Music has existed as a means of artistic expression as far back as the development of language. Historians speculate the first music was created in Africa as a method of inducing trace-like states for religious worship, ceremonial celebration and even speculation that it arose from the practice of mimicking the natural sounds of the world around them. Throughout the course of history, music has been an integral part of almost every culture that has existed, yet it's purpose and role in society varies greatly. Our ART + Music series will summarily explore how society and culture in America has shaped a beloved art form.
The Birth of Jazz
Jazz is often cited as the first true American music. Beginning in the mid 1800's, New Orleans was at the center of trade, which includes the unspeakable act of slavery. Many of the new slaves arrived in New Orleans from the West Indies, bringing with them the heavily rhythmic, syncopated and tribal sounds of Africa. As the southern hub for the trade, it was not uncommon for the multi-generational slaves to be sent down the Mississippi delta, bringing along a plethora of hymns, call and response work songs and the blues. After the end of the Civil War, new opportunities for congregation were allowed, although still restricted by Jim Crow laws.
During reconstruction, traditional Civil War marches were an integral part of the numerous carnivals and parades held in the city. Black and creole musicians began playing these marches in the after hours clubs, but adding their unique sound, incorporating the syncopation and call and response as a method of improvisation. It was the blending of these sounds that lead to the creation of Jazz; America's most prolific musical art form that continues to exist today.
With the invention of the phonograph, this style was now able move from the red light districts of New Orleans to the masses and opened the door for standards; songs most musicians could play and improvise. After the First World War, a liberal youth movement propelled the style to new heights in the 1920s at the dismay of the older generations, as they saw the genre as dissonant and frantic which would lead to mass hysteria.
Like all rebellious youth, this only further cemented the art form, and like any rambunctious party, a hangover was likely to follow. On October 29th, America entered the Great Depression, thus bringing the golden age of Jazz to a close, putting the final note on what was affectionately referred to as "The Jazz Age".
The Great Depression and World War II
Although the Jazz Age had passed, many of the prolific artists continued to perform and evolve the sound into swing and big band and became more mainstream and accepted by the masses. But as the hardships spread across the land, the sounds of musicians like Woodie Guthrie or Leadbelly Ledbetter were becoming more relatable to millions of unemployed, displaced and starving. These dire situations provided the foundation for the emergence of the 20th century folk music. One of the most popular songs to come out of this era is "Brother Can You Spare A Dime" by E.Y. Harburg whose title alone exemplified the turmoil of the common man.
But it was Guthrie who's voice would emerge as the voice of this movement. As a young teen, Guthrie learned how to play guitar and harmonica by ear (although this has been disputed by some). He embodied a free spirit and at the age of 19, began to ride the rails and hitchhike across the United States, giving him a first hand perspective on the devastating impact of the economic crash. These experiences were the inspiration for songs such as "Ain't Got No Home" and "The Great Dust Storm"
As FDR implemented the New Deal and the country began to recover from the devastating effects of the Great Depression, Guthrie's focus turned from the trials and tribulations of the average man to a more social political platform seeing his music as a means to create social change. Towards the end of the decade, he wrote a song about a wrongly convicted political activist named Thomas Mooney, who, through the help of Woodie's song, would later be fully pardoned. It was in 1940, just prior to the US involvement in World War II that Guthrie would wrote the iconic "This Land Is Your Land" as he grew tired of singing "God Bless America"
Rather then serving in the Army, Guthrie joined the Merchant Marines in 1943. It was during this time he would pen pro-war and anti-fascist songs to rally the support of the troops as well as those stateside. Such songs "When That Great Ship Went Down", "Better World A-Comin'" and "All You Facists Bound to Lose".
By the late 1940's, Guthrie began to succumb to Huntington's Disease and his health began to deteriorate until his death in 1967, leaving behind him a legacy of music that broke barriers; using his musical talents to progress social and political causes. His message inspired many future singers and songwriters to use the medium as a means for social change and not simply entertainment.
BY: KEVIN FINKBEINER
Contributing from Metro Detroit, Michigan
**Next: Part II of our series will look at the Birth of Rock, and take you on a historic journey through the 50's and 60's.