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New Rhythms

Digital History TOPIC ID 47

By the late nineteenth century, the old minstrel songs and polka rhythms seemed old fashioned. The public wanted new rhythms, and was particularly attracted to marches, like John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. Sousa's marches incorporated strong syncopation and elements that seem related to Latin music, like an Argentine tango. These new rhythms and strong syncopation express a very distinctive American rhythmic sense

Meanwhile, startling musical developments were occurring within the African American community. African American musicians and composes took traditional march forms and rhythms and created a new style with syncopated melodic line known as ragtime. The most famous was Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. This exhilarating music swept America and was associated with popular new dance steps, many of which had animal names like the Grizzly Bear and Turkey Trop and eventually the Fox Trot. Scott Joplin from Sedalia, Missouri, and this new music seemed to come up the Mississippi. It made its way to Chicago, which became a major center for the dissemination of ragtime.

Another major kind of African Music arose in the Mississippi Delta: the Blues. This was a musical genre cultivated by black migrant workers. They sang about hard times and broken love affairs, but the songs also had a hidden transcript attacking the caste system of race relations known as Jim Crow. After World War II, the Blues developed a new style of singing and instrumentation, making use of the saxophone and the electric guitar.

At the same time that the blues and ragtime were sweeping America, a new form of musical theater arose known as the Broadway musical or musical comedy. Derived from European operettas, American musical theater developed its own distinctive themes, characters, and musical styles. One of the musical theater's originators was Irving Berlin who made use of ragtime and blues in creation of a new musical style.

Many of the outstanding talents of the musical theater were Russian Jews and their children, including Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Jerome Kern. These composers made extensive use of slang and vernacular language. The harmonies, rhythms, and melodies of the Broadway musical theater were distinctively American and were extremely important in the formation of jazz.

Another important genre was the cowboy song, a genre that emerged from working cowboys on the range. Its rhythms echo the rhythms of a horse's gait, and these songs often use a rhymed couplet and a refrain. The cowboy song provided a basis for country and western music, which first emerged in the 1920s.

A distinct style that arose in the 1940s was bluegrass. Popularized by a handful of musicians, especially Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass boys, bluegrass was the urban music of displaced Appalachians. It featured mandolins, fiddles, guitars, and banjos. High tenor singing derived from rural church singing. It became especially popular as a result of the television sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies. Bill Monroe performed the theme music.

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