Participants’ Program Guide
A project of the Tribeca Film Institute
in partnership with
The American Library Association Public Programs Office
and The Society for American Music
Made possible by a major grant from
The National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor
INTRODUCTION TO AMERICA’S MUSIC
The history of modern American popular music encompasses diverse traditions and extraordinary
musical inventions. Americans made their popular music through a fundamental process of
exchange across social lines, the same lines where American identity is formed and continually
reformed, and where diverse cultural traditions meet, collide and mix. How Americans respond to
this diversity of traditions, seeing it as a threat or a wealth of possibilities, informs our great
promise as a nation.
American popular music comprises a diverse array of styles that reflect the country’s multi-ethnic
population. Beginning in the 17th century, immigrants from England, Spain and France, and later
Ireland and Germany, brought unique styles and instruments with them. Each subsequent group
of immigrants would add to the mix of musical styles. African American slave communities, for
example, brought influential musical traditions that drew on sophisticated rhythms and
improvisation that they combined with European traditions and other indigenous music.
While American music grew from hundreds of indigenous or immigrant groups who developed
their own local or regional styles, cross-cultural hybridization has long characterized American
popular music. The most distinctly American musical genres resulted from close contact between
different social groups. Scholars mark the Civil War as a turning point for new distinctly
American musical forms. People from many regions came together in army units where they
traded musical styles and practices. Civil war ballads became a truly national American folk
music, with discernible features distinct from any one regional style.
The turn of the twentieth century marked a period of sweeping change in American society. In
1890, fewer than one in four Americans lived in cities. By 1920, more than half lived in urban
areas. Massive migration from both Europe and the American heartland changed the nation’s
demographic make-up and established the city as the center of an emerging national culture.
During the early 20th century, these social changes combined with new technologies to create a
mass market for popular music. While sound recording was invented by Thomas Edison in the
United States and Charles Cros in France in the late 19th century, not until the 1920s did the
record industry and then radio become the primary means for disseminating music. By the
beginning of the 20th century, the music publishing industry became centralized in New York
City; in a downtown area called Tin Pan Alley, where an army of composers and marketers wrote
and promoted hundreds of new songs. The Tin Pan Alley publishing firms -- many of them
started by Jewish immigrants who found other professions closed to them -- produced and
publicized popular songs like any other manufactured product. Performers such as Al Jolson and
Sophie Tucker promoted songs in cross- country tours. By the 20s and 30s, Tin Pan Alley songs
were popularized in Broadway musicals, which set the standard for popular songs throughout the
While Tin Pan Alley songwriters catered to a national taste for sentimental ballads, a new kind of
music was evolving in the South. Jazz’s signature home was New Orleans, whose multi-ethnic
mix of African Americans, Creoles, Native Americans, and people of European, Caribbean and
Latin American descent was unique. The first jazz music combined elements of ragtime,
marching band, and blues -- an African American style that grew from the harsh conditions of the
Jim Crow South. What made jazz different from these earlier styles was the use of improvisation.
America’s increasing industrialization during the first two decades of the 20th century created
great demographic shifts as workers moved from rural areas seeking greater economic
opportunity. African Americans took part in the Great Migration to the North to find work and to
escape the prevailing racism of the South. Among the migrants were musicians who brought jazz
to cities like Chicago and New York, blending their Southern roots with a new urban sensibility.
The 1920s became known as the "Jazz Age" when Americans, still reeling from the experiences
of WWI, embraced the ‘new’ as they forged a 20th century identity. Among the greatest early
jazz pioneers was Louis Armstrong, who brought his distinctive timbre, scat singing and relaxed,
swinging phrasing to this distinctly American musical form.
The popularity of jazz peaked in the swing era, which lasted through the Depression and World
War II. The African American bands of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie
created a powerful rhythmic driving sound for dancing that swept up millions. White bands
headed by such musicians as Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey adapted and brought
the music to widespread popularity. Facing the greatest economic calamity in their history and
then a World War, Americans embraced swing as a respite from worry and the music became a
source of renewal and optimism.
While swing jazz grew to be America’s most popular music, other forms of popular music were
also emerging. By the 1930s, the religious spirituals and blues music of African Americans had
evolved into what is now known as gospel music. Based in storefront churches as well as
national ministries, the gospel movement brought an unconstrained fervor and emotionalism to
music that had not been heard before. Country music, initially made and embraced largely by
rural working white folks, also developed in the first half of the 20th century. Appalachian string
band dance tunes, traditional ballads and sentimental pop songs all influenced the remarkable
sounds of so called “hillbilly music.” Country music was popularized and disseminated through
radio and recordings beginning in the 1920s.
Gospel and country are distinct genres, but share some common history. Both began in the hard
times of rural life, yet grew roots and branches in the cities. Bluegrass, a sub-genre of country,
especially had an appeal to urban audiences. Both country and gospel developed separate white
and African American strands, even though they originated in music that crossed the color line.
In the face of the modernization of the early 20th century, both gospel and country music spoke to
people’s nostalgic yearning for the past. Yet both confronted the realities of living in the modern
era, with themes ranging from everyday working life to life on the road or romance gone wrong,
to the search for spiritual roots in a modern world.
The second half of the 20th century witnessed an explosion of musical styles whose development
coincided with immense social and political change. The years after World War II found the
United States at the forefront of global economic and military power, and politically locked in a
cold war. Domestically, the country underwent tectonic demographic shifts, especially
suburbanization, while an emerging Civil Rights movement and later an anti-war protest
movement began to rock the foundations of its traditional power structure. The 1950s saw the
arrival of rock and roll and rhythm and blues, which drew on many older styles -- country, blues,
gospel and pop. Fueled by adolescent listeners, the music came to prominence through
independent record labels that promoted distinct regional styles in cities like Memphis, New
York, and Detroit. Rock captured young listeners in the U. S. and spread around the world to
grow to greater prominence than jazz.
