In this section, you will examine the changes in American music and its impact on American culture over time.

Are you familiar with these artists? Click on each image to learn more.

Duke Ellington
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Image of Duke Ellington smiling

Duke Ellington was a famous composer and pianist of jazz who called his music “American Music.” After moving to Harlem in the 1920s, Ellington became one of the most famous musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Close Pop Up
Jimmie Rodgers
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Image of Jimmie Rodgers smiling

Jimmie Rodgers is considered by some the "Father of Country Music." Rodgers's career began at the age of 13 as a yodeler. Close Pop Up
Elvis Presley
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Image of Elvis Presley standing between two jailhouse bars.

Elvis Presley is one of the most famous entertainers of all time. Presley began his career in the 1950s when rock ‘n’ roll became a popular music genre.Close Pop Up
Taylor Swift
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Image of Taylor Swift standing in front of a microphone.

Taylor Swift is an American singer and songwriter in the country music genre. Swift began her career at the age of 14 and earned her first Grammy in 2008. Close Pop Up

Music is an integral part of American culture. There are various genres of music, and the lyrics and sounds reflect the time in which they were created. American music is created to entertain, but it is also created to inspire.

Image of the sheet music for when Johnny Comes Marching Home

Source: CW106530, Library of Congress

For example, When Johnny Comes Marching Home was written during the Civil War in 1863. This song was used to express the feelings of those who had loved ones involved in the Civil War.

Click on the link below to listen to the song.

Audio segment. Assistance may be required. When Johnny Comes Marching Home

Analyzing a Song- Based on what you know about the song and its lyrics, who is “Johnny” in the song?

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Johnny represents the soldiers who were off fighting during the Civil War. Close Pop Up
Duke Ellington Image of the sheet music for when Johnny Comes Marching Home

American Music has often been created as a result of the human and geographic factors. From 1910 to 1940, many African Americans left southern states to look for better social and economic conditions. This geographic change inspired a cultural change. Many African Americans who left the South moved to New York, namely Harlem, bringing with them cultural traits.

African Americans brought music, which was known as “race music,” with them to New York. The blend of southern and northern musical roots created a new sound that initiated the Jazz Age. Composers and singers, such as Duke Ellington, made music during a broader movement, the Harlem Renaissance.

Tin Pan Alley Image of three brownstone buildings

Source: Tinpanalley, Qwertyuiop900, Wikimedia

At various times throughout U.S. history, music has been at the core of a cultural movement. Tin Pan Alley, located in Manhattan, New York, was a block of buildings that housed music publishing houses. For nearly 70 years, from 1800 to 1953, Tin Pan Alley was a music publishing capital--the place where the most popular music in the United States was created.

The publishers at Tin Pan Alley produced sheet music that was either produced or sold directly to the public to play at home. Look at the evolution of Tin Pan Alley on the following chart.

Image of three brownstone buildings

By the 1950s, technology had changed the way that people played and listened to music. The radio had become the most popular way people listened to music, causing Americans to buy less sheet music. By 1953, a new genre of music, rock ‘n’ roll, had taken over the airwaves.

Elvis Presley Image of Elvis Presley

Entertainers like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry dominated the radio, and later television, capturing teenage fans across America.

The Supremes Image of musical groups, The Supremes. singing (from left to right, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross)

Source: The Supremes 1966, We Hope, Wikimedia

As the 1950s came to a close, a new musical sound was born. In January 1959, Berry Gordy, an African-American songwriter, founded Motown Records with an $800 loan from family members. Named after the nickname for Detroit, the city in which it was founded, Motown introduced popular music that captured audiences across America, regardless of race and socioeconomic status. Many famous recording artists, such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes (pictured above), started their careers at Motown. Motown lasted until 2005 when it was merged with another record company.

Click on the link below to access a timeline of Motown Records.

Motown Sound Timeline

Interactive exercise. Assistance may be required. Scroll over the images to read about their influence on American music.

Analyzing the Painting - Scroll over each of the five scenes to determine the roots of country and western music as depicted by the artist. What do you see?

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Country music got its roots in handmade instruments, such as fiddles and banjoes, as well as elements from the cowboy way of life. The roots of country music also came from gospel music, African-American music, and square dancing.Close Pop Up

The mural above depicts five scenes that represent the roots of country music as interpreted by painter Thomas Hart Benton. The mural was done when Benton was 85; it was a reflection of his study and travels through the rural South. Benton closely studied the history of music in the South. As country music was changing, Benton felt that the history of the music was slowly fading. His painting helps preserve the history.

Country music is historically rooted in the folk music played throughout the American South. By the mid-1920s, country music had developed into a separate music industry. The storytelling nature of the genre provided an escape for listeners who were dealing with the problems of the Great Depression. By the 1950s, country music had evolved into a new sound that was tinged with a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. The country music sound continues to evolve.

Sources for images used in this section, as they appear, from top to bottom: