The Art & Science of Sound -

The Railroad, The Radio and the Record: Three Technologies That Gave Birth to American Music

American music is rooted in a neatly formed triangle that starts in New Orleans, moves northeast through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee to Nashville where it then turns southwest heading for Memphis and the flat Mississippi floodplains of Arkansas, before winding its way back to New Orleans.

The music that grew from the roots of this triangle has found its way into every genre and style to emerge after the middle of the 20th Century. From California surf pop, to punk to hip-hop to Gypsy Jazz, to your favorite Boy Band, the music is rooted in the people, history and land of the Americana Music Triangle. The very history of America, and the rest of the world after World War One, is told through the music of sharecroppers, itinerant laborers, the Southern church, former slaves, immigrants and settlers, and the three technological advances that brought it all to the rest of the world.

The Roots of the Tree.

In the 1890s two divergent musical forms began to emerge from the southern Delta and bayous of Mississippi and Louisiana. Blues – a hybrid of African spirituals and work chants and Jass – a gumbo of European, African, Spanish and Caribbean influences that was finding favor among the educated white, black and Creole musicians of New Orleans. As a musical form, Jass was considered low-brow and unsavory, especially among New Orleans society, and by the Nineteen-teens in an attempt to make this new and ever more popular music more acceptable to the gentle classes the spelling had been changed and the world was introduced to Jazz.

Meanwhile, north of New Orleans, African spirituals and field chants were intermingling with the reels and jigs of Irish and Scot immigrants to become folk music. The instruments of the African and European continents became interchangeable – the banjo is African, the guitar is European, while the mandolin has Mediterranean origins. The violin is European, but the fiddle is lower class British and Irish.

Two events took place in the 1890s that would change the world a half-century later. Sears-Roebuck, the Amazon of its day, began selling acoustic six-string guitars for $4.50, which wasn’t quite the bargain you might think. Adjusted for inflation, a $4.50 guitar in 1894 would cost around $132 today, so only people with disposable incomes – which did not include sharecroppers of any race – were buying these instruments. But by the time World War I ended, many of these used instruments found their way into the hands of people who had a dollar to spend on something as frivolous as a guitar. 

The second event is the meeting of Charley Patton and Henry Sloan at Dockery Plantation which sat on the Delta halfway between Vicksburg and Memphis. Patton was part African, part Choctaw and part Caucasian and was probably in his early teens when Henry Sloan, the son of freed Mississippi slaves began teaching him his own unusual style of music. While Patton came to be known as the Father of the Delta Blues, he is most likely the Son of the Delta blues as anecdotal stories from the time make it fairly certain the music Patton began playing as an adult was learned from Sloan. Not enough is known about Sloan to say definitively that he birthed the Blues, but it seems likely Sloan developed his own unique style of playing guitar from the music he learned from freed African slaves.

At the same time, Blues music, military-style brass bands and African and Caribbean rhythms were mixing together to give Jazz a place in the New Orleans Red Light district known as Storyville. After the turn of the Century, Jelly Roll Morton, a young Creole piano player working the brothels of Storyville, copyrighted the first known Jazz songs and laid claim as the inventor of the music. Like any other artform, the music that became Jazz can’t be attributed to a single person. Morton was just the guy who was smart enough to see the financial potential in the music percolating in the streets of Storyville. Later in the 20th Century, Bill Haley was just the guy who was smart (and appealing enough) to take a musical form disdained and feared by the bulk of white society and make it exciting and financially rewarding.

In 1900, the New York Journal – in a Northeastern journalistic bias still be familiar today – defined  ‘hillbilly’ for the first time in print: “a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he can get it, and fires off his revolver when the fancy takes him.” In 1904, Emma Bell Miles published an article in Harpers Weekly entitled Some Real American Music. Miles predicted the impact of the music of the South in the century to come: “Here among the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas is a people of whose inner nature and musical expression almost nothing has been said. The music of the Southern mountaineer is not only peculiar, but, like himself, peculiarly American… The fiddler and banjo player are well treated and beloved among them, like the minstrels of feudal days. This is folk song of the highest order. May it not one day give birth to a music that shall take a high place among the world’s great schools of expression.

The common root among Country, Blues and Jazz was the Southern church. Gospel music had two main influences – African spirituals and European chamber music – that combined to join forces in the churches of the South. These four musical styles – diverse and barely recognizable to each other – became the foundation of everything we listen to today in popular Western music.

The Railroad.

The musical traditions of the Blues and Jazz were well-entrenched in Southern culture as the Great Migration began just prior to America’s entrance into World War I. As sharecroppers and the desperately poor looked northward for opportunity, they took their music with them. Traveling by train to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, dirt poor sons and daughters of former slaves took their few belongings north in search of a better life. The list of people who became musical stars in the middle of the 20th Century who traveled north with their families as children reads like a who’s-who of American music.

Blues musicians, carrying their beat-up mail-order guitars among their sparse belongings whiled away the long hours on the train trip north playing and writing music. The clack-clack-clack-clack, clack-clack-clack-clack of the rails became the metronome and the rhythms of modern Blues were born. The railroad not only helped spread the sound of the Deep South around the country, it also provided the basic rhythm of modern music.

