The term "blues" is used to describe feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The music called the Blues developed out of an unhappy situation - people taken forcibly from their homes and brought to a new world to live in slavery. Even long after slavery was abolished, African Americans were not accepted by the white society that granted them freedom. Despite that difficult fact, the Blues is not always sad music. It was often used by African Americans to help cope with frustrations and harshness encountered in daily lives, and to give a secret code with which to converse openly about "restricted" subjects (sex, society, voodoo).
Blues originated in the South, and the earliest forms were called country blues. They were lone singers who accompanied themselves on battered guitars (if at all). The earliest recordings of country blues were made in the 1920's, but we'll never know if this is what actual turn-of-the-century blues really sounded like (or what impact the microphone had on the early sound).
Ragtime music was still very popular during the first decade of the 20th century. It was during this time Harry Fox originated and coined the popular dance - the Foxtrot.
The Foxtrot introduced a slow-slow-quick-quick syncopation and it was necessary to have music that followed the same pattern. Ragtime music created a new genre that had a smooth, upbeat tempo and could follow the 4/4 rhythms. The Foxtrot remains a very popular ballroom dance today, although it may possibly be the hardest to learn to date.
Irving Berlin composed over 900 songs, including such classics as "White Christmas" and "God Bless America." He also wrote 19 musicals and 18 scores for movies that include stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Berlin started his musical career when he was a singing waiter at the age of 19. While working as a waiter in Chinatown, he gained credit for songwriting when he wrote the words to "Marie from Sunny Italy." From that point on, he not only received credit for songwriting, but he also gained recognition for writing his own tunes. Berlin never learned how to formally play the piano or read music, but that didn't stop him from becoming "one of America's most outstanding writers."
A combination of Celtic and African American musical techniques, Minstrel music is the source for many different forms of music. It paved the way for different venues such as Bluegrass, Ragtime, the Blues and many more.
The Minstrel music craze started in the 1830s when Joel Sweeney came up with the concept of a five-string banjo. This banjo became the base of all minstrel music. The original instrument used to play minstrel music was the violin. Plantation owners would send any men they had who possessed musical talent to renowned cities to learn how to play Celtic music. This talent was showcased at cotillions and parties. When the men were not playing for their owners, they would put their own African musical influence in with the Irish. This music was overheard, copied by "black faced" minstrels and started the craze of minstrel shows.
Today, the music is still very popular and performed (without black face) at bluegrass and folk festivals as well as concerts.
With the advent of talking pictures, Hollywood opened up a brand new arena of music composition: movie tunes. Movie music could be either of the type composed as a soundtrack or as music composed as individual pieces. Many of the songs composed as individual pieces were intended to showcase a particular movie star (even if the song had no connection to a movie at all!).
Popular music of the early 1900's is similar to today's popular music in one important aspect; the music reflects the times. Popular music serves almost as an auditory snapshot of the morals, values, and ethics of any particular time-period. Frequently, the habits and viewpoints of an earlier generation can be troubling, embarrassing, or even offensive in modern times. Usually, negative stereotypes reflecting racial and/or gender issues are represented in less-than-flattering images found in the music. However, these items are presented here as part of the historical record.
The craze for ragtime music swept America beginning in the 1890's, and was fueled by the availability of pianos, player pianos, and commercial sheet music. Many different avenues of American musical influence came together to form the distinctive sound of ragtime, including the syncopation of African American music, which was a combination of African drumming rhythms and Caribbean dance rhythms. These rhythmic influences were superimposed onto the basic design of Western dances, such as polkas and schottisches. The first published instrumental rag to use the word "rag" was "The Mississippi Rag" (January, 1897).
Although American musical theatre developed its own unique voice in the 19th Century, that sound was permanently altered by the invention of Thomas Edison in 1877 of the "talking machine" cylinder. Most of what was captured on those early recordings had originated in American stage performances in one way or another. More than likely, show tunes composed after 1890 were written with the recording process in mind. Additionally, by the 1910's, another Edison invention called the Kinetoscope allowed audiences to see their theatre stars as well as hear them.
Pieces that defy description are grouped together as "specialty music." These pieces concern such diverse subjects as cars, cities, war heroes, elections, consumer products, and celebrities. There are also versions of old favorites, such as "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," and music from cartoon shows such as "Felix the Cat" and "Mickey Mouse." Music about geographical regions can also be found in this genre ("Chinatown, My Chinatown;" "Honolulu, America Loves You;" and "Along the Rocky Road to Dublin," among others ).
In order to galvanize American might during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson turned to New York's Tin Pan Alley for help. Some war songs were written out of pure patriotic conviction, while others were more "made-to-order." Irving Berlin was among the leaders in patriotic songs, as he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed at Camp Upton, on Long Island. While in the army, he was commissioned to write a musical, Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1918), performed by army personnel as a benefit to build a service center at Camp Upton. The musical included the hit song (sung by Berlin) "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."