Most music historians trace contemporary popular music to roots in two distinctive types of American folk music: Black music, emanating from the enslaved black culture, and Country and Western, formerly known as hillbilly music. We can trace the origins of both genres to early U.S. history.
Black Music Africans who were brought to the colonies as slaves used music to soothe their difficult lives. Much of the music reflected their oppression and hopeless poverty. Known as black music, it was distinctive in that it carried strains of slaves’ African roots while reflecting the black American experience. This music also included strong religious themes, expressing the slaves’ tireless faith in a glorious afterlife. Flowing from the heart and the soul, this was folk music of the most authentic sort.
After the Civil War, black musicians found a white audience on riverboats, saloons, and other various pleasure palaces. This introduced a commercial component into black music and fueled numerous variations, including jazz. Even with the growing white following, the creation of these latter-day forms of black music remained almost entirely with African American musicians. White musicians who picked up on the growing popularity of black music drew heavily on black songwriters. Much of Benny Goodman’s swing music, for example, came from black arranger Fletcher Henderson.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a distinctive new form of black music, rhythm and blues, emerged. R&B attracted both black and white fans all over the country. Mainstream American music had come to include a firm African American presence.
Hillbilly Music Another authentic American folk music form, hillbilly music, flowed from the lives of Appalachian and Southern whites. These settlers had come largely from Scotland, Ireland, and England during the early 17th and 18th centuries and had strong cultural traditions. The term “hillbilly music” had been seen as derogatory to those with a rich musical heritage. Therefore, after the founding of the Country Music Association in 1958, this genre was merged with Western and Cowboy music and became Country and Western, or C&W.
The music of Appalachia drew heavily on English ballads and shorter ditties composed on the fiddle. The lyrics reflected the harshness of Appalachian life, including generations of poverty and frustrated romances and family challenges. This genre wasn’t really popularized until the 1950s; the black and hillbilly traditions intersected as a distinctive new music genre, called rockabilly, which then morphed into rock ‘n’ roll.
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