The music of the 50s and 60s also engaged cold war and civil rights politics, and resonated with
the aspirations and anxieties of American life. While the United States grappled with the claims
of people of color for equal rights, rhythm and blues as ‘soul music’ brought African American
culture without apology to a mainstream audience. The baby boom generation’s utopian hopes for
an American society plagued by poverty and inequality found expression in the ideas and
emotions at the core of popular music. Music was indispensable to the history of that time when
Americans grappled with the claims of their fellows for full and equal citizenship.
The last decades of the 20th century witnessed the continuing influence and diversification of
American popular music. In the 1980s, charismatic performers – Bruce Springsteen, Michael
Jackson, Madonna – reached worldwide mass audiences by challenging the boundaries of identity
and social background. Rap, hip hop, disco and punk were all musical genres born in the
declining industrial cities, springing from the experiences of working class and racial minorities
increasingly segregated in urban enclaves, and appealing to middle-class suburban youth
responding to an era of economic and political instability. Always an influence in American
music, Latin music exploded into the mainstream with the success of the mambo, cha cha and
other dance crazes that swept the country in mid-century, and later with salsa and Tex Mex singer
Selena in the 1990s and artists like Jon Secada and Ricky Martin. Technological advances and
new packaging techniques, starting with MTV’s rock videos and continuing with the rapidly
evolving use of digital technologies, have generated new questions about the availability and
ownership of all music in the new technologies.
Session One: The Blues and Gospel Music
Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Episode 1, Feel Like Going Home
Produced and Directed by Martin Scorsese, 2004
Grammy Award Winner, Best Historical Album
Emmy Award Nomination Outstanding Non-Fiction Series
Emmy Award Winner Outstanding Cinematography for Non-Fiction Program
Say Amen, Somebody
Produced and Directed by George T. Nierenberg, 1983
* N.E.H. sponsored
Telluride, New York, Toronto, London, Cannes Film Festivals
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Documentary of the Year
One of 10 Best Films of the Year: People Magazine, Rolling Stone,
Miami-Herald, At the Movies, Chicago Sun Times
Charles F. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies and History, Director of
Graduate Studies - American Studies Program, College of William and Mary
If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation of blues and gospel music,
two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century. Anchoring the sounds of
African America, these styles underlay the musical innovations of the century: jazz, rhythm and
blues, rock, soul and hip hop. They are known and cherished around the world and in every
corner of the U.S. It would be impossible to imagine American music without them.
The story of black music is also the tale of the enduring social struggles of American history.
Blues and gospel, the secular and sacred songs of everyday black folk, are both bound up in
sorrow, loss, despair, hope, redemption, resilience and dreams. While remaining recognizable
over many decades, the spirit and musical forms of these styles have influenced much of the
American music that has followed. The “blue notes” that are characteristic of the form became
prominent in country music, rock and roll and jazz. The simple 12 bar A A B form of blues
became the template for the first rock and roll songs, from “Good Rockin’ Tonight” to “Rocket
88" to “Hound Dog” to “Johnny B Goode.” And the world wide interest in American blues
inspired such musicians as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others abroad to not only take up
their own instruments, but to re-influence American popular music, borrowing the beat, the form
and the sound of the blues and infusing them with new sensibilities.
Blues greats such as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, Son
House, T-Bone Walker, and BB King, and gospel stars such as Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta
Tharpe, the Gold Gate Quartet, Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers and Clara Ward all occupy
prominent places in the pantheon of great American artists. Their music marks one of the great
contributions of Americans to world art. But, like other folk art forms, blues and gospel came
from the experiences of everyday life.
“The blues was born behind a mule,” said the great Mississippi Delta bluesman Muddy Waters.
Blues and gospel music originated in the oppressive experiences of African Americans in the
post-emancipation South. When the United States Congress ended Reconstruction in 1877, the
political gains and civic protections African Americans had gained after the Civil War were
suppressed, and millions of blacks were economically and politically disenfranchised. In the
cotton South, African Americans endured harsh conditions: an endless cycle of debt in farm
tenancy and sharecropping, peonage, curfews, and lynchings. The daily humiliations of Jim
Crow and the constant threat of violence made life difficult and often dangerous. Those who
migrated to northern cities in great numbers after 1910 faced different difficulties: segregation,
substandard housing, subsistence wages, second class status and discrimination. But rural or
urban, African Americans wrought their lives in music that stemmed from their daily experiences.
Blues music characteristically features musical tones that differed from the Western diatonic scale
(do re mi). The blues features notes that fall between the intervals of the scale, microtones that
flattened the pitch of conventional music, creating powerful tensions and resolutions. The blues
also feature a heavily accented and often irregular beat. Simple blues forms follow an A A B
structure over twelve bars; a form that has become the bedrock of jazz, pop, country and rock and
roll over the years. Blues music drew on numerous African American sources. In Southern
plantations, lumber camps, prisons and fields, black work songs, field hollers, chants, and ballads
all combined to shape a unique new music with strong ties to African antecedents.
Blues songs first emerged in the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont Southeast, Texas and
Appalachia, around the turn of the twentieth century. Soon after, urban-based blues appeared in
cities such as Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and New York. Itinerant
songsters, stage artists, vaudeville singers and schooled musicians all performed blues using the
brass and string instruments of marching bands and orchestras. But whether with the simplest of
instruments - a one string “diddly bo” or “quills” cut from sugar cane, or on guitars, pianos, and
brass, blues musicians played a variety of styles that captured sadness, elation, resignation,
despair and hope, perhaps more evocatively than any other form of indigenous music the U.S had
Among the most powerful resources that sustained African Americans through adversity and
difficulty was strong religious faith. The “sorrow songs” sung in slave times gave birth to
religious songs known as spirituals. After emancipation, black religious music - dignified,
respectable, and powerful - galvanized audiences around the world thanks to the touring of the
Fisk University Jubilee Singers in the late 19th century. By the 1920s storefront churches
throughout black America had moved away from the staid spirituals to an unrestrained, emotive
and fervent form of religious music, often sung and played by the whole congregation instead of a
choir. In the 1930s Thomas Dorsey, a former blues musician, married a blues sensibility to
religious themes, pioneering the style known as gospel music. With such collaborators as Sallie
Martin, Willie Mae Ford Smith and Mahalia Jackson, the sounds of Gospel resonated in black
churches throughout the U.S.
