2 Early Popular Music Styles in America

Early Popular Music Styles in America

Black and White Image of New York City showing buildings, people, public transit.
Figure 2.1 New York City, 1899.

Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, Blues, Jazz

These styles of music in the late 19th century had a profound impact on the development of popular music in the United States and subsequently on the world.

Blues and Jazz were improvised styles. Improvisation in this context means the music was ‘composed’ on the spot based on certain stylistic and formal frameworks, without pre-planning. For example, a song could always have the same chord progression, but the melody would be embellished in different ways every time it was performed. Early blues and jazz musicians weren’t recorded, so unfortunately the earliest blues and jazz remain undocumented.

Ragtime and Tin Pan Alley music were composed styles. This means they were created ahead of time, written down on paper in musical notation, and sometimes published. This system of composition, notation and publishing was the primary vehicle for popular music distribution until audio recording and records became common place.


Ragtime was primarily an African American style most commonly played on the piano, and became increasingly popular in the late 19th century. It’s named for the “ragged” or syncopated rhythms played by the pianists right hand while the left hand played a steady rhythm. This is known as polyrhythm. “Ragtime’s direct influence on rock music had to do with its energy, fun, and syncopated rhythms…”(Charlton, pg. 3). Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott are considered the most important composers of ragtime.

Black and white image of Scott Joplin wearing a tie.
Figure 2.2 Scott Joplin.

Scott Joplin – (1868-1917, pictured above) Joplin is probably the best known ragtime composer; his music is still popular among piano players today. The sheet music for “Maple Leaf Rag” sold more than 1 million copies in Joplin’s lifetime. He earned royalties from the sales of the sheet music in the same way a recording artist today earns money when their records are sold.

Cover sheet for "Maple Leaf Rag." The cover is a beige with a green leaf and read text.
Figure 2.3 Cover sheet for “Maple Leaf Rag.”

Ragtime music wasn’t limited only to the piano. In fact an astounding guitarist named Blind Blake played the same polyrhythms on guitar… while singing! Listen to “Southern Rag” in Ch. 2 Listening Examples recorded by Blind Blake in 1927.




Listening Examples 2.1

To get an idea of the way ragtime uses polyrhythm, I have notated the first four bars of “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin into notation software and isolated the left hand and the right hands.

First, listen to the left hand in isolation as it provides a steady pulse, playing very equally on each beat. Next, listen to the right hand in isolation. Notice how this rhythm is more complex and lacks the steady pulse of the left hand. Now, listen to both hands together. The combination of the two distinct parts in each hand creates the “ragged” or syncopated sound of two very different rhythms at the same time (polyrhythm).  Finally, listen to Maple Leaf Rag in it’s entirety as played by Scott Joplin. Audio recording didn’t exist at the time, but Mr. Joplin’s playing is documented through piano rolls which were used in player pianos, very popular novelty items in the early 20th century.

The rhythmic syncopation or polyrhythms of ragtime piano are often applied to the guitar in blues and country guitar playing. I made a short video demonstrating this and then the example by guitarist Blind Blake from 1927 shows just how far the concept can go! The example “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten is one of the most played examples of this guitar approach. The example below is Cotten herself performing “Freight Train”. Other guitarists who use similar techniques are blues guitarists such as Mississippi John Hurt and country guitarists Doc Watson and the great Chet Atkins.

Tin Pan Alley

Black and white image of an alley featuring old buildings with stairs leading into the buildings.
Figure 2.4 Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley was located in New York City. In the late 19th and early 20th c. there were many music publishing offices there. “Tin Pan” allegedly refers to the tinny tone of the pianos used in the offices. The music is varied, as “Tin Pan Alley” music encompasses a variety of composers. Most often it is vocally based, with either sentimental or joyful lyrics. The music itself can be simple and melodic, or can contain the rhythmic complexities of ragtime.

Songwriters traveled there hoping to get their music published, performed by professionals, and, if audiences enjoyed the music enough, eventually mass printed and sold to amateurs. The increasing popularity of Vaudeville performances required more and more new music. The songs were generally sentimental ballads or songs of innocent joy. Popular songs such as “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “Hello My Baby!” were published out of Tin Pan Alley and sold as sheet music. Listen to Max Morath play “Hello My Baby”  and notice that this performance is led by the vocals, but still contains some of the polyrhythms from ragtime.


Yellowed promotional postcard featuring the original Dixieland Jass Band. The postcard shows five men each playing various instruments including: trombone, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and drums.
Figure 2.5 Original Dixieland Jazz Band Post Card.

