and western music
we know today developed after approximately 1920. Until that time country
music was largely performed in the home, in church or at social functions
outside the mainstream of American popular musical culture. Rural entertainers
though were not completely isolated from the draw of fame and fortune
and a few did attain a semblance of professionalism through traveling
medicine shows and in a few rare cases, vaudeville. At first, American
country music was primarily instrumented for violin, banjo and/or guitar.
Later country groups began to add drums, pianos, electric instruments
and at one point, the Hawaiian steel guitar played a prominent part
in the ensemble..
In the early twenties, the gramophone industry began to
cultivate country music and through that, country musicians found a
new medium to display their talents. The entire country music world
changed forever when in 1927, a former railway worker, Jimmie Rodgers
and a family trio from Virginia, the Carters made their first recordings.
(Jimmie Rodgers; top of the page. Below; The carters, ca 1930)
With the publication of this music, Americans finally got to hear "real"
American country music and they were enthralled by it. Listen to this
short au snip of the Carters singing Keep on The
Sunny Side of Life and you can hear the unique original sound of
country music in America. Though both performers recorded about the
same time, it is Rodgers who has emerged as "the father of country
music". Listen to this clip of one of his earliest songs, T
After the Carters and Rodgers got things
started, country music became a phenomenon and there were a large number
of performers whose music was widely heard. Folks like Fiddlin' John
Carson, Vernon Dalhart and others became stars. Around the same period,
radio shows emerged that featured country music, among them the famous
WSM Barn Dance which later became the Grand Ole Opry. By the 1930's
the movies had begun to pick up on country music and from that emerged
the great singing cowboys of the 30's and 40's.
(Below, Gene Autry, "The Singing Cowboy")
Of course the most prominent
of the singing cowboys was none other than Gene Autry (1907 - 1998).
Many people today don't know Autry other than as a baseball team owner,
but those of us who grew up in the 30's and 40's remember him ONLY as
Roy Rogers and the Sons of The Pioneers brought more wonderful cowboy
music to all of us. Finally we get as we enter the era the movie cowboy and that wonderful song "Tumbling
Tumbleweeds". (sequenced by Chuck Duklis, email@example.com,
used with permission ) - (The great Roy Rogers and Trigger, ca
My own boyhood
was one that included a large dose of Roy, Dale, Gene and Gabby Hayes.
Lets not forget Trigger and Bullet too. The singing cowboy's position
as national heroes gave country music a glamorous national forum.
the 30's, country music, like most things American, began to evolve
even further. The music began to move away from its Southern rural identification
to become an industry and a genre with a broader appeal. Over time though
sometimes you can still hear the same stylistic elements as in the Carter
or Rodgers songs, country music has become a phenomenon of huge proportions
with mega stars and generating billions in revenue. Of course, sometimes
it is very difficult to see certain performers and songs as "country"
music in its true form. As with other forms of music, we continue to
see change influenced by marketing and sales concerns rather than genuineness
of form. Much of what we hear today from some performers is not at all
country music but a new form that seems to combine rock and country
as well as other influences.
Musically, what is it about "true"
country music that makes it so unique? For one thing, genuine country
music has always been defined thematically. Songs about tears in the
beer are perhaps a joke, but it is somewhat true. Themes such as mother
and home, rambling, prison, hard work, religion and disappointed love
abound. Sometimes I have personally wondered why so much sadness. Is
it because life was so hard for people in the rural south?
Ballads in American folk music tend to
be four line stanzas, with simple, two-phrase melodies. The New Grove
implies that musically, country and folk songs mimic pattern of speech
through accenting and use of melismas* and fermatas**. Pauses at the
end of lines receive a similar extension. American songs tend to be
less jagged and with fewer runs than much European popular or classical
song. To quote New Grove, they have "a general reduction of components".
Sometimes, the harmonic progressions are difficult to follow and often
they do not follow traditional, "classic" orthodoxy. All of
the above is meant to describe true American folk or country music.
Certainly, those limitations do not apply to what we hear today as far
as commercial country and western music.
(Above..an old singing cowboy meets a new one)
Well, that's about enough rambling for now pardners. Bob
and I both wish you Happy Trails till
we meet again....
Rick Reublin, Bob Maine - May, 2000
*Melisma, a group of notes sung to a single
**Fermata, a pause prolonging a note or rest beyond its normal value
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