The Emergence of American Music

For there to emerge a popular music, there had to be a cultural driving force for change in musical taste. The emergence of American music represented such a force. Ragtime and jazz music, two of America’s earliest twentieth century creations, featured syncopated rhythms and chromaticism-infused melodies that announced the beginning of a new era in Western music. There was an excitement surrounding the music that, like a contagion, allowed it to travel far from its geographic origin to the wider world. Whether one enjoyed the music or not, it was impossible to ignore because such a breed of music had never before existed. Because of the country’s colonial origin, the United States had become a final destination for cultural syncretism. Like the throw of a boomerang, the various musical cultures of the world had come together in America, but a single, new entity had traveled back to the various regions of origin. Such a blending of regional musics had never before taken place on so grand a scale.

In his article on contemporary music in the late modern period, John Baxendale asserts that, beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century, British music underwent a dramatic change. The meteoric rise in popularity of jazz music in Great Britain, played a significant role in this change. In the presence of this new genre of music, traditional British music had three options: die off, defeat the new threat, or incorporate the new music into its own. Jazz was a kind of invasive species that competed for similar audiences. Despite years of stagnation, however, the various styles of British music were too deep seated to die off, and it would have been impossible for Britons to un-hear American music. Incorporating this new music was the only viable option. Jazz was so important to the evolution of British music because the public’s embrace of this new music allowed the further acceptance of change.

More and more of the popular music on the radio was being influenced by the emergence of ragtime and early American jazz. The same desire for dance music that triggered young Americans to embrace jazz held equal sway over young Britons. If a British band performed jazz music, however, it would be incorrect to say that they were performing American music. Like all art forms, music is a product of time and place, and the performance of early jazz in Britain should still be categorized as British music. That being said, the fact that jazz had originated in America gave the music a level of novelty that appealed to younger listeners. Jazz provided these listeners with a fresh sound and a spectrum of different rhythmic patterns for which new dances had to be created. In the absence of such a description of its novelty, British listeners could only attribute this new genre to its American origin. The labeling of jazz as distinctly American, however, would have made the music even less respectable in the eyes of more traditional music lovers. The resentment “in some sections of British society . . . of all things American” fed into this perspective, held mostly by the upper class.¹

It is a reasonable question to ask why American music was so pivotal to the change in British music. The answer is revealed when I explain that I have used the term “American music” to indicate a place of musical mixture. The various musical traditions of the world first met in America, but the resultant music can really be identified as global music. By incorporating this global music, British music was itself able to emerge on the worldwide stage.

¹Mark Hustwitt, “‘Caught in a Whirlpool of Aching Sound’: The Production of Dance Music in Britain in the 1920s,” Popular Music 3, (1983): 12.