Jimmie Rodgers, considered to be the "Father of American Country Music"
(photo courtesy of the official Jimmie Rodgers site, http://www.jimmierodgers.com/)
Cowboys & Indians, Part Deux, The CowboysThe 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.
(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 for Texas.
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 a cowboy.
Later, 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 1940)
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.
After 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.
Rick Reublin, Bob Maine - May, 2000
*Melisma, a group of notes sung to a single
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