The vast expanse of American music—blues, jazz, gospel, ragtime, R&B, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and eventually mainstream pop—has been built on a common foundation. For example, archetypal white artists including Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams drew on the black idioms of blues and gospel for inspiration as they collectively drew up the blueprint for country music. This sort of cross-fertilization between black and white musical idioms, which forms the very fabric of our music, can be traced back to certain transformative artists and songs that together tell a captivating story, each a harbinger of where American music came from and where it was headed.

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.


Parchman Farm inmates, “Early in the Mornin’” (Library of Congress, late 1940s): In the beginning was the beat. It was made by the whack of pickaxes wielded by African slaves and their descendants. Long before songs were recorded, the first genuinely American music was created: work songs used to ease the burden of living. This recording was made by proto-musicologist Alan Lomax at the Parchman Farm State Penitentiary in Mississippi; it captures inmates as they split cords of wood, muscles rippling in mid-exertion, their chant-singing motivating them to keep going past the point of exhaustion, sometimes running out of breath before they get to the end of the line. Like so many other work songs and spirituals, the seeds of “Early in the Mornin’” took shape in the 19th century, fed by the music slaves brought with them from Africa. It’s a shockingly vivid example of the way exploited blacks transformed anguish and hardship into something beautiful, vital and laced with dogged hope for a better life. “They were the true voices of our collective roots,” Lomax’s daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis, said of the outsiders who formed the backbone of America’s own music.

Scott Joplin, “Maple Leaf Rag” (John Stark & Son [sheet music], 1899): Two decades after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, in 1877, the device helped popularize a new type of piano music known as ragtime. In this hybrid style, the European classical forms were interwoven with African-American melodies and rhythms to create something uniquely American. “Maple Leaf Rag” is ragtime the way Scott Joplin, “the Father of Ragtime,” wrote it and played it (the recording was made from a piano roll that captured his actual performance). This early Joplin smash contains the bedrock elements of 20th-century popular music: a toe-tapping beat and an interlocked series of melodic hooks, topped off by one of the catchiest riffs in pop history. This is physical music made by the forceful pounding of fingers on keys, but it’s also incredibly sophisticated, as intricate as a Bach fugue, as the cotton field and sitting room began melding in earnest. Ragtime would soon mate with the blues to form the basis of jazz.

Trixie Smith, “My Man Rocks Me” (Black Swan, 1922): With this tale of erotic bliss—to put it politely—blues chanteuse Trixie Smith, a Georgia transplant working as a singer and actress on New York’s vaudeville stages, gave the world the first combined use of the words rock and roll in popular music. Listen past the scratchy, primitive acetate recording and you’ll hear a young seductress frankly reveling in her sexual powers and those of her man as she describes the heat of physical pleasure in coded but revealing language, further emboldened by a hot-blowing jazz combo. The song’s original title, “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll),” serves as a tantalizing hint at the lust that, three decades later, would possess the hearts and hips of first-generation rock ’n’ rollers. As Trixie puts it here, “Ain’t we got fun.”

Bessie Smith, “Down Hearted Blues” (Columbia, 1923): Armed with the bottomless passion of early Negro spirituals, superstar Bessie Smith entered the world of flappers and pomaded dandies with the shocking suddenness of a bolt of lightning. Here, on this proto-belter’s very first record (written by blues artist Alberta Hunter), she fearlessly opens up her heart and soul, showing the world everything that’s real, sexual and flat-out raw about the blues, the heartbreaking pain of her personal experiences coming through with the throbbing intensity of an open wound. It’s downright miraculous the way her voice, as big and powerful as a Tennessee tornado, breaks through the sonic limitations of early recording techniques to achieve a primal immediacy in lines like “trouble, trouble, I’ve had it all my days/it seems like trouble going to follow me to my grave”—burning through the ear, right into the soul.

Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey,
“If You See My Savior” (unknown, 1926): While Bessie Smith plumbed the depths of the blues, Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey took the blues he’d cut his teeth on as Georgia Tom, Ma Rainey’s piano player, and brought them to higher ground—the realm of the spirit. And just like that, personal woes gave way to loftier concerns. What you’re hearing is not only the first gospel hit, but also the basic fabric of what would come to be called soul music, as Dorsey tears into this personal testimony with maximum grit, reaching down into his gut and stretching toward the heavens. Decades later, he’d describe soul as “something that gets down deeper inside you than the ordinary,” while the blues “is a good heart broken, a good man or a good woman feeling bad.” By creating gospel music, Dorsey provided good people with a ray of hope, while connecting spiritual and physical cravings, embodied in the song’s churchy organ and barroom piano.

Blind Willie McTell, “Statesboro Blues” (Victor, 1928): Meanwhile, the blues, rooted in the rural South, started to grow more sophisticated. On this early blues standard, Blind Willie McTell’s nimble fingers dance across the 12-string guitar, his picking marrying the raw country style of the Mississippi Delta with slicker East Coast sounds. Every line in this song is packed with desire—for love, for sex, for escape—as the blues troubadour cobbles together phrases as old as the hills, borrows from contemporary songs like Sippie Wallace’s “Going up the Country,” and tosses in bits he’s dreamed up himself. Blind Willie sets this yarn in his Georgia hometown and spins it out in the first person, repeating the first line of each chapter in the now-familiar 12-bar-blues sequence, doubling its intensity, while his fingers form the quotation marks and exclamation points. This sweeping tale spans three generations of a family with “travelin’ shoes” in their DNA, full of hope battered and renewed—an epic novel crammed into a blues song.

Louis Armstrong, “St. James Infirmary” (Okeh/Columbia, 1929): And then came the blossoming of jazz—the first great American art form. Drawing on ragtime and the blues, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong essentially created the musical vocabulary for the next 100 years; his singing style, song structures, reinterpretation of the roles of soloists and improvisation. Armstrong’s work from this period is, quite simply, the blueprint for all popular music. And “St. James Infirmary” has it all: the gnarled yet super-expressive voice obliterating previous notions of beauty and elegance, a structure as sturdy as oak and flexible as willow, the heady interplay of composition and soloing, a breath forced through a brass cylinder that explodes into vibrant life, even in a song consumed with death. Simply put, this is where the “roll” in “rock ’n’ roll” began.


Next up: The 1930s

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Long live Hitsville USA. (12/2a)
IGA and Republic are on top. (11/30a)
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It's the most wonderful time of the year. (12/2a)
Artists sound off on the prospect of being nominated
They're changing the game... for some.
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