Blues and gospel proved empowering for the artists who made the music as well as the audiences
who embraced it. Many of the traveling blues artists of the 1920s and 30s eagerly took to that life
as one of the few alternatives to the heavy and unremunerated labor of farm or factory.
Similarly, women found a prominence and influence in gospel as singers, choir leaders and
composers that gave them a say equal to the male preachers who dominated black churches.
Gospel gave black women a public prominence in church that they seldom enjoyed elsewhere in
black America. Music offered freedom to those who pursued it - the promise of freedom and
Blues artists became heroes and legends in the black community. One of the most enduring tales
concerns the elusive bluesman Robert Johnson. Johnson’s music was so powerful, many of his
listeners believed the myth that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for it. Similar tales of
other musicians made clear that African Americans saw music as a spiritual, deeply powerful art.
Such tales resonated with African stories and myths kept alive in the black community, and were
embraced as well by a wider world eager to understand the source of blues music’s appeal.
Similarly, gospel music’s deep connection to religious faith often transported both performers and
audiences: trances, speaking in tongues and ecstatic emotional outbursts often accompanied the
gospel music and services. This music could and did change lives.
Over the 20th century, gospel and blues music gained acceptance around the world. The revivals
of the 1950s and 60s introduced new audiences to the work of forgotten musicians from decades
earlier. Since then, scholars, fans and audiences have engaged in a permanent revival, with a
continuing round of festivals, new film, radio and recording projects, to preserve the music of the
past and document current practice for the future. And while newer styles emerge and hold
commercial interest for a time, blues and gospel remain the bedrock of black music.
Session Two: Broadway and Tin Pan Alley
Broadway: The American Musical, Episode 2: Syncopated City
Produced by Michael Cantor, 2004
* N.E.H. sponsored
Emmy, Outstanding Nonfiction Series
Emmy, Outstanding Sound Mixing for Nonfiction Program
Golden Satellite Award, Best Documentary DVD
“Way Down Upon the Hudson River: Tin Pan Alley's New York Triumph”
Rachel Rubin, Professor of American Studies, University of Massachusetts
Broadway in the 1920s was a showcase for the sweeping changes transforming American culture
in the early 20th century, including new roles for women, the mixing of social classes in new
settings like Prohibition-era speakeasies and creative innovation by African Americans in jazz
clubs and music halls. Sons of immigrants from Europe – including the Gershwins, Irving Berlin,
Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen -- made up a large percentage of the new word and music smiths
writing for Tin Pan Alley and Broadway’s musical revues. Their syncopated rhythms borrowed
from the jazz craze and their lyrics helped create a vibrant, witty new American argot. Tin Pan
Alley and Broadway contributed such classic standards as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (Berlin),
“I Got Rhythm” (Gershwin and Gershwin), “Ol’Man River,” (Kern and Hammerstein), “Stormy
Weather” (Arlen and Koehler), “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Razaf, Waller, Brooks), “Anything Goes”
(Porter) and many more. These songs formed the musical backdrop of an era. The production of
these songs also became big business.
The first major book written about Tin Pan Alley was published in 1930 by Harvard professor
Isaac Goldberg, and it was subtitled “A Chronicle of the American Popular Music Racket.”
Goldberg’s humorous use of the word “racket” captured something about the origins of the name
‘Tin Pan Alley’ given to the music composed by poorly-paid songwriters banging away in
cubicles in downtown New York City on cheap pianos. The word also expressed Goldberg’s view
that the burgeoning music industry of his time was a slightly shady one. Our contemporary
understanding of this music, on the other hand, is shaped by decades of nostalgic packaging that
enshrines these popular songs as “standards,” comprising the “great American songbook.”
In its own time, “Tin Pan Alley” was an insurgent popular music that was a challenge made by
immigrants and their working-class children to the dominance of the polite middle-class “parlor”
music of the time. It also borrowed a great deal from the popular music being created
contemporaneously by African American musicians. “Tin Pan Alley” referred to an actual
location where popular music publishers had their offices in New York City—first Union Square,
then West 28th Street, and then further uptown. But “Tin Pan Alley” also meant a style of music
that tended initially toward ethnic novelty songs and later, in the “classic” period (from the mid-
1920s on), toward 32-bar love songs that relied heavily on internal rhymes and punning in the use
of language. Such songs fed, and became the basis for, the burgeoning musical revues on
Tin Pan Alley music was urban music, and its initial popularity relied on sounds and themes that
were perceived by white audiences as connected to African American life in the United States.
Even so, opportunities for actual African Americans to get a hearing on Tin Pan Alley were quite
rare. The heyday of Tin Pan Alley coincided with what African American historian Rayford
Logan has termed the “nadir” of race relations in the United States. While some commentators
find evidence for intercultural sympathy in the sprightly rhythms, blue notes, and vernacular
lyrics of Tin Pan Alley songs, it is also important to remember that the music flourished in a
context of institutional racism.
The rise of Tin Pan Alley—as music and institution—depended on the mass immigration of East
European Jews to New York beginning in the early 1880s, and the historical shift of America's
black population from South to North. Around the time of World War I, African Americans
began leaving the South in droves; ultimately more people of African descent moved in the first
few decades of the 20th century than at any time since the Middle Passage. What we now call Tin
Pan Alley depended on a meeting of Jews and African Americans in the modern American city,
where the two cultures interacted informally in neighborhoods, music halls and businesses.
The key Jewish figures of Tin Pan Alley—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Al Jolson, and Harold
Arlen, to name a few—were consummate modern New Yorkers. Their careers were intimately
wound up with their relationships to actual African Americans and with the sights and sounds of
blackness. This was nothing new: Blackface minstrelsy had been the dominant form of American
popular entertainment for much of the 19th century, and these Jewish artists were, on some level,
the heirs of this tradition. It is no surprise that both Berlin and Gershwin had early hits with
songs that made reference to the work of Stephen Foster—the most important songwriter for the
minstrel stage in the 19th century.
