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  Wikipedia: Music of the United States

Wikipedia: Music of the United States
Music of the United States
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The music of the United States includes forms derived from multiple ethnic groups. The original inhabitants of the United States included hundreds of Native American tribes, as well as native Hawaiians and Inuits, who played the first music in the area, eventually augmented by immigrants from England, Spain and France. Africans imported as slaves provided the musical underpinnings of much of modern American music, while other influences include Spanish-native mestizos from Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Cajun descendants of French-Canadians, and Eastern European Jews.

 This article is an overview of the 
Music of the United States series.
 Roots music: before 1940
 1940s and 50s
 1960s and 70s
 1980s to the present
 African-American music
 Native American music
 Latin, Tejano, Hawaiian,
Cajun, Puerto Rican and other immigrants
 This article is also part
of the Culture of the United States series.
 Visual arts

American roots music

Main article: American roots music

The first musicians on the grounds of what is now the United States were Native Americans, who consist of hundreds of ethnic groups across the country. Of these cultures, many, and their musical traditions, are now extinct, though some remain vibrant, such as Hawaiian music.

By the 16th century, the large-scale immigration of English, French and Spanish settlers occurred, followed by the importation of Africans as slaves. The Africans were as culturally varied as the Native Americans, descended from hundreds of ethnic groups in West Africa. It is the profound influence of African-American music on these indigenous and European-descended cultures that marks American music as distinct from any other. Immigration from China began in large numbers in the 19th century, most of them settling on the West Coast. Later, Japanese, Indian, Scottish, Polish, Italian, Irish, Mexican, Swedish, Ukrainian and Armenian immigrants also arrived in large numbers.

In the 19th century, African-Americans were freed from slavery following the American Civil War. The music of these slaves was primarily African in origin, displaying polyrhythm and other distinctly African traits. Work songs were popular, but it was spirituals which became a major foundation for music in the 20th century.

Spirituals (or Negro spirituals, as they were then known) were Christian songs, dominated by passionate and earthy vocals. More rhythm-oriented dance music was also popular, especially at the turn of the 20th century, when African-American ragtime spread from urban blacks to whites across the country. This same period also saw the rise of Native American powwows, large-scale immigration of Eastern European Jews and their klezmer music, and the rise of a distinctively Mexican-American conjunto tradition in Texas. Each of these trends lasted throughout the 20th century, with increasingly diverse approaches. The United States became the international home for klezmer, while Texan conjunto achieved sporadic crossover success and produced a constant stream of niche superstars.

Tin Pan Alley was the biggest source of popular music early in the century. Tin Pan Alley was a place in New York City which published sheet music for dance songs like "After the Ball Is Over". Jazz and blues, two distinct but related genres, began flourishing in cities like Chicago and New Orleans.

Blues and jazz were the foundation of what became American popular music. The ability to sell recorded music through phonographs changed the music industry into one that relied on the charisma of star performers rather than songwriters. There was increased pressure to record bigger hits, meaning that even minor trends and fads like Hawaiian steel guitar left a permanent influence (the steel guitar is still very common in country music). Dominican merengue and Argentinian tango also left their mark. During the 1920s, classic female blues singers like Mamie Smith became the first musical celebrities of national renown. Gospel, blues and jazz were also diversifying during this period, with new subgenres evolving in different cities.

Jazz quickly replaced the blues as American popular music, in the form of big band swing. By the early 1930s, yet more regional variation in popular music had emerged. Cajun and Louisiana Creole music, rural Appalachian jug bands and country blues-hillbilly music were recorded, each finding some success and mixing with jazz and blues in the process, resulting in an influx of new, popular styles like close harmony.

1940s and 1950s

Main article: Music of the United States (1940s and 50s)

In the 1940s, both blues and jazz evolved into new forms due to many of the most revered performers of the genre. Blues became the basis for rock and roll, while jazz evolved into an ever more experimental bebop scene. Country and folk music further evolved as well, gaining newfound popularity and acclaim for hard-edged folk music.

Country, bluegrass and folk music

The early 1940s saw the first major commercial success for Appalachian folk. Singers like Pete Seeger emerged, in groups like the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. Modern country music stems from diverse roots, with Appalachian folk and country blues the most fundamental sources.

Coalescing numerous influences, including Irish and Scottish music, honky tonk, jug bands and hillbilly music, a variety of primarily white performers invented close harmony duets, bluegrass and Appalachian folk revival old-time music. With a honky tonk root, modern country music arose in the 1940s, mixing with R&B and the blues to form rockabilly. Pop country became dominant in the 1950s, with its center in Nashville; this became known as the Nashville Sound, and was soon challenged by a grittier form of country called the Bakersfield Sound, based out of Bakersfield, California.

