Country music is more popular than ever

United States

Maik Brüggemeyer

To person

Maik Brüggemeyer, M.A., born in 1976, studied political science, communication science and applied cultural studies in Münster. He wrote his master's thesis on "Corporate Identity EU". Since 2001 he has been working as an editor for the music magazine "Rolling Stone".

The music as a reflection of American identity

Songs tell stories. This is also the case in the USA. In the ethnic and cultural melting pot of America, the various styles of music from ragtime to country music to hip-hop are particularly closely linked to a fundamental driving force of the comparatively young nation: the search for its own US identity.

Beyonce Knowles performing for her album "Black is King". (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Travis Matthews)

The American songwriter Bob Dylan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 for his "poetic new creations in the great American song tradition", dedicated an album from 2001 to the most diverse varieties of American music from the first half of the 20th century. He called the album "Love And Theft" - "Love and Theft": There is hardly a better title to sketch the history of US music. The US-American author and music journalist Nick Tosches wrote in his book "Where Dead Voices Gather" aptly of "a story of blacks who steal from blacks, whites who steal from whites, and one steals from another".

The creation of genuinely US-American music and the development of a US identity are closely linked. Because a large part of the stories on which this identity is based are told in songs. Of course, every form of identity is a construction. But while other countries can refer to a more or less common history, the USA is a comparatively young nation whose inhabitants come from a wide variety of cultures. “To be American,” wrote the cultural scientist Leslie A. Fiedler, “strictly speaking, means imagining a fate instead of inheriting one. For we have always, if we are American at all, been the inhabitants of myth rather than history. "

"Minstrel Shows" as the first form of mass culture

At the beginning of its history, the United States was made up of many different regional cultures. It was not until the Civil War and the expansion of the railway network in the middle of the 19th century that these cultures began to influence one another. The first genuinely American form of mass culture originated in the urban north of the USA. In the so-called minstrel shows, initially exclusively white artists with black painted faces parodied the Afro-American culture of their black fellow citizens in a burlesque manner.

In the songs, mostly composed especially for these shows, black workers' songs, spirituals, idioms and dialects merged with white folk songs and ballads. The minstrel shows not only mixed Afro-American and European music, but also created a new job: the songwriter. Stephen Foster, the author of songs that are still popular today, such as "Old Folks At Home", "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Hard Times Come Again No More", was the first American to make songwriting his profession. Over time, African American musicians also appeared in the minstrel shows. To make it clear that they, too, based their performance on stereotypes, they too stood on stage with their faces painted black.

This game with masks and ethnic clichés dominates popular American culture to this day, from the wild demeanor of Little Richard to the macho image of Italian-Americans to the poses of hip-hop. It is presumably precisely this play with identities and constructed myths of origin that is partly responsible for the worldwide success of American music. The Minstrel songs quickly became popular songs. Black musicians living in the north played their own danceable versions of these songs by performing them to modified rhythms of Afro-American origin. This is how the "ragtime" came about. White composers parodied this in turn in so-called Coon songs. Among them was Irving Berlin, who later became, alongside Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, one of the most successful popular songwriters of "Tin Pan Alley", the legendary New York street where the major US music publishers were based.

From the marching bands to the blues

The minstrel and ragtime music from the urban north became an important influence on the music of the rural south. There the Afro-American spirituals, European folk songs and the music of the so-called marching bands were predominant. The first marching bands emerged after the end of the civil war, when Afro-Americans were able to buy the instruments of the army bands cheaply when the troops were disbanded. Usually they got together to play marching music first and then combine it with their own Afro-American music at weddings and funerals. Jazz and blues sprouted on the streets of the south at the beginning of the 20th century. There were early forerunners of the blues song in the minstrel shows. But it was only the black musicians of the south that turned it into an independent variety of American music.

In contrast to the religious spiritual, the blues was considered "music of the devil". But that didn't stop many musicians from playing the blues in bars on Saturday evenings and spirituals in church on Sunday mornings. One of the most influential guitarists of the 1920s and 1930s, Blind Willie Johnson, mixed these two forms: he only sang songs with a religious content, but used the techniques of the blues.

With Country to the "American Idol"

The trumpeter Louis Armstrong was one of the founders of "Swing". License: cc publicdomain / zero / 1.0 / (Public Domain)

But not only African American musicians played the blues. White artists mixed it with Irish and English folk, the Appalachian folk and the Hawaiian sounds of the steel guitar, and called this style "Country". While the first blues recordings as so-called "Race Music" found black buyers in particular, country music became more and more popular with the white audience thanks to artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. In the various varieties from "Bluegrass" to "Honky Tonk", performed after the Second World War by artists such as Hank Williams, Lefty Frisell and Gene Autry, this style of music produced the first American pop stars.

The most popular black musician, however, has been trumpeter Louis Armstrong since the 1920s. Together with singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey he popularized the blues and taught jazz to dance with driving rhythms. This is how the "swing" was born.

Jazz pleasure

White musicians also began to adapt the successful form. Especially the conductor Paul Whiteman. