Every culture through the ages has had its own indigenous music. America, by contrast, was a sprawling hodge-podge of cultures, as settlers from the British Isles and various European societies sailed across the North Atlantic, while slave ships carrying their human cargo traversed a more southerly route from West Africa, each bringing the musical idioms of their homelands to the New World. As the American population grew and spread westward, these idioms began to intermingle, eventually becoming distinctly American and making up the local and regional quilt work of popular music.

These “hits” and “oldies” were transmitted by word of mouth, or what musicologists call the “oral tradition,” sung and played in log cabins, Conestoga wagons, cotton fields and townhouses alike. If there had been jukeboxes back then, the songs loaded into them would’ve been completely different in the Appalachian Mountains than in the Mississippi Delta, Central Texas or the Great Plains.

Producer T Bone Burnett explains how technology enabled traditional music to be recorded, while at the same time creating a musical universe that was its exact opposite: “When Thomas Edison invented the first sound-recording hardware, he just thought it was a stenographer’s device—a Dictaphone. It was just like the early days of the film camera, where they would go around filming everything they could think of. They didn’t know what to do with these cameras; they didn’t have the idea of the movie or using film as a narrative device. So they would go out and film trains or whatever. They didn’t know what to do with the audio recording device either, and one of the people who worked for Edison said, ‘Let’s put music on it.’ So they started putting music on it, and the demand was great.”

Then came the dawn of the 20th century, and the start of what we think of as the Modern Age, bringing the first recordings (first on wax cylinders, then phonograph records), record labels and radio, which radically changed the way music was created and consumed, spawning a nationwide industry—and eventually a global one.

In the early days of recording, “you couldn’t elevate an African-American person to the same level as a white man,” Dom Flemons, musicologist and co-founder of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, explained to No Depression magazine. “Socially, it was unacceptable to do that until you had people like the Lomaxes come along and really elevate the individual performer for what they were contributing… Everybody could respect an African-American musician by [their] playing music. But to put them on a pedestal in terms of how you documented it…the nature of the separation between the races didn’t allow that. Now, in the 21st century, we can re-analyze that. We can find the different stories that link these traditions together.”

In the second decade of the 20th century, factory jobs began to proliferate in the industrial North and Midwest, providing opportunities for Southern black workers, leading to what became known as the Great Migration. They came to cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago—which soon became a hotbed of recording for black musicians. Louis Armstrong, for example, established his band and reputation in his hometown of New Orleans but was cutting sides such as the landmark “Potato Head Blues,” the first record to feature instrumental soloists, in the Windy City near the end of the 1920s.

Further north, the Wisconsin Chair Co.’s Paramount imprint established itself as a leading independent blues label, issuing influential sides by Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and others between 1929 and 1932, the year that the Great Depression forced many record companies into bankruptcy. Paramount’s most important staffer was African-American producer J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who brought in the talent and marketed the label’s releases—so-called “race records”—to black consumers.

Just as labels maintained a pipeline of country music to Southern whites, music that connected with the blues of the rural South continued to be released; Columbia put out sides by Blind Willie Johnson, notably his one-of-a-kind eerie standard “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”; Columbia-owned Okeh issued Mississippi John Hurt; and Victor had a roster loaded with blues musicians. Those Delta musicians were Muddy Waters’ teachers and mentors, the men he learned from while living on Mississippi’s Stovall Plantation in the 1930s and ’40s before heading to Chicago to revolutionize the blues via the electric guitar, transforming the blues into urban music.

During Prohibition, the Cotton Club in Harlem was the most important venue in the country for big-band jazz musicians, and in 1936, the musical mecca relocated to the Theater District in Midtown Manhattan. Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith were among the black artists performing to all-white audiences. The Cotton Club helped usher in the Big Band Era, which became a phenomenon thanks to the arrival of radio, which brought live entertainment into people’s homes, as broadcasts from the nightspot gave Ellington and others national exposure. Swing became the dance music of the 1930s, with Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw among its biggest acts.

In 1942, a series of events culminated to hasten the Big Band Era’s demise. World War II had cut into the amount of shellac available to cut records; the musicians’ unions declared a recording ban to protect their radio jobs; gasoline rationing made touring difficult; and dance halls were closing across the country at a steady rate.

Once the recording ban ended in 1945, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago were awash in smaller clubs, which had replaced the dance halls. The groups that worked this circuit—usually quartets and quintets—were playing bebop, a form of jazz that was meant for listening rather than dancing, as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk took over as the leaders of postwar America’s instrumental art form. But it wouldn’t last. Bebop never gained the cultural status of swing music, and once rock ’n’ roll entered the picture in 1955, jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Lester Young and Bud Powell moved to Europe, typically settling in Paris, where their music was more widely appreciated.

In 1933, as song collector John Lomax and his son Alan scoured the South gathering songs for the Library of Congress, recording ballads and folk songs that had been passed along through the ages, they came across Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In those days, prisons perfectly met the definition of communities isolated from the outside world, and for that reason were an excellent source of work songs, ballads and spirituals, but Leadbelly, who played the 12-string guitar and whose head was filled with colorful old tunes, was a special find, and the Lomaxes recorded him singing and playing hundreds of songs within the space of a few days.

Two years later, after Leadbelly was pardoned, the Lomaxes brought him to New York, where he quickly became a star, expanding the limits of what constituted show business, sometimes even performing in his prison uniform, at the Lomaxes’ suggestion. This move may have been good theater, but it had a lasting negative impact on John and Alan’s reputations as high-minded musical preservationists. Nonetheless, the value of their thousands of painstakingly compiled and catalogued recordings can’t be overstated.

“There are millions of receivers, only a few transmitters,” Alan Lomax stated in a 1991 interview. He and his father made the connection between transmitters like Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, and receivers, whose output comprises 99.9% of recorded music.

“There are two things that the mainstays are all about,” the great Quincy Jones stated in a 1990 interview. “It’s the African motor and the black American church—that’s what the whole thing is about. Everything came from that. I’m not even saying that in judgment of classical European music, but the rhythmic motor of that is still African. The bolero is African, the tango is African; there are African influences, and Stravinsky knew how to utilize that.”

Next up: Part Two: When the World Was Spinning at 45 RPM

The 66-song playlist The Soul of a Century can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.


Talk about an overnight sensation. (4/21a)
His death continues to reverberate. (4/21a)
Anderson goes global. (4/21a)
A little help, please. (4/21a)
We've got a plan. (4/21a)
The musical tapestry we know as R&B.
Predicting the next big catalog deal.
Once we all get vaccinated, how long before we can party?
How is globalization bringing far-flung territories into the musical mainstream?

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