Gospel and doo wop

The 1950s also saw the widespread popularization of gospel music, in the form of powerful singers like Mahalia Jackson. Gospel first broke into international audiences in 1946, with the release of Jackson's "Move On Up a Little Higher". As the music became more mainstream in the later part of the decade, performers began adding influences from R&B to make a more palatable and dance-able sound. Early in the next decade, the lyrics were secularized, resulting in soul music. Some of soul's biggest stars began performing in the 50s gospel scene, including Whitney Houston, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin.

Doo wop, a complex type of vocal music, also became popular during the 1950s, and left its mark on 1960s soul and R&B. Its polished sound and romantic ballads made it a major part of the 50s music scene, and, later in the decade, began producing teen idols like Frankie Valli.

Latin and Cajun music

Latin music imported from Cuba (chachachá, mambo, rumba) and Mexico (ranchera and mariachi) had brief periods of popularity during the 50s. The pan-Latin community of New York proved to be a hotbed of musical innovation, as these styles and more from across Latin America evolved into salsa music in the 70s. The 50s also saw innovation in the Mexican-Texan community, with boleros and conjunto adding to nearby innovations, resulting in musica nortena.

Louisiana's Cajun and Creole communities also saw some mainstream success, in the form of zydeco and the beginning of swamp pop. Clifton Chenier was the most influential musician of this period.

1960s and 70s

Main article: Music of the United States (1960s and 70s)

In the 1960s, music became heavily involved in the burgeoning youth counter culture, as well as various social and political causes. Psychedelic and progressive rock, soul and funk, hip hop, salsa, electronic music, punk rock and heavy metal arose during this period. An American roots revival occurred simultaneously as a period of sexual liberation and racial conflict, leading to growth in the lyrical maturity and complexity of popular music.

Early 1960s

The first few years of the 1960s saw major innovation in popular music. Girl groups, surf and hot rod, and the Nashville Sound were popular, while an Appalachian folk and African American blues roots revival became dominant among a smaller portion of the listening audience. By the middle of the decade, British blues and R&B bands like The Beatles (see British Invasion) were topping the charts, alongside newly-secularized soul music and the mainstreaming of the Bakersfield Sound. Folk-based singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan also added new innovations to popular music, expanding its possibilities, such as by making singles more than the standard three minutes in length.

Psychedelic rock

Psychedelic rock became the genre most closely intertwined with the youth culture. It arose from the British Invasion of blues in the middle of the decade, when bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who dominated the charts and only a few American bands, such as The Beach Boys and The Mamas & the Papas, could compete. It became associated with hippies and the anti-war movement, civil rights, feminism and environmentalism, paralleling the similar rise of Afrocentric Black Power in soul and funk. Events like Woodstock became defining symbols for the generation known as the Baby Boomers.

Later in the decade, psychedelic rock and the youth culture splintered. Punk rock, heavy metal, singer-songwriter and progressive rock appeared, and the connection between music and social activism largely disappeared from popular music.

Soul and funk

In the middle of the decade, female soul singers like Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross were popular, while innovative performers like James Brown invented a new style of soul called funk. Influenced by psychedelic rock, which was dominating the charts at the time, funk was a very rhythmic, dance-able kind of soul. Later in the decade and into the 70s, funk too split into two strands. Sly & the Family Stone made pop-funk palatable for the masses, while George Clinton and his P Funk collective pioneered a new, psychedelia- and heavy metal-influenced form of avant-garde funk. Album-oriented soul also appeared very late in the decade and into the next, with artists like Marvin Gaye taking soul beyond the realm of the single into cohesive album-length artistic statements with a complex social conscience.

It was in this context, of album-oriented soul and funk, influenced by Black Power and the civil rights movement, that African Americans in Harlem invented hip hop music.

Country and folk

Merle Haggard led the rise of the Bakersfield Sound in the 60s, when the perceived superficiality of the Nashville Sound led to a national wave that almost entirely switched country music's capital and sound within the space of a few years. At the same time, bluegrass became a major influence on jam bands like Grateful Dead and also evolved into new, progressive genres like newgrass. As part of the nationwide roots revival, Hawaiian slack-key guitar and Cajun swamp pop also saw mainstream success.


The early 1970s saw popular music being dominated by folk-based singer-songwriters like John Denver and James Taylor, followed by the rise of heavy metal subgenres, glam, country rock and later, disco. Philly soul and pop-funk was also popular, while world music fusions became more commonplace and a major klezmer revival also occurred among the Jewish community.