New Orleans Jazz

Jazz evolved out of the parade bands that were popular in New Orleans. The African-American and Creole musicians infused this music with more energy, syncopated African rhythms, and the sound of blues and gospel. This became known as “hot” music. “Hot” bands generally consisted of the front line comprised of a trumpet, a clarinet, and a trombone. The rhythm section was usually a banjo, guitar, or a piano; string bass or tuba; and drums. These bands used collective improvisation to embellish and vary the songs they played with equal emphasis on each instrument/layer of the musical texture. Solo breaks were relatively uncommon. ‘Hot’ bands began performing outside of New Orleans as early as 1908 and began to gain popularity as a vehicle for dances like the “Charleston”.

The first jazz recordings are of the “Original Dixieland Jass Band” from 1917. Other groups such as the one led by cornet player King Oliver in which Louis Armstrong played, were even more important in their influence on the course of jazz. Listen to “Livery Stable Blues” in Ch. 2.2 Listening Examples for a typical example of New Orleans jazz where many instruments are playing contrasting lines that fit together in a complex web of music. This texture is called “polyphony” (“Many Lines”). The music resembles the polyrhythmic interactions of ragtime, but in a more free flowing, spontaneous way.

Black and white photographic image of Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet.
Figure 2.6 Louis Armstrong.

No single musician is considered as important to the artistic development and commercial appeal of early jazz as Louis Armstrong (1901-1971). Listen to “Cornet Chop Suey” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five from 1926 in Ch. 2.2 Listening Examples. In this piece, the polyphonic texture has been crystallized with Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet playing taking the lead in the improvisation. The piece has a strong rhythmic backbone created by the piano and banjo, while trumpet, trombone, and clarinet play independent lines. The rhythms played by the piano and banjo consist of accents on each beat through most of the song, and the song again features 4-beat patterns. Try counting 1-2-3-4 along with the music, paying special attention to the pulses played by the piano and banjo. Without a drum set, the rhythm section has to play insistent rhythmic figures to keep the band together and to drive the music forward. A piano solo occurs in the middle of the piece, but Armstrong’s trumpet returns to bring the music to a conclusion.

Listening Examples 2.2

Original Dixieland Jass Band – “Livery Stable Blues” from 1917. This is a typical example of New Orleans Jazz where many instruments are playing contrasting lines that fit together in a complex web of music. This texture is called “polyphony” (“many lines”). This resembles the polyrhythmic interactions of ragtime, but in a more free flowing, spontaneous way.

Swing Jazz

Swing jazz became popular in the 1930’s, staying popular through World War II. Swing “Big” bands consisted of ‘sections’ of trumpets, trombones, saxes, and a rhythm section. The rhythm section almost always consisted of piano, string bass, and drums. These were bands with many musicians that were expensive to run. When World War II began band leaders had trouble paying their musicians, and many of these groups began to dissolve.

They played primarily composed and arranged material with featured solo improvisation. The music included danceable rhythms and relatively simple music to appeal to dancing audiences. Swing bands used walking bass where the bass plays a note on each beat. Walking bass would later be used in rock and rhythm and blues styles.

A new singing style known as crooning became popular.  Characterized by a soft and gentle singing style, it developed through the use of the microphone which was needed for singers to cut above the big bands.

One of the most popular band leaders in the swing jazz era was Benny Goodman (1909-1986). Listen to “Stompin’ At The Savoy” from 1934 in Ch. 2.3 Listening Examples. Compare the sound of swing jazz to the jazz of Louis Armstrong above. Notice how the drums and bass drive the music in a stronger and simpler way, and how the melody is much more clear. Many of the complexities of New Orleans jazz have been taken out, and the “swinging” rhythms, dense layers of horns, and melodies are emphasized much more.

As jazz developed, popular songs (referred to as “standards”) increasingly became platforms for improvisation and experimentation. In the 1940s a new jazz sub-genre known as Bebop developed. In bebop, songs would often be taken at increased tempos and the chord changes would be cycled while a soloist would improvise melody over top. These improvisations could last a long time before the musician felt like they had expressed themselves fully. As jazz continues to develop, new compositions are written, but the old standards from the 1930s and 1940s remained popular among even the most progressive jazz musicians who try exploring them in new ways. Take for example the song “Stella by Starlight“, originally composed by Victor Young for a film in 1944. The song is full of complex chord changes characteristic of many jazz standards, but it also contains a catchy melody and accessible lyrics. Listen to multiple version of the same song in Ch. 2.3 Listening Examples and notice how different each example are from one another.

Listening Examples 2.3

First, Ella Fitzgerald sings the standard version of “Stella by Starlight” presenting the melody, chords, and form in a clear way. Second, The Miles Davis Quintet performs an improvisational version of “Stella by Starlight”. Miles adds variation to the original melody, and then soloists (including John Coltrane on saxophone and Bill Evans on piano) improvise melodically over the chord changes. Finally, I play a solo version on guitar that produces a mixture of the theme with improvised melodies and chord voicings. (Voicings are the particular note choices within a chord). I try to evoke a sense of space with floating rhythm, and eschewing the presence of constant melody and accompaniment.

