Essay 1: Music of the Early 20th Century: A Wild Mix of Cultures

(I was cleaning out some old files on my hard drive and came across several years worth of essays written for various classes I've taken. I thought I'd post the best ones here on the blog as a way to save them permanently without taking up my valuable disc space. Quite sorry to bore you, but hey - maybe you'll learn something, kiddo.)

Music of the Early 20th Century: A Wild Mix of Cultures History 112-60 - May 1, 2005

The opening scene of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 classic novel The Jungle features an amazingly detailed depiction of a wedding feast taking place in the rear room of a Chicago saloon. The music at this traditional Lithuanian feast plays a vitally important role in the proceedings. The songs inspire visions of home. Tamoszius Kuszleika is the lead fiddler. He taught himself to play by practicing all night after working in the "killing beds" of the slaughterhouses all day. A ritual called the Acziarimas ceremony is the highlight of the evening, and involves a long dance that lasts for over three hours. The guests form a ring enclosing the bride, Ona, and men dance with her. When they've had their dance, they donate a bit of money into a hat that Elzbieta holds in her hands. Sinclair spares no detail in his vivid descriptions of the dancing party. Reading the novel, one can almost hear the oom-pah of the accordion and drunken scratch and yowl of the violin.

American music in the early 20th century was an enormous mish-mash of different international styles, brought over to these shores by the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that were arriving at the time. The Lithuanians described in the first chapter of The Jungle were just one group of Europeans who brought their musical traditions with them to the promised land. Especially in large cities, like The Jungle’s industrialized Chicago, an eclectic mix of musical influences brewed under the surface of millions of workers.

It’s important to bear in mind that recording technology didn’t really exist and radio was still in it’s infancy at the time. The most popular music in America was performed live and distributed via sheet music. The different types of music brought over with the immigrants pretty much remained isolated to the different communities that represented each culture. Once people of different cultures began to intermingle, their cultural details intermingled as well and new forms of music were often fused and emerged into popularity.

Beginning back as early as when the first settlers arrived As the homeland of many of the settlers of the original 13 Colonies, and a major source of immigration thereafter, England's musical traditions are closely tied to those of the United States, especially Appalachian folk music. In the latter part of the 19th century, there was a thriving brass band tradition in the US, drawing on British bands formed around factory workers. German immigrants brought with them a variety of music, waltzes, polkas and oom-pah bands among them. A German musical society of the mid-19th century formed the Seventh Regiment Band, the only exclusively regimental band of the time and one of the most popular brass bands of the era. Pennsylvania German culture was a mixture of British, South German and other elements. The songs are primarily German, many based on British tunes. Pennsylvania spirituals are a well-known kind of folk hymn, most of which date to the early 19th century, but remained popular until well into the 20th. Italian folk traditions have had a lasting influence on the creation of American forms such as barbershop singing and doo wop. Norwegian-American folk music in the United States is mostly found in Minnesota and surrounding states. Reinlanders, polkas and waltzes are played; of these, waltzes are by far the most common. Instruments include the psalmodikon, fiddle and accordion. Celebrations like Syttende Mai have become an important outlet for traditional Norwegian music.

Similar to the Lithuanians described in The Jungle, The Eastern-European music community is strongest in the area around Chicago. The city's Polish-American community spawned a wave of musicians that are usually considered polka players, though their actual output is quite varied. New York City, Detroit and Minneapolis also have Polish-American musical traditions. Chicago's Orkiestra Makowska, led by George Dzialowy, defined that city's unique sound for many years. Although Sinclair describes his immigrants as “waltzing”, this type of music would eventually mix with other cultures in the early decades of the 20th century and morph into something known as polka, a form of music enormously popular for a while during this era. Slovenian-American polka musician Frankie Yankovich is by far the most famous musician of that genre. He began his career in the 1930s, beginning with some regional hits in the Detroit and Cleveland areas, followed by mainstream success in the later 1940s. Primarily associated with Slovenia, Germany and Poland as well, the Czech Republic includes Bohemia, the original home of the earliest forms of what would become known as polka music. Polka has a long history in the United States, and the city of Chicago, among others, had produced numerous innovations in the genre.