The popularity of the music of Tin Pan Alley depended on networks of production and
distribution that radiated out from the music publishing houses to the Broadway stage, and to
increasingly national circulation. Until the end of the 19th century, American popular music was
presented in a series of overlapping regional scenes, with only occasional songs or musical forms
becoming nationwide successes. The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 changed this. As historian
Susan Curtis explains, this event provided the opportunity for ragtime to move from an almost
exclusively African American and mid-western phenomenon to a national trend. There was no
ragtime played at the World's Fair, but numerous ragtime pioneers, including Scott Joplin, played
around town and their music was carried from Chicago to the rest of the country.
The first generation of Tin Pan Alley composers was obsessed with ragtime and its musical and
commercial possibilities. They were also interested in repackaging the instrumental ragtime
compositions that Scott Joplin and his colleagues had developed as the foundation for their own
novelty songs. The decade of Tin Pan Alley's rise, the 1910s, might be usefully marked off by
the debut of Irving Berlin's “Alexander Ragtime Band” in 1911 on one end, and George and Ira
Gershwin's “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” in 1918. Both songs rely on audiences
hearing the music as sounding recognizably “black,” while the lyrics tell tales of national
triumphalism: the music of Alexander's band is so natural, after all, that it will make you want to
go to war!
By the 1920s, the notion that Tin Pan Alley was a particular Jewish success story was so
entrenched that when Cole Porter, an Episcopalian from Indiana, was asked how he would go
about writing successful “American” music, he noted—with no seeming irony—that he would
pen “good Jewish music.” This triumph of Jewish immigrants’ music-making paralleled a time
of great nativism and prejudice in American political life, a development that culminated in the
passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1924.
In the early part of the century, Broadway’s popular ‘revues’ were loosely cobbled-together
amalgams of music, dance and vaudeville that relied on a constant stream of songs by Tin Pan
Alley writers. But in the 1920s, Broadways shows became organized for the first time around
fully-developed through-narratives, with 1927's Showboat marking the first musical with a
Although some Tin Pan Alley songwriters successfully became Broadway show writers—
Showboat was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II—the business began to change.
It became increasingly difficult for songwriters to pitch and place single songs in the more tightly
organized new shows. At the same time, sound technology hit the movies, with the transformative
success in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the first full length motion picture with synchronized
dialogue. Suddenly, the movies could not only talk, they could sing. The real action for
songwriters began shifting to Hollywood, where vertically integrated shops hired songwriters to
move West and work for the film studios. The same songwriters continued to dominate Broadway
(and Hollywood), but they no longer needed to be situated on West 28th street.
Session Three: Swing Jazz
Ken Burns’ Jazz: Episode 6: Swing, the Velocity of Celebration
Ken Burns, 2001
* N.E.H. sponsored
Five Emmy nominations
Television Critics Association Award, Outstanding Achievement
Writers’ Guild of American Award, Best Documentary
International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Greta Schiller and Andrea Weiss, 1986
Oberhausen, Leipzig, New York Film Festivals
Silver Award, Philadelphia Film Festival
Blue Ribbon, American Film Festival
Krin Gabbard, Professor of Comparative Literature, S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, and Center for Jazz
Studies at Columbia University.
Jazz reached the height of its popularity with the American public during the Swing era,
beginning in the dark days of the Depression and continuing through the victorious end of World
War II. Also known as the Big Band sound, Swing jazz was characterized by its strong rhythmic
drive and by an orchestral ‘call and response’ between different sections of the ensemble. The
rhythm section – piano, bass, drums and guitar – maintained the swinging dance beat, while
trumpets, trombones and woodwinds, and later, vocals, were often scored to play together and
provide the emotional focus of the piece. This arrangement resulted in a ‘conversational’ style
among sections that arrangers exploited to maximum affect. By performing their music with
increasingly complex arrangements for ever larger orchestras, Swing musicians helped erode the
wall between our definitions of popular music and the art music generally labeled “classical.”
The first great artists of Swing were African American. By the early 1930s, Fletcher Henderson,
Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford had begun to blend the “hot” rhythms of New Orleans into
the dance music of urban America in the black jazz clubs of Kansas City and Harlem. Although
white jazz musicians had been taking inspiration from African American artists for at least three
decades, by the 1940s a new generation of white musicians and dancers were deeply invested in
the music that Duke Ellington christened “Swing” with his 1932 hit record, “It Don’t Mean a
Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” In 1935 white bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman led
swing into the popular mainstream, but only after he began playing the arrangements he
purchased from Fletcher Henderson. Goodman would go on to gather an extraordinary group of
performers into his high-profile band, including Henderson, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Peggy
Lee and Stan Getz. His decision to integrate his group with black musicians helped begin the
slow process of integrating the music industry.
At its height in the years before World War II, Swing jazz was America’s most pervasive and
popular musical genre. If Ken Burns’ documentary series Jazz, is correct in its interpretation of
the story of Swing as a music that helped America remake the world during and after World War
II, then the history of Swing must also be seen as preparing the way for the Civil Rights
movement of the 1950s. Knowing that a wider and increasingly diverse population of Americans
was taking African American musicians seriously fueled a growing conviction that equality was a
real possibility. As black soldiers shipping off to Europe and the Pacific during World War II
were demanding greater respect and tolerance in the armed forces, black Americans at home
called for a “Double V” – Victory abroad for America over Germany and Japan and Victory over
racism for black Americans at home.
As Americans danced to Swing bands during the 1940s, a new space for female musicians also
opened up. Sherrie Tucker, author of Swing Shift: “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s, and Greta
Schiller and Andrea Weiss, directors of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, demonstrate
how the outbreak of World War II gave women the unprecedented opportunity to perform music
publicly for large audiences. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was one of many “all-
girl” bands that toured the country when most of their male peers were in the military. For the
first time, female musicians in America consistently proved that they could play trumpets,
saxophones, and drums with as much expertise as men. Sadly, many of the great jazzwomen of
the 1940s and 1950s were written out of all but the most recent jazz histories. Thanks to Tucker’s
book and the film by Schiller and Weiss, we now know their unique and historically important
Not all Americans were enchanted by the widespread success and influence of Swing jazz and the
challenges to social norms it represented. For example, although the races were generally kept
separate at Swing performances, there were consistent expressions of outrage at the energetic
dancing that accompanied concerts and persistent criticism of the influence of Swing music on
young people. Young white women were especially targeted by those who considered Swing a
“mulatto” music and wanted to preserve a fantasy of white purity on the dance floor and the
White America’s conflicted response to the rise of Swing and its connection to black culture is
clearly articulated in The Benny Goodman Story (1955), a Hollywood film aimed at whites with
fond memories of the Swing Era. This film presents a set of common myths about jazz. In an
early scene, the teenaged Benny is playing with a mediocre white dance band on a riverboat.
Wandering to another part of the boat, he hears a band of black New Orleans musicians under the
direction of the Creole trombonist Kid Ory (played in the film by the real Kid Ory). Benny has
never heard such compelling music, and when he quizzes Ory, the trombonist says, “We just play
what we feel,” a statement that perpetuates the myth that the pioneers of jazz were not trained
musicians but primitive people who naively expressed their feelings through music. Endowed
with the license to play from his feelings, young Benny immediately becomes an accomplished
jazz improviser as he plays along with Ory’s group. Later in the film, after Benny has become a
successful bandleader, Ory reappears to tell him that he has “the best band I ever heard
anyplace!” Like many other films about white jazz musicians, The Benny Goodman Story found
a way to diminish the real achievements of black jazz artists, who were most definitely not
playing a music that was an unmediated expression of their feelings. The film also suggests that
white artists like Goodman created a music that surpassed anything created by their African
Jazz historians today consistently celebrate Ellington, Henderson, and other African American
musicians as the most sophisticated and compelling musicians of the Swing Era. But white
Swing musicians like Goodman also contributed to the evolution of the genre. There is no
denying the authenticity and appeal of Swing jazz, even if that appeal ended with the new
affluence of the post-war years. While many jazz musicians broke away from Swing to develop
Bebop jazz, the young white denizens of the Swing dance halls in the 1940s married, raised
children, and moved to the suburbs. They would soon prefer a night in front of the black-and-
white television set to a night dancing to black or white Swing bands. And just as Swing dancers
had scandalized their parents with their commitment to ‘mulatto music’, these same people would
be scandalized in turn when their children began dancing to the ‘dangerous’ rock and roll music
of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
Session Four: Country and Blue Grass
High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music
Rachel Liebling, 1994
Chicago International Film Festival Gold Plaque
Atlanta Film Festival, Best Feature Documentary
Houston International Film Festival, Silver Award
American Film Festival Red Ribbon
“Hearing History in Bluegrass's High, Lonesome Sound,” by Rachel Rubin, Professor of
American Studies at the University of Massachusetts
Bluegrass is generally considered a sub-genre of country music that developed in the second half
of the 20th century. Although for purposes of radio airplay bluegrass songs were programmed on
country music stations beginning in the late 1940s, bluegrass as a musical form did not develop
directly out of the generation of recorded commercial country music that preceded it. Rather, the
two forms share the same roots in the traditional music of the Appalachian region and the Irish
and Scottish ballads that informed it.
The description commonly offered of bluegrass that distinguishes it from mainstream country
music is its’ “high lonesome sound.” This phrase was coined in 1963 by New Lost City Ramblers
co-founder John Cohen, who used it to name a short film he made about Kentucky mountain
music. The “high lonesome sound” quickly became a familiar catch-phrase for bluegrass music's
emotionally intense, soaring-to-the-point-of-audible-strain vocal style, a style that often gives
even happy songs an undercurrent of bleakness.
Musician Bill Monroe, considered the “father of bluegrass,” used to claim that he would practice
a song by singing it as high as he could—and then go on stage and sing it a half-step higher.
Monroe's boast seems to indicate that part of the bluegrass aesthetic is an underlying anxiety that
you might not make it to that “high, lonesome sound”—and a combination of pride and relief
when you do.
Some fifty years after the phrase was coined, “high lonesome” continues to capture the essence of
bluegrass. The description communicates an essential truth about the music beyond concrete
characterizations of its roots in Appalachian string band music, its most usual instrumentation
(banjo, guitar, stand-up bass, fiddle, mandolin), or its most familiar repertoire.
A set of seeming contradictions has defined bluegrass from its beginning—so much so that it
made perfect sense to dub as “lonesome” a musical style often used for dance parties. The biggest
of these contradictions comes from the term “country” being applied to a kind of music that is in
fact historically urban. In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music
told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical
epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled
the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.
An equally important contradiction is the conventional wisdom that country music, including
bluegrass, is a strictly white European-based form. While it is true that racism within the music
industry artificially segregated music by white performers from music by black performers, the
music itself reveals a strong tradition of cultural exchange. In bluegrass this exchange is visible in
the centrality of the banjo, with its African roots, and in the influence of black musical forms such
as blues and ragtime. Monroe, for instance, often cited as a central influence on his music a black
musician named Arnold Schulz, with whom he played dances when he was young. The exchange
of cultural forms can also be heard in shared songs, especially gospel songs, as well as common
idioms, subject matter, and humor.
Perhaps the most interesting contradiction in our perception of bluegrass is that between old and
new. Bluegrass is a relatively late development in country music, dating to a post-World War II
boom in the recording industry more than two decades after commercial country music was first
recorded. Yet practitioners of the genre have deliberately strived to come across as “old time”
musicians. By the 1970s people were referring to “traditional bluegrass,” but this “tradition” does
not stretch back very far in time.
From a historian's perspective, this characteristic of bluegrass as a new form that endeavored to
sound old raises fascinating questions about what the music was trying to accomplish, culturally.
