Early American Country Music

At high noon on April 22, 1889, fifty thousand eager settlers flooded into the formerly restricted, formerly Native American-controlled “Unassigned Lands,” land we now know as Oklahoma, and staked their claim on a small part of the up to two million available acres. Accompanying the extraordinarily rapid “Oklahoma Land Run”–ten thousand settlers arrived via railroad in one day to create the town of Guthrie–was the music of the mainly white, agrarian population, which came bearing fiddles and playing British-rooted folk ballads. These settlers met Mexican immigrants who came up through Texas, many of whom had started arriving in the territory in the 1870s and brought with them their guitars and romantic songs of life on the farm and on the range. In the later part of the 19th century German and other Central European joined the mix, adding their accordions and public polkas. This cultural jumble gave music of the Western territories a distinctly multicultural flair and inspired generations of “country and western” musicians to draw upon multiple traditions for their melodies and rhythms. (By the way, the word “sooner,” which sports fans know as the nickname of the Oklahoma University sports teams, derives from the term used to describe those settlers who came to Oklahoma illegally before the land rush and stayed to claim land. This was opposed to the “boomers” who arrived when the law allowed.)

Early 1900s:

In the early 1900s pioneers in the burgeoning field of music research, particularly folklore studies and ethnomusicology, “discovered” American folk music. In 1910 ethnomusicologist John Lomax published a collection of folk ballads from the American West called “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.” From 1916-1918 English folklorist Cecil Sharp traveled around the American Southeast, particular in the Appalachian mountains, where he sought out musicians and collected hundreds upon hundreds of songs. Sharp found that British ballads referring to life in the Isles, passed from generation to generation by the descendants of settlers, coexisted with newer songs that drew upon experiences from the mountains. Southern musicians were less fans of the romantic love songs that were so popular among the British than of story songs, which
often unfolded into slightly morbid or perhaps humorously twisted tales.

[Learn a bit about the folk ballads of the type Lomax collected on his travels | Read Cecil Sharp’s own words describing his experiences in America]

The economic and social changes that accompanied World War I (1914-1918) included widespread migration from region to region of the U.S. People brought their music with them when they relocated, leading to an unprecedented blurring of stylistic lines. The
cross-pollination and nationalization of music also gave formally local musicians the opportunity to reach wider audiences, and presented formally rural musicians the chance to connect with other musicians and music fans in America’s growing cities.

The 1920s:

Radio radio radio! In the 1920s radio became a mass medium and made all kinds of music accessible to all kinds of people. Primarily local, primarily racially segregated forms of music were now available to a wide audience. Music fans were able to discover new artists and record companies were able to turn a local tune into a regional or even national hit. In addition to sharing songs on the radio, people in the ’20s not only also heard unfamiliar music via other new technologies like phonographs, juke boxes and wax cylinder recordings. They and these new technologies were substantially more mobile than those of any previous American generation–new railroads, better roads…cars!!–and when Americans moved around they brought their musical interests with them.

The first recordings of American folk music became widely available in the 1920s. Folk records essentially fell into two camps: “race recordings,” which was the term for records featuring African-American musicians, marketed primarily to African-Americans (though musically-aware whites did seek them out), and “hillbilly music,” which was music performed by Appalachian whites, and marketed to a mainly white audience. New York City-based Okeh records (pronounced “Okay”), an independent label until 1926 and from then a subsidiary of Columbia records, pioneered both.

After Okeh Records had a surprise best-seller with the 1920 release “Crazy Blues” by African-American vocalist Mamie Smith (Listen to “Crazy Blues“) record companies realized there was a national audience eager to hear African-American songs. Several enterprising labels sought out African-Ameircan jazz, blues and spiritual artists and marketed them mainly to American blacks, though the existence enabled general audiences to discover them. At the time using the term “race” to refer to recordings done by and for African-Americans wasn’t necessarily derogatory–the African-American press at the turn of the 20th century would sometimes refer to someone who showed pride in their skin color a “race man” or “race woman”–but the term fell out of favor by the end of the ’40s. After that, record labels more often referred to similar recordings as “rhythm and blues.”

[Let the website for Ken Burns’ “Jazz” series on PBS introduce you to “race” records.]

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