A Brief History of American Music I: Folk and Americana

American Music, like American Everything-Else, is a mixture of traditions brought here by immigrants (you know, Americans). The first immigrants to New England (go get a map; you may need it later) were mostly from the British Isles so our story starts with the Folk music of England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. One important thing to keep in mind is that Folk music is music of the people, played mostly by amateurs for community enjoyment and entertainment. This first development took place a bit west of where you generally think of colonists being, in the Appalachian Mountains. Evolution occurs more quickly in small, isolated populations and the Appalachian Mountain range fostered that way of life.

The lyrics were first Old World ballads, generally, but New World ballads soon mixed in. The music was based on Old World dance and vocal music but because it was never notated, it is difficult to say exactly how the Appalachian style was formed. One way to get an idea, though, is to track what instruments were used where and when. Of the typical instruments used in what’s now Bluegrass, the fiddle was probably the first to be used and was likely the only instrumental accompaniment for vocal and dance pieces. The banjo was introduced by slaves sometime in the 18th century and guitar and mandolin didn’t become widely used until the late 19th century. The Appalachian dulcimer didn’t come into being until the late 19th century but similar instruments like the Norwegian langeleik and German Scheitholt may have been used previously in America.

It’s hard to say what of this style was preserved and how but what left the isolated mountain communities is now called Bluegrass which includes elements of other musical traditions but retains most of the qualities one would find in Appalachian music. Modern Bluegrass contains a strong Jazz influence in its structure and harmony but the aesthetic comes mostly from Appalachian music of the late 19th century.

Oh, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about Appalachian vocal music; we’ll get to that.

Now we get to another hotbed of American Folk music, the Mississippi Delta. The Delta region can be traced from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Helena, Arkansas in the west to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south and a natural border, the Yazoo River, in the east. It’s here that some of the first Blues music was played. The presence of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers is important because for a long time waterways were primary routes of transportation and cities on their banks were commerce centers which led to them being cultural centers.

The delta Blues style is important for a few reasons. The use of “1,” “4,” and “5” chords in eight, twelve, or sixteen measure forms is pervasive in large part because of this style and the songs from this region are typically written in the first person. There’s more but it takes a keen ear to trace the musical lineage back this far.

Not to glaze over the delta (this will all come together, I promise) but we’re moving on.

In Chicago, the Blues took on a different sound. The guitars were electric and backed by bands, sometimes with horn sections (a foreshadowing of soul music). The electric guitars encouraged energetic and exciting performances and this was exemplified by the Chicago Bluesmen. Two particularly important performers were Muddy Waters who was a major influence in the British Blues boom and subsequent invasion and Buddy Guy, aka Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (everyone copies Buddy).

So: We’ve got bluegrass and Blues that’s closer to rock and roll than Folk. But, now it starts to come together. Because of the way populations shift in America, these styles blended. If you take delta Blues, clean up the language, and add an even rhythm you can dance to, for instance, you’ve got Country music. Blues, being pervasive, influences again, indirectly through Jazz. See where I was going with this? There are still a few loose ends to tie up, though.

First, prisons. These were the great libraries and melting pots of American Folk music because prisoners from various regions brought their music with them. Many important recordings were made at prisons in the south. Second, traveling musicians were crucial in helping cross pollinate these styles and developed hybrid styles themselves. Last, gospel. Each region had its own style, of course. Small Appalachian communities would have small choirs with melodies and harmonies resembling European traditions but a larger, southern community would have a larger choir with melodies and harmonies influenced by the black population. This is where the Folk and Country vocal harmonies come from.

Let’s fast forward a bit. In the north, there was a Folk boom and in the south there was Country. A guy named Chuck Berry did this thing called Rock and Roll but that’s not too important right now. The Folk boom was helped along by recording technology that sped up the music’s development by letting anyone hear it. Country music was in a lot of respects a white interpretation of earlier black music with electric guitars but had a lot going for it. In Tennessee, you had people like Johnny Cash and groups like the Statler Brothers (great Country-gospel singers) and west, in California, there was “cowboy music” played by Buck Owens and the like. There was this kid who loved Folk music, traveling great distances to hone his craft, and had experimented in Tennessee with his own version of the Country sound. Finally, he decided to try to take the new sound on the road so Bob Dylan hired The Band to back him up on tour.

One very important thing to know is that The Band invented Americana music. The Band was formed over a period of years as a group of backing musicians for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins toured them on a circuit between Helena and Toronto for years before they got sick of him and decided to try their luck making their own music. Bob Dylan picked them up when he needed a band for his first electric tour. They moved to Woodstock after Dylan’s accident and invented Americana in the basement of a house they had rented called Big Pink.

Their first two albums, Music from Big Pink, and The Brown Album further defined the genre and are must haves.

Now, we’re near the end so just hang in a little longer. I’ll make this quick.

The last chapter of this story is Folk music and The San Francisco Sound. In the early sixties, San Francisco was a big part of the Folk boom and this proved to be a lasting influence on San Francisco bands. The Jam Bands mostly started as Bluegrass and Blues bands. Over time, they went electric and became more and more experimental in their performances but they were playing traditional American music, they just happened to be very intoxicated at the time.Once the sixties were over, though, they got around to picking up their original traditional music influences and ambitions.

During the eighties, this music went deep underground and development became hard to track but it’s still around. Take a careful listen.

For more of my writing, please visit http://www.colcifer.com.


The goal of my writing is to celebrate good music and provide a resource for those who are passionate about it. I started writing because I was disappointed by how little online music content was written by musicians. I’m a jazz musician by training but I care about quality, not genre. Colcifer is a nickname a drummer gave me; it means, roughly, “smart music” in Bobby-speak. I can also be found on Alltop. Follow me on Twitter for blog updates, interesting retweets, and occasional jokes of varying quality. I’ve curated a list of music accounts that you can follow as well.


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