Pete Seeger's description of bluegrass as “folk music on overdrive,” points to additional
contradictions inherent in the bluegrass idiom -- between the valuation of extraordinary
instrumental virtuosity and the presentation of players as “just folks,” and between a popular
conception of the music as simple, “front-porch” playing and the reality that the music has always
been played by professionals.
Professionalism and a sense of individual artistry, coupled with the story of rural to urban
migration, figures in bluegrass's most important origin stories. Mandolin player Bill Monroe is
universally credited with inventing the form, and the term “bluegrass” is taken from the name of
his band, The Bluegrass Boys. Monroe formed the band after leaving his rural hometown of
Rosine, Kentucky for Indiana, where he worked in an oil refinery. Monroe's band member Earl
Scruggs is generally acknowledged as the inventor of bluegrass's signature syncopated, three-
fingered style of banjo playing. Scruggs did so after leaving his rural birthplace in Shelby, North
Carolina, to work in a nearby textile mill. In bluegrass’ early decades, musicians like Monroe and
Scruggs often migrated twice. Having left the countryside for factory jobs, they then moved to
cities with record labels and radio stations as their careers took off.
Beginning in the mid-1960s the outdoor multi-day bluegrass festival grew in significance until it
became the most important way bluegrass is disseminated. The festivals are three- or four-day
gatherings in which a dozen or more bands travel to perform and sell recordings. Participants
camp out nearby or on-site. Amateur musicians in the audience bring instruments and take part in
after-hours jam sessions in which featured performers may join.
For performers, festivals are hard work, involving extensive traveling, long days, multiple sets,
and exposure to weather. Even if a band performs at many festivals a year, it can be hard to make
a living. Some musicians, such as Ricky Scaggs, Alison Krauss, and Keith Whitley, have
successfully crossed over to more profitable “mainstream country” music, while some
mainstream country musicians, such as Dolly Parton and Martina McBride, make bluegrass
albums while keeping most of their output in mainstream country recordings.
The development of bluegrass music tells the story of movement, mixing and mindset: movement
away from the rural South; mixing as urban life brought groups of people in contact with each
other for the first time; and a new mindset as former Southerners grappled in their music with
changes they faced in life around values, family and work.
It is no accident that bluegrass is full of songs about leaving. The leaving is sometimes literal, in
songs about trains and taking to the road, such as Ralph Stanley's signature “Rank Strangers.” But
sometimes the leaving happens in death, as in the Johnson Mountain Boys' “Weathered Gray
Stone.” And in some bluegrass songs, leaving occurs through the end of a love affair—whether
the break-up results from geographic separation or betrayal.
Along with songs about leaving, bluegrass is full of songs about work. Whether that work takes
place in mines (“Dream of a Miner's Child”), on farms (“Thirty Years of Farming”), or in mills
and factories (“Cotton Mill Man”), bluegrass and country performers have often acted as a
vanguard, helping their audiences understand the workplace changes they face in an age of
modernization and automation. In this way, bluegrass has functioned as a kind of popular
historical record—a high, lonesome one— and today, it can be revelatory to ask why.
Session Five: Rock
The History of Rock n Roll: Episode 6, Plugging In
Susan Steinberg, 1995
National Emmy Nomination
C.I.N.E. Golden Eagle Award winner
Charles F. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies and History,
College of William and Mary
The music we know as rock and roll emerged in the mid 1950s, although its advent had been on the horizon for
at least a decade. A quarter of the American population moved during World War II, and that brought southern,
rural, sacred and secular traditions into new contact with urban based music and audiences. The product of
many regional musical scenes and independent record labels, rock and roll emerged in Memphis, Los Angeles,
Shreveport, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, and dozens of other cities. It was, in historian Charlie Gillett’s
words, the Sound of the City.
Rock and roll drew on many different styles. Combining the boogie woogie rhythms of R&B, the hillbilly
twang of country, the fervor of gospel and the moans of the blues, the new mongrel music excited a worldwide
generation of young listeners, while upsetting established social, cultural and musical authorities. The
charisma and musical bravado of early rock and roll heroes such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little
Richard inspired fans and young musicians alike. With the maturing of an unprecedentedly vast and affluent
teenage audience, rock and roll music became the sound of young America and soon spread around the world.
It is difficult today to understand the bitter criticism the new music generated. The popular music
establishment, anchored in the lucrative venues of Hollywood and Broadway, saw the challenge as both
aesthetic and economic. Their spokesmen dismissed the music for its supposed simplicity and crudity;
eventually they went so far as to charge, falsely, that rock and roll dominated their airwaves because promoters
bribed disc jockeys. Radio stations in turn often refused to play the new music, claiming that its lyrics
promoted sex and delinquency. Pallid “cover” versions by mainstream artists copied rock and roll hit songs,
while draining them of their musical vitality, energy, and above all, their overt indebtedness to black musical
traditions. Moral authorities, black and white, were quick to condemn the music for its supposed sexual
references, and they targeted key performers from Elvis Presley to Fats Domino for censorship or ridicule.
Finally, columnists, critics, educators and police all feared the overt racial mixing of not only the music, but its
audiences. At a time when American race relations were severely tested by massive white Southern resistance
to integration, and northern dismissal of black rights, rock and roll remade integration in a cultural form.
Sexual, working class and multi-racial, rock and roll transgressed the most fiercely guarded social boundaries of
Within weeks of the national debuts of Bill Haley, Little Richard and Elvis Presley in the 1950s, rock and roll
was traveling around the world’s airwaves. By the early 1960s, the world had brought its musical response
back to the U.S. The Beatles, working class Britons reared on American rock and roll, conquered U.S. and
world audiences with their own innovations on rock and a distinctive sense of visual style. Mixing rock and
roll, country and R&B in with their own English roots, The Beatles opened the doors to an international
migration of bands from the U.K. and elsewhere. They rekindled an appreciation for the music in the U.S. that
in turn inspired musicians and listeners in this country.
Among these were folk musicians who had previously shunned commercially driven “pop” music like rock and
roll in favor of more ‘authentic’ traditional songs that emanated from American rural life. The folk revival had
brought thousands of young people, most of them educated and middle-class, to seek out the sounds of an
earlier America that had flourished before the affluent postwar years. Folk music hero Bob Dylan, already a
composer as well as troubadour, but also an acolyte of rock and roll, appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk
Festival sporting an electric guitar and a loud back-up band. Many declared him a traitor to folk music’s
dedication to tradition, history and authenticity. But millions more understood that rock and roll had a new
sound that was here to stay.
Inspired by both Dylan and the Beatles, sounds of the city became sounds of the suburbs, as thousands of
musical groups plugged in and began writing their own songs. Plugging in gave these musicians the means to
communicate easily and powerfully, and guitar driven sounds would dominate American pop for the next two
decades. Just as importantly, writing their own material enabled groups to address a range of subjects that had
largely been taboo, including politics, social inequality, alienation from American life, personal identity, and the
Viet Nam war. In the 1950s, rock and roll sound and style had challenged cultural authority. The rock music of
the 1960s often challenged political authority directly and unambiguously.
By the late 1960s, rock music was the accepted musical vocabulary of young people world wide. Rock
accompanied and often gave shape to the dissenting and counter-cultural movements that engulfed the world.
In the United States, rock music could no longer ignore social conditions, and even musicians who had largely
steered clear of commentary were compelled at the least to consider politics as a subject for their work. At the
same time the counter-cultural embrace of rock music screened over the deep fissures that were becoming clear
in American life. The riots of 1968 revealed a society fundamentally divided over war, race, and equality, and
music both engaged and reflected those conflicts. Rock music was forever linked to the ferment of social
change and widespread dissent of all generations against American actions and social conditions that violated
the nation’s professed beliefs.
Rock musicians not only addressed contemporary events, they pushed the conventional musical boundaries.
Led by the Beatles and the Beach Boys, artists experimented with complex instrumentations, elaborate
arrangements, and ambitious compositions. By 1969 rock music often featured symphonic orchestras along
with electric guitars and tambourines. Multi-track recording meant that musicians could develop densely
layered performances unlikely to be duplicated live. Recording and performance became separate styles of rock
At the decade’s end, rock music was no longer confined to top 40 radio and short performances. Extended
songs, high decibel distortion and spectacular interactions between performers and large crowds were the norm.
Beginning with Monterey Pop in 1967, music festivals that featured numerous acts drew thousands to partake as
much in the communal atmosphere as the music. The Woodstock International Festival in 1969 drew over
100,000 for three days, featuring acts from folk rockers Crosby Stills and Nash to pyrotechnic guitarist Jimi
Hendrix, whose searing version of the “Star Spangled Banner” was branded into national consciousness.
Since 1970 rock music has spawned numerous styles and spin off genres: punk, metal, new wave, and grunge
are only the most widely known. While rock no longer dominates popular music, the styles of the late 1960s
still attract the ears of listeners born long after that time. The sheer range of talent, the experimental exuberance
and the utopian excitement of rock defines the music of that period, and to this day its sensibility shapes the
music we call rock and roll.
Session Six: Latin Rhythm From Mambo to Hip Hop
Latin Music, USA: Episode One: Bridges
Pamela A. Aguilar and Daniel McCabe, 2009
Narrated by Jimmy Smits
IDA Documentary Award. Limited Series
Premiered on PBS
From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale
Henry Chalfant, Elena Martinez and Steve Zeitlin, 2006
ALMA Award, Best Television Documentary
Professor Juan Flores, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Latino Studies,
New York University
In the latter half of the 20th century, with immigration from South America and the Caribbean
increasing every decade, Latin sounds influenced American popular music: jazz, rock, rhythm
and blues, and even country music. In the 1930s and 40s, dance halls often had a Latin orchestra
alternate with a big band. Latin music had Americans dancing -- the samba, paso doble, and
rumba -- and, in three distinct waves of immense popularity, the mambo, cha-cha and salsa. The
“Spanish tinge” made its way also into the popular music of the 50s and beyond, as artists from
The Diamonds (“Little Darling”) to the Beatles (“And I Love Her”) used a distinctive Latin beat
in their hit songs.
The growing appeal of Latin music was evident in the late 1940s and 50s, when mambo was all
the rage, attracting dance audiences of all backgrounds throughout the United States, and giving
Latinos unprecedented cultural visibility. Mambo, an elaboration on traditional Cuban dance
forms like el danzón, la charanga and el son, took strongest root in New York City, where it
reached the peak of its artistic expression in the performances and recordings of bandleader
Machito (Frank Grillo) and his big-band orchestra, Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
Machito’s band is often considered the greatest in the history of Latin music. Along with rival
bandleaders Tito Rodríguez and Tito Puente, Machito was part of what came to be called the Big
Three. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, they offered up memorable mambo performances
at the legendary Palladium Ballroom in mid-town Manhattan and other upscale venues. While
New York became the hub of Latin music in the U.S, another famous Cuban bandleader, Dámaso
Pérez Prado, based in Mexico City and Los Angeles, brought mambo international visibility.
Mambo’s popularity was furthered by its frequent use in movie soundtracks and with the
emergence of television as household entertainment. The “I Love Lucy Show” brought a Latino
into American living rooms for the first time, introducing Cuban American musician Desi Arnaz.
While Arnaz’s most characteristic musical form was la conga, he has been identified with the
mambo era, especially after Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos structured his Pulitzer-Prize
winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love around an imaginary episode of the “I Love
The mambo was but one genre in a string of dance and music crazes that characterized the
fascination of American culture with things “Latin” throughout the 20th century. In the early
decades of the century, the tango swept through Paris and New York. Originating in the
underworld of turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires, the tango was based on the ubiquitous
“habanero” rhythm from 19th-century Havana, transported through port cities such as Veracruz,
San Juan and New Orleans. The rhythmic features of this music were the basis for early jazz,
especially ragtime. When Jelly Roll Morton famously spoke of the “Spanish tinge” as a
necessary ingredient of jazz composition, he was primarily referring to “la habanera.”
The tango craze was followed in the 1930s and 40s by the “rhumba craze.” In fact, the misspelled
“rhumba” was not the authentic Afro-Cuban ‘rumba’, but a simplified version of the Cuban son
made seductive for use in American middle-class lounges and ballrooms. The rhumba craze in the
United States began with the immense popularity of the standard “El Manisero,” also called “The
Peanut Vendor,” first performed in 1930 on Broadway by the visiting Cuban orchestra of Don
Azpiazu. That tune, an early best-selling recording, became familiar to a broad audience through
many interpretations; most notably, Louis Armstrong and Stan Kenton’s variation set the tone for
what has remained the exotic-erotic romance of American mass culture with the stereotyped
image of the care-free, sexualized Latino.
The early 1940s saw Americans doing the conga, the carnival line-dance form accompanied by
the conical drum toted by Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo as “Mr.Babalu.” In the 1950s and early 60s
came the cha cha cha, whose simplicity of steps allowed for even greater public participation and
enjoyment. The 1970s brought salsa, the commercial rubric and musical-cultural modality that
became the most widely recognized marker of Latino identity at a nation-wide and international
level. Perhaps reggaeton, with its Spanish-language inflected version of hip hop and dancehall,
signals the latest Latin soundtrack, co-existing with the new-watered-down version of “salsa” and
rap of recent decades.
The glitter and hype of these waves of popularized commercial entertainment provide a version of
Latino culture often at odds with the reality of Latino social experience. From the 1940s on, the
Puerto Rican community more than Cuban New Yorkers constituted the primary social base of
Latin music in New York. After Puerto Ricans were declared U.S. citizens in 1917, working-class
families from the Island began filing into New York City. The mass migration starting after 1945
brought the city’s Puerto Rican population to nearly a million, altering the nature of New York’s
This overwhelmingly poor and working-class community had been reared musically less on
mambo or Cubop and more typically on traditional Puerto Rican country music (música jíbara)
and on bolero-singing guitar trios. Rather than the Palladium and other mid-town venues, its’
music-making and dancing favored house parties and more humble local nightclubs “uptown” in
East Harlem and the Bronx. The uptown-downtown distinction was fluid, however, with overlap
between them, and the foremost musicians of the day were equally at home delighting audiences
in both worlds. And while the downtown version tends towards commercialization of Cuban-
based genres, and the uptown version is a more grass roots, “authentic” expression of ethnic
musical traditions, the difference can not be reduced to one of artistic quality. For sheer
musicality, no one could beat the great orchestras of the “Big Three” (Machito and the Titos) and
other headliners at the Palladium and mainstream venues.
The idea of two divergent currents in New York Latin music is useful in understanding the many
dimensions of the history of Latin music in America. Both had different relations to the music
industry, with the more mainstream styles finding readier access to big commercial labels, and the
more grassroots styles being released on small but important independent labels like Tico, the
Spanish Music Company (SMC), and later Alegre. Fania, the founding home of salsa in the late
1960s, began as a homegrown label and devolved into a would-be major by the mid-70s.
Interestingly, while record sales of even the premier musical groups remained modest at best, the
crossover genres of boogaloo and Latin soul had huge-selling hits like Mongo Santamaría’s
“Watermelon Man,” Ray Barretto’s “El Watusi” and Joe Cuba’s “Bang Bang,” among the first
Latin tunes to make it onto the Billboard charts.
By the time post-mambo styles evolved in the mid-to-late 1960s, issues of generational change,
race and class, and political-cultural affirmation overshadowed those of geographic distinction or
artistic virtuosity. The music of second-generation New York Latinos, the “Nuyorican” children
of the mass migration growing up on the “mean streets” of the inner city, were bound to create
new musical forms expressive of altered social and cultural conditions.
Despite the oft-held notion of how distinct the Latin American and African American
communities and cultures are, the story of music in the South Bronx in the late 20th century
illuminates the intersections between them. Starting with the pahcanga craze of the 1960s and
proceeding through that decade until all of the music was labeled “salsa” around 1971, the music
of New York Latinos became ever more deeply intertwined with African American and
Caribbean styles. The largely untutored “young Turks” whose sudden stardom drew the ire of
established masters like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri, embraced and emulated African
American culture by playing songs in English and resting more on the backbeat than on the usual
clave-based trappings of typical Latin bands.
In the emergence of hip hop, Latin music’s ties with inner-city African American expression are
even more pronounced. The historical relationship between the rebelliousness of the late 60s and
that of the 80s is expressed in the statement that while the earlier era turned to revolution, the
latter, for lack of access to political influence, created the elements of hip hop. The differences
are obvious, musically and politically, but the similarities are found in the common social base of
the styles’ original musicians and audiences. Both alternative musical forms in the 1960s and 80s
were vulnerable to the ravenous appetite of the mainstream music industry. The avid sacking of
the music’s commercial opportunities and the attendant dilution and trivialization of the music are
evident in both narratives. So quickly was early hip hop dislodged from its founding social and
ethno-racial context that little acknowledgment has gone to the influence of Puerto Rican artists
in that dynamic and consequential cultural movement called Hip-Hop. That its origins are even
“Latin” at all is placed in continual question, including among many Latinos themselves.
The historic arc from mambo to hip hop describes a diaspora cultural dynamic that shows
remarkable resilience in the face of multiple pressures to abandon native and historical traditions
and go American mainstream, At the same time, the intricate and vastly creative interaction
between Cuban, Puerto Rican and other “Latin” traditions with African American music in its
many stylistic expressions, a fusion that shows no sign of abating in the new millenium, has
graced contemporary listeners with decade after decade of inspired musical invention. The film
From Mambo to Hip Hop, is subtitled “a Bronx Tale” so as to locate its subject geographically
and socially, but the impact of the musical forms it explores radiates confidently outward,
resounding in multiple incarnations everywhere in the world.