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Musical Traditions

Digital History TOPIC ID 45

Every group of Americans had its own distinctive musical traditions.

Native American Music: Music played an extremely important role in Native American rituals and ceremonies. In contrast to African and European musical traditions, Native American musics tended to use only a limited number of pitches and made little use of harmony. Choral singing, often accompanied by rattles was common. Also common was a responsorial technique in which a performer and a chorus sing back and forth to each other.

The question of Native American influence on contemporary American music has not received the study it deserves. There has been a tendency to underestimate the influence of Indian music. But it seems likely that Native American music had a special impact on cowboy songs and country music.

English Musical Culture: English folk tunes have left a lasting legacy on American popular music. Such songs as "Yankee Doodle," "My Country 'Tis of Thee, and the "Star Spangled Banner" derive from English folk tunes.

The Puritans felt very uneasy about certain kinds of music. The Puritans prohibited certain kinds of music, such as instrumental and theater music, and carefully scrutinized the kinds of music performed even in church. The kinds of music that grew out of the Puritan tradition, such as hymns, tended to have a leaner, more austere sound than their European counterparts.

African American Musical Traditions: African Americans contributed richly to an evolving American music. It is on the sea islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, where many African Americans lived apart from southern whites, that one can find forms of African and African American music that are close to their original forms, including hollers and work songs, that coordinated work activities.

Africa has one of the most complex rhythmic musical cultures in the world and one of the distinctive features of African American music lies in its use of rhythmic syncopation and a strong beat. Yet rather than singing on the beat, singers tended to sing or embellish around the beat. Early African American music was characterized by a remarkable rhythmic subtlety, distinctive vocal styles, and the creation of the banjo, a distinctly African American instrument that derives from African instruments.

Scottish and Irish Musical Traditions: Scottish and Irish immigrants brought a great store of songs to America (including Auld Lang Syne, the song we sing at New Year's).

Stephen Foster, the most popular American composer of the mid-nineteenth century, wrote many of his popular songs in an Irish idiom, emphasizing lyricism and pentatonic scale (five note scale). His 1854 song, Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, is filled with nostalgic yearnings for home which typifies Irish and Scottish songs of this period.

German Musical Cultures: Germans came to the United States with highly developed musical skills. German immigrants were very important in formal music education and in establishing classical music institutions. Many German songs, such as O Tannenbaum, became very popular. German men's choruses were "Americanized" in the United States in the form of school glee clubs and barbershop quartets.

One kind of Central European music that became very popular in the mid-nineteenth century was the polka, which made the waltz seem very old fashioned

L atin American Musical Cultures: Especially in the 20th century, Latin American musics have had a very strong influence on American popular music. Latin American musics themselves were formed out of a blend of various ethnic groups' musics including Spanish and African influences in the Caribbean and Indian and Spanish musics in Mexico. Such musical forms as the tango came from Argentina, the cha cha and mambo from Cuba, and reggae from Jamaica.

Hawaiian Music: Hawaiian music was particularly influential in spreading a taste for the steel guitar, which eventually gave us the electric guitar

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