A Introduction to the Blues

Speculative Origins

The blues are most likely the result of ancient traditions being passed down from generation to generation, but no records exist that can definitively point to its origin. One of the earliest accounts attesting to the existence of the blues comes from African-American composer WC Handy from 1903, discussed later in the chapter. Possible origins exist in Africa, Arabia, the Middle East, and Spain. The most direct predecessor comes from Africa in the music that came to America by the people brought as slaves, though those people came from many different regions of Africa. Free Town, Sierra Leone was a city where people who were abducted with the intention of becoming slaves were able to stay and avoid being brought to America. The population there subsequently represents the same mixture of people brought to America, and yet the blues did not develop there. This points to a significant link between the enslavement of Africans in America and the development of the Blues. The Blues seems to have developed in form and style by the late 19th – early 20th century, but the first recordings weren’t made until the 1920s.

Griot Songs

Image of a black man seated wearing robe-like clothing.
Figure 2.7

Griots are oral poets who tell the history of their people accompanied by music. An ancient African art form, these Griot songs share characteristics with early blues.

Griot songs feature an expressive and unpolished vocal quality, duple (two beat) rhythmic patterns, vocal lines that sound independent and avoid following the rhythm of the accompaniment (often due to the vast amount of words in an epic poem), and no harmonic changes (meaning no chord changes). Rough, unpolished vocal tone and duple rhythm are found in early American blues music.

The Blues feature many contrasts to Griot song as well. First, unlike Griot singers, early blues singers usually followed the rhythm of the accompaniment. Griot songs are based on historical poems, have more words than the average blues song, and the musical accompaniment is subservient to the text. In the blues, the text is usually much more succinct, direct, and personal. With simple texts it is easier to make them rhythmically related to the rhythm of the accompaniment. Second, the lyrical content of the blues differed from Griot song, as the Blues were a personal expression of the hardships faced by the people who played them rather than the epic historical poetry of griot songs. Lastly, African-Americans were exposed to European music such as church hymns which influenced the idea of harmonic progression (chord changes) and equal length verses (vocal melodies). Listen to the Griot songs in  Ch. 2.4 Listening Examples. Notice how independent the vocals are from the accompaniment in the first example by Malamini, Pa Bobo and Bai Jobarteh. Oftentimes, Griot vocals are more of a recitation than singing. Also, there are no chord changes throughout the piece, the accompaniment is static, ie. it stays the same or very similar throughout. A slightly more modern take on a Griot song by Sibo Bangoura is also included where Sibo’s vocal melody is more rhythmically linked to the kora accompaniment. Sibo also gives a brief explanation on the Griot tradition after his performance, and makes a distinction between Griot storytellers and Griot musicians.

W.C. Handy

Black and white photographic image of W.C. Handy standing in a suit holding a trumpet.
Figure 2.8 W.C. Handy by Carl Van Vechten.

Composer W.C. Handy (pictured) gives us one of the earliest records of the blues in his autobiography Father of the Blues (1941). Handy describes waiting for a train in Clarksdale, Mississippi late at night in 1903 when the man next to him began playing a guitar with a knife pressed against the strings (in the manner of slide guitar) and sang the line “Goin’ where the Southern cross the dog” three times. The text essentially was describing the man’s destination, but Handy described the music the man played as “the weirdest music I had ever heard”, and was struck by the newness of the sounds he was hearing (Handy, pg. 74). Today, we think of the blues as an old musical genre, but in 1903, it was new. This may seem obvious but it’s an interesting perspective considering the Blues was a meld of European and African musical sources, something that simply didn’t exist prior, and would have sounded quite striking and fresh even to a seasoned musician like Handy.

The Impact of Slavery on the Blues

Call and Response – Traditional African style of singing during hard labor. The leader sings a phrase and the group sings a “response”; can be traced back to traditional African music.

Field Holler – Instead of a group the field holler is singing done by an individual. Often a lament on the injustice of their circumstances. Usually slower and improvised.

Signifying – Use of double meaning in the text in which the song would seem respectful to the overseer but would really be an expression of discontent. The use of textual double meaning  goes back to African tradition and the griot song.

Listen to Lead Belly sing “Pick A Bale Of Cotton” in Ch. 2.4 Listening Examples. Formally, this song is made up of two sections “A” (“Me and my wife can pick a bale of cotton”, and variations.) and “B” (Oh Lordy pick a bale of cotton, oh Lordy pick a bale a day”), and these two sections contrast musically as well as lyrically. This AB segment repeats a number of times, increasing in tempo with each iteration. Lyrically this song is literally about work (picking cotton), and the tempo increases are significant, pointing to being a way to speed up and increase production on the cotton field.

