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The Dead Zone of American Popular Music


or, how the music stopped from 1860 - 1890

From this month's feature (January 2000 Featured Covers) we have seen that there was a period in American musical history where a drastic discontinuity existed in the development of popular music. Whereas Stephen Foster and others had begun to develop a purely American style of music based to a degree on African influences, after the death of Foster and the American Civil War, the direction Foster set seemed to stop dead in its tracks. Thus began a dreadful period where it seemed American music reverted to an older and less colorful style. As evidenced by our musical examples, this period seemed to last from twenty to thirty years at which point, amazingly the path was picked up almost where it was left off.

What caused this digression in the development of our music? The answer is complex and vague. In the first place, as we have pointed out in several of our issues, music tends to be a reflection of society and its values and occurances. Rock and Roll of the 50's is a good example of this phenomenon as is the music of the 90's which is reflective of the increasingly violent and frustrating environment we live in. Likewise, music of the 60's reflected the turbulent period during which the Vietnam war, drugs, the sexual revolution and other social issues were uppermost in people's minds. Classical (or "serious") music has also shown that same reflection of the times. One need only look to the turn of the 20th century and its then radical musical influences to see a clear demonstration of this theory.

A second influence on music is music itself. If that seems a difficult concept and a paradox, consider that generally, what one hears today in music becomes the tripwire to trigger evolution and continued innovation in music. As such, not only is there a reflection of social issues in music but there is a continuum of evolution from one period to the next. Music created today is based on what was heard yesterday and usually evolution in music takes place in incremental degrees of change. It is no different in any endeavor. One thing leads to another and before you know it, something new has emerged. Of course, there are exceptions in that from time to time, entirely new innovations appear that seem to have no relationship to what came before.

A third influence is the introduction of radical new ideas or convergence of societies and cultures. For example, in our December issue we discussed the introduction of Hawaiian styles into Western Music. This would not have been possible if Hawaii had never been discovered by others. American popular music would have developed without that influence and may sound very different today than it did with the incorporation of that other cultural influence. Senegalese KoraThe influence of African rhythm and musical methods is unquestionably one of the more important forces that shaped American music. Had slavery not existed and the large influx of African peoples who brought their cultural and musical heritage with them, our music might sound more like German "oom-pah" songs.

Yet another influence is technological development. Though we might think of technology as separate from the arts, in fact we have an interchange of influence that shapes both. For example, the technological growth that made it possible to build a pianoforte rather than a harpsichord drastically changed the development of keyboard music. The invention of truly new instruments such as the Saxophone allowed musicians to explore entirely new ideas and presentations. American banjoLikewise, the development of newer instruments based on electronics or simply the refinement of instruments through technology allows music to branch into new territories. The banjo, a purely American instrument based on an African design significantly impacted the development of American folk and popular music during the early 1800's. As a part of the technology issue was the development of better and faster means of travel, which had significant impact on the spread of new ideas and music.

Finally, perhaps the most difficult influence to quantize is that of the human spirit and creativity. We have seen through history that in many arenas of human endeavor, it is often the single individual's contribution to a breathrough that can change the course of history. One could argue that the great breakthroughs are only the result of collective thinking and the person who gets the credit is simply the lucky one to bring it together. However, we believe that though that may be the case, the true breakthroughs often come from one inspired mind that sees things completely differently from anyone else. The path of history is populated with such examples, Galileo Galilei and his telescope, Gutenburg and moveable type, The Wright Brothers, and others have shown that insights and creative thinking can and does take mankind on different paths.

Now, with that as a preface, we can begin to examine the 1860 - 1890 discontinuity that occurred. First, let's recall that Stephen Foster was probably that human spirit who most changed the direction of American music with his original ideas and use of African musical ideas gleaned from slaves. Many of the writers and composers of the period jumped on his bandwagon and followed his lead. With his death in 1864, American music lost its most eminent leader. It is possible that the genre was so new that no-one else (or few others) had really internalized it. As a result, without his lead, there were few followers. A second, and perhaps the most sweeping change at the time was the civil war. The War created a political and social climate that also affected other areas of life, including the arts.

The Civil War created an entirely new social landscape, the "Old South" and its institutions were wiped out and replaced by a new era. The end of the plantation system changed the social status of Black America. No longer were the slaves concentrated in pockets of containment. Though their economic situation had not changed, their life had and the former slaves began to disperse themselves into society. Without the prior concentrations and life styles, the impact of African American musical style was also dissipated and as such, it was less visible and observable than it had been in the past. It would take many years, (twenty?) for this dispersion to have an effect on song creators.

Thirdly, it is possible that Americans were simply weary from the war. It took so much of the American spirit that there was a complete collapse of focus on much other than getting over the pain of the war and then reconstructing life. As such, much of the joy of life and excitement was held at bay while the nation healed. The world had changed, radically, as a result of the war and it is quite possible that the populace sought refuge in better times and places. European music represented a neutral corner where folks could retreat to and lose touch with the realities and hardships of life.

Of course, all of this is speculation on my part, but based on reading and studies related to music and society. Many of you may take exception to these ideas and theories, if so, that is fine for in disagreement we often find the truth. We do know that there have been other discontinuities in the development of American popular music. We also know that many of the convenient theories as to why music developed in certain ways have contrary evidence or seem inconsistant.

Rick Reublin - January, 2000



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