Yes, attempting to blog about the music of the USA on a site like Sputnik is patently ridiculous. I know. That’s one of the reasons I’m getting it out of the way early; the other is to say YOU’RE GOING DOWN AMERICA
Ahem. So anyway, I suppose the best way to approach this to go back to a time when American music was exactly that – American music, and not some globally-dominant behemoth that just happens to revolve around California for some reason. And to kick that off, I’m resorting to playing personal favourites with comedian, country pioneer, and all-around vaudeville nutcase Uncle Dave Macon. This is the sound of America in its youth, still in thrall to the Appalachian folk music developed by Americans working in tandom with the Irish and Scottish diaspora, yet to discover and assimilate the blues music of the slaves that would lead them to musical world domination. Macon’s vocal delivery was radical for his time, particularly in terms of the music being recorded at the time, and his performing style was no different – more aggressive and raucous than country or folk has been since. And that’s before we consider the knee-slapping sexual innuendos that abound in so many of his songs, puns so well-concealed that half the time it’s not even clear whether or not it’s accidental.
There were many things – World War II, the advances in recording technology, the availability of recordings and their introduction to radio, musicians travelling between states and sharing ideas – that pushed that old-timey music of Macon and his peers forward into ‘folk’, as rock critics understand the word. It was this that created the springboard for American popular music to blossom, and nobody allowed more of those seeds to be sown than Woody Guthrie. An astonishingly influential musician who still finds his songs sung in schools and used on expensive adverts, Guthrie’s sound was formed when WWII saw him sacked from his radio job and forced to move to New York, where he fell in with the left-wing politics of the art crowd that has seemingly always existed in the city. The result was music that betrayed Appalachian roots and a blues influence, but was all about the words rather than the spectacle, and more about being built for repeated listens. And with that, he wrote the first true masterpiece of American popular music.
And alongside that, of course, you have blues, from Robert Johnson through to Howlin’ Wolf, with the likes of Hendrix picking up the ball and running from there. Indeed, it’s alarming just how much of the major American music of the past 50 years can be traced directly to either Guthrie or Wolf. But rather than a video of Howlin’ Wolf (although it certainly is tempting….), let’s consider an area where the USA probably doesn’t get enough credit for their contributions – minimalism.
It was inevitable, as the US came to be the world centre of trade, culture, and industry, that they would come to dominate some strain of classical music. The early stirrings of Scott Joplin and George Gershwin had hinted at it, and Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland had come tantalizingly close, but the two forms that America eventually came to dominate were film scores and minimalisms. With film scores, their dominance is tainted a little – the number one name in the genre from an artistic point of view is still an Italian, and the entire concept of listening to film scores as music in its own right (rather than ornamentation for images) is still scorned by many, both in the classical hierarchy and among those are separated from music criticism altogether. But when it comes to minimalism, America’s dominance is unquestioned – LaMonte Young pioneered it, John Cage, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass are the genre’s biggest names, and that’s that. Indeed, the Wikipedia entry uses the words ‘originally American genre’ in the first sentence. Despite the skyscraping popularity enjoyed by Arvo Part, Michael Nyman, and Henryk Gorecki in recent years, the USA can call minimalism its own. In the interests of being a contrary bugger, here’s a seminal minimalist work that is by none of those people.