Emerging Technologies 1: Phonograph, Gramaphone

Black and white image of Thomas Edison seated next to the phonograph.
Figure 2.9 Thomas Edison with the phonograph ca. 1878.

As we have seen, the primary formats in which music was consumed for entertainment were live performances and sheet music. The piano was a necessary part of musical entertainment at home, and sheet music had to be read and learned by a family member before it was played at the piano. With the emergence of new technologies, part of the goal was almost always to create convenience for the consumer. A machine that could play back music without any effort on the part of the consumer would be a prized commodity, and the time was ripe for invention. The last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century saw unprecedented developments in electronics (telephone, lightbulb, etc.) and music was one of the first art forms to be profoundly affected by the emerging technologies of the time. As we know, music has maintained continuous developments that parallel technological growth.

The first device to “document” sound was the Phonautograph (pictured above). Patented in 1857 by French inventor Edwourd-Leon Scott de Martinville, this device transcribed physical sound into visual representations of sound waves by way of etching them onto a prepared surface. There was no way to play the audio back, but the sound waves were visible. In the early 2000s these were optically scanned via computers and the sounds were heard for the first time in 150 years. Listen to the audio in Ch. 2 Listening Examples.

Etching of a phonautograph.
Figure 2.10 Etching of a phonautograph.

Some twenty years later, the famous American inventor Thomas Edison began developing what became known as the phonograph. Having already developed a number of improvements to the telegraph (an early form of electronic communication), Edison turned his focus to audio recording. By age 30, he had developed a machine capable of recording audio by way of etching sound waves with a needle onto a tinfoil wrapped cylinder, spun in circles using a manual hand crank. Edison is most likely to have finished the first working phonograph by the fall of 1877, and the first recording ever made was Edison reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. The patent for the device was issued on February 19, 1878 (Gelatt, p. 22). Edison wasted no time putting his invention into the public sphere. A number of phonographs and public demonstrations were given by trained showmen to enraptured audiences around the country. Journalists wrote articles praising the invention, and Edison was becoming a household name. In reality, the quality of the recordings was generally poor and the practical use of such a device was limited. It could only record just over a minute of audio, and gave “only the barest approximation of human speech” (Gelatt, p. 30). The device had been patented before it was perfected, and after less than a year, Edison largely abandoned the phonograph to focus on the electrical light bulb.

Edison's wax cylinder phonograph.
Figure 2.11 A 1901 example of Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph.

Inevitably, other inventors picked up where Edison left off.  In this case, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, spent the next decade working on developments to the phonograph. One of the most significant improvements was changing the recording material from tinfoil to wax coated cardboard. The vibrations of sound were recorded/etched into the wax and played back clearer, more defined recordings than the tinfoil. Eventually, the cylinder’s would be able to playback audio for 2-3 minutes. The patent for the new device, called the “graphophone”, was issued on May 4, 1886. Edison by this point had begun to focus once again on his own developments to the phonograph and the two companies were competing.

Both the Graphophone and Edison’s new phonograph used wax cylinders in place of tinfoil, and used electric motors powered by bulky batteries, to maintain a playback of consistent speed unlike the manual crank method of the original. Eventually, both Bell’s and Edison’s inventions were purchased by a businessman named Jesse Lippincott and the inventions were merged into one, called simply phonographs once again. Music was not the intended focus of the phonograph. Rather, Edison himself wanted to focus on phonographs as office dictation machines, touting the ability of the machine to reproduce spoken word. He felt using the phonograph as entertainment diminished its importance. Regardless, the phonograph never really took off in offices, and people indeed began preferring them for entertainment.  The most popular use of the phonograph around the turn of the century was “nickel-in-the-slot” machines in places of business where patrons could put a coin in the machine and hear anything from Sousa marches to Stephen Foster songs, or theatrical monologues to comedy routines.

Gramophone with circular disk
Figure 2.12 Gramophone with circular disk.

While the phonograph was just beginning to take off commercially, another inventor named Emile Berliner was working on an audio recording/playback device that used flat, circular discs rather than cylinders. After some years of competition, it was Berliner’s disc that would eventually dominate the world of recorded audio.

The impact of the phonograph on popular music cannot be overstated. Beyond all the opportunities that were opened for musicians, there were plenty of limitations. Sound quality obviously was a considerable compromise, but beyond that, the phonograph had an approximate 3 minute limit, imposing considerable limitations on songwriters. In fact, it’s possible that the brevity of recorded examples of 12-bar blues, a form we’ll take a detailed look at later in the book, was a byproduct of this time limit. Many published blues lyrics from the 1920s–1930s contain a dozen or more choruses (as opposed to 4-5 choruses on a 3 minute phonograph recording) (Davis, p. 30).


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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