The Record.

In the 1920s, radio began making popular music available to people in the larger population centers. In rural areas electricity was still sparse – those who could afford a radio generally had to hook it up to a car battery or a farm generator – luxuries not available to most rural residents, black or white. Radio stations and advertisers were also hesitant to play the uncultured rural music. Race played a role, but so did sheer economics – if a person couldn’t afford a radio or didn’t have electricity there was no point catering to them.

Early record companies, such as Paramount Records – a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, were founded as a way to help sell more gramophones, which at the time were considered more furniture than entertainment item. To build inventory, record companies sent employees out into the field to record whoever they could find giving early Blues and Jazz artists an audience they couldn’t possibly have developed otherwise.

Robert Johnson became known as the King of the Delta Blues because of recordings made in a San Antonio, TX, hotel room shortly before his death, but he was simply another itinerant Blues musician trying to squeeze out a living in the rural and segregated South. But as the record industry would prove time and time again, hype and availability often play a bigger role in fame than sheer talent. Robert Johnson had both, plus who can beat selling your soul to the Devil on a dirt road in Mississippi in return for the ability to play guitar? But the Blues was born thirty-five years before Robert Johnson sat down with a bottle of whiskey in front of a microphone in 1936 in San Antonio. Without Eric Clapton’s – and other British blues guitarists in the 1960s – devotion to Johnson, he would likely have been relegated to the near-anonymity of the scores of Blues musicians in the 1920s and 1930s who changed the world without notice.

By 1933, in the height of the Depression and after suffering serious defeats from talking movies and the radio which was finding its way into more and more homes as rural electrification increased, most record labels found themselves in or near bankruptcy. It would take another 20 years before records and radio realized how important they were to each other.

The Radio.

In the 1920s and 1930s, most radio programs were similar in style to Vaudeville – musicians performing live on weekly programs. Radio was still regional, with some larger stations taking advantage of atmospheric skip to broadcast to areas outside of their immediate listening areas.

On November 28, 1925 the WSM Barn Dance show premiered on WSM radio in Nashville, TN. Featuring “hoedown bands,” the WSM Barn Dance had a rural feel that was unlike what other radio stations across the country were broadcasting. What would become Country music was still a few decades away, but this is where the music of the Americana Music Triangle began to split into its various forms. Beginning in 1932, an 808-foot radio tower near Nashville transmitted WSM’s 50,000 Watt signal throughout the South and on nights when the atmospheric conditions were right, pretty much the rest of the country and parts of Canada as well. The music of the South was spreading and the Grand Ole Opry was doing the heavy lifting.

In 1947, 200 miles west of Nashville in Memphis, WDIA went on the air as the first commercial station in the United States appealing mostly to a black audience. B.B. King was an early DJ there. Soon other stations were realizing the commercial potential among black audiences and the music began to divide further. In spite of its early roots in African music, Country became “white” music, while the Blues and Soul became largely identified with black audiences, in spite of its early roots in Gospel and Country music.

In the 1950s, young white audiences were turning toward stations such as WDIA, and early stars who claimed influence from the music featured on these stations included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the rock and roll acts of New York and Detroit. In the days before the Civil Rights era, the perceived divide between white and black audiences was on full display in the commercial radio market. The thing no one really took notice of was that the divide was mostly on the part of the radio station owners and advertisers and not the audiences they were targeting.

The Music Takes Over.

Although Rock and Roll was considered dangerous to polite society, people in their early twenties and teens began to turn en masse to the “new” music coming out of the South. Commercial interests in the more established entertainment sector saw the potential and homogenized it, softening the rough edges and sexual innuendo of the music to make it palatable to a broader (read: white) audience with disposable income.

By the 1960s in the US, the roots of much of the Rock and Roll teenagers were listening to had been forgotten. What had been a very “adult” music about topics like sex, infidelity, murder and alcoholism was being marketed in a somewhat cleaned-up form to kids. Jazz had left New Orleans for New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Country found a home in Nashville, but the Americana Music Triangle was no longer recognized as the home of everything Americans were listening to. The entertainment centers on the coasts and in Chicago were now the surrogate homes to American music.

In post-War Britain, the angst and raw emotion of early Blues artists began to inform the tastes of teenagers living in the aftermath of the social and physical upheaval of World War Two. By the middle of the 1960s, British artists were re-introducing American teenagers to the music of the South. As a result of post-War energy and Cold War uncertainty, the new Blues and Rock and Roll was harder edged, dangerous and no longer interested in adults. The music of the sharecropper, church choir and mountain hollow hoe-down had begun to take over the world.

Whether from London, LA, New York, Detroit or Seattle (late in the century), or anywhere in between, the music of the Americana Music Triangle became the greatest musical force in history. Cultures changed, regimes collapsed, and more than a few people found refuge in a music of sorrow and hope borne in the flat, hot and dusty Mississippi Delta in the wake of the American Civil War.

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