Heavy metal

Heavy metal's early pioneers included the British bands Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, though American cult bands Blue Cheer and The Velvet Underground also played a major role. Their music was hard-edged and bluesy, with an often menacing tone that became more pronounced in later subgenres. In the beginning of the 70s, heavy metal-influenced glam rock arose, and musicians like David Bowie became famous for gender-bending costumes and themes. Glam was followed by mainstream bombastic arena rock and light progressive rock bands becoming mainstream, with bands like Styx and Chicago launching popular careers that lasted most of the decade. Hair metal, a glitzy form of Los Angeles metal, also found a niche audience but limited mainstream success.

Outlaw country

With the Bakersfield Sound the dominant influence, outlaw country singers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were the biggest country stars of the 70s, alongside country rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers Band who were more oriented towards crossover audiences. Later in the decade and into the next, these both mixed with other genres in the form of heartland rockers like Bruce Springsteen, while a honky tonk revival hit the country charts, led by Dwight Yoakam.

Hip hop

Hip hop was a cultural movement that began in Harlem in the early 1970s, often said to have been invented by Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc. At neighborhood block parties, DJs would spin popular records while the audience danced. Soon, an MC arose to lead the proceedings, as the DJ began isolating and repeating the percussion breaks (the most popular, dance-able part). MCs' introductions became more and more complex, drawing on numerous African-derived vocal traditions, and became the foundation of rapping. By the end of the decade, hip hop had spread across the country, especially in Los Angeles and Chicago.


Cuban and Puerto Ricans in New York invented salsa in the early 1970s, using multiple sources from Latin America in the pan-Latin melting pot of the city. Puerto Rican plena and bomba and Cuban chachacha, son montuno and mambo were the biggest influences, alongside Jamaican, Mexican, Dominican, Trinidadian, Argentinian, Colombian and Brazilian sources.

Punk rock

Punk rock arose as a reaction against what had come before. Early punks believed that hollow greed had destroyed American music, and hated the perceived bombasity and arrogance of the biggest bands of the 1970s. It arose in London and New York, with numerous regional centers by the end of the decade when bands like The Ramones saw unprecedented success for their defiantly anti-mainstream genre.

1980s and 90s

Main article: Music of the United States (1980s to the present)

The 1980s began with New Wave dominating the charts, and continued through a new form of silky smooth soul, and ended with a popular hair metal trend dominant on the charts. Meanwhile, the first glimmer of punk rock's popularity began, and new alternative rock and hardcore found niche markets. Hip hop diversified as a few artists gained mainstream success, finally breaking through in the last few months of the decade.

Hip hop

In the 1980s, hip hop saw its first taste of mainstream success with LL Cool J and Kurtis Blow. At the end of the decade, two albums broke the genre into the mainstream. Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton broke through with highly controversial and sometimes violent lyrics. N.W.A. proved especially important, launching the career of Dr. Dre and the dominant West Coast rap sound of the next decade. That same year (1989), De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising became the earliest release of alternative hip hop, and numerous regional styles of hip hop saw their first legitimatization, including Chicago hip house, Los Angeles electroclash, Miami's bass, Washington D.C's go go and Detroit's ghettotech.


As the 90s began, hair metal was dominating the charts, especially formulaic bands like Extreme. In reaction to that, the first few years saw a sea change in American popular music. Nirvana's Nevermind launched the defiantly anti-mainstream grunge movement among mainstream audiences, while Dr. Dre's The Chronic brought his West Coast G Funk sound to widespread success.

Both these trends died out quickly, however, grunge done in by Kurt Cobain's death and disillusionisment with grunge, a form of alternative rock, becoming mainstream. G Funk lasted a few years, displacing East Coast rap as the dominant sound of hip hop. A rivalry began, fed by the music news, focussing on West Coast's Tupac Shakur and the East Coast's Notorious B.I.G. By the middle of the decade, Tupac and Biggie were shot dead, and Dr Dre's Death Row Records had fallen apart. East Coast rappers like Puff Daddy and Busta Rhymes re-established the East Coast, while Atlanta's OutKast and other perfomers found a mainstream audience.

In the wake of grunge and gangsta rap came a fusion of soul, especially soft 80s singers like Prince, called nu soul, some popularity for British Britpop and the rise of bands like Sublime and No Doubt, playing a form of pop punk influenced by Jamaican ska and British two tone ska/punk fusionists from the early 80s. Techno also became popular, though nowhere's near as much so as in most of the rest of the world.

At the turn of the millennium, bubblegum pop groups like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were dominating the charts, many of them with a Latin beat (Shakira, Ricky Martin), and rappers like Jay-Z and Eminem were huge stars. Some garage rock revivalists like The White Stripes and The Hives became highly-hyped bands in the indie rock field, and achieved substantial mainstream success.

Music of states and territories



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