One thing many of these different cultures had in common here in the US in the early part of the 20th century was extreme poverty. Many had followed their dream over to these shores in hopes of finding their fortune in “the promised land.” The reality that awaited them when they arrived was quite different from that fantasy. Like Jurgis, the lead character in Sinclair’s The Jungle, the groom at the Lithuanian ceremony described earlier, many immigrants found themselves living with their families in filthy, rat infested boarding houses and working for pennies under unimaginably harsh conditions, like the squalid and bloody stockyards and meat processing plants Sinclair does such a wonderfully stomach-churning job of describing. Labor laws seemed to be barely followed by employers, if even in place at all. One could imagine that the only reprieve for these immigrant workers from the endless sweat and toil was losing themselves in traditional music and dancing at every possible occasion.

Obviously, the enjoyment of music in early 20th century America was not exclusive to immigrants. Modern Native American pow-wows arose around the turn of the 20th century. While some claim that powwow had been an important part of indigenous cultures for centuries, some modern historians believe that powwows were invented to appeal to tourists and had only a tangential relationship to genuine Native American traditions, which generally revolved around ceremonial dance music. Also in the beginning of the 1900’s, a form of popular song known as Tin Pan Alley came to dominate the nation's music scene. Songwriters like Irving Berlin, Harry Von Tilzer, and George M. Cohan produced many catchy melodies early in the new century. Folk and country music dominated the sound of rural white performers, and both managed to achieve some mainstream success. African American jazz and blues performers diversified their sound and managed to achieve some success among white Americans.

Jazz and Blues were the first distinctly American forms of music in that their roots can be partially traced back to the African rhythms brought to these shores when black slaves were shipped into the USA by the thousands. Another influence on these forms of music was the traditional folk and religious songs of their formerly European owners, which the slaves gradually picked up on in the Christian churches many of them attended. The vocal approach and musical structure of the Blues can be traced back to the chants and hollers that the slaves would engage in all day to pass the day of hard work by faster. By the early to mid 20th century, may ex-slaves and their descendants had melded these styles together into the new styles of Jazz and Blues music, as well as Gospel, which is an exclusively church based form of African American music.

In Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi, we see that music plays an important role in the religious aspect of the lives of the African-Americans in the dirt-poor Southern US of the first half of the century. Moody describes her delight at hearing a live church choir sing “Rock of Ages” and “Sweet Jesus” for the first time at the Centreville Baptist church. She describes her intoxication with the sound of the preacher leading his followers in a chorus of “Come to Je-e-sus! He will save you!” and in an emotionally charged part of the book has a near out-of-body experience when being baptized to the tune of “Take Me To The Waters.” One of the most powerful scenes of Coming in Age in Mississippi occurs when Moody is Homecoming Queen at her school and the band in the parade plays the traditional American tunes “Dixie” and “Swanee River.” She realizes that she is seeing blacks and whites singing along to the tunes harmoniously, that these mere songs had the power to bring everyone together and unify people from such different backgrounds. This was the first time perhaps she recognized that music has this type of power, it can cross boundaries and make people change their minds. Moody would harness this power later in life when her book became a cornerstone in the cultural movement of the 1960’s when many of her closest supporters and associates were the protest singers of the era, like Odetta or Peter Paul and Mary.

Throughout the history of the United States, music has played an important role in the lives of it’s citizens. However it was the coming together of so many divergent cultures during the first part of the 20th century that created such an unforgettable impact. Different elements from different cultures, from Native American, to European, to African combined to create new forms such as Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Blues, and eventually Rock and Roll, R&B, and Hip-Hop. All these popular forms of music have their roots in this era when music was a popular form of escape from the poverty and daily grind that most US citizens, immigrant or native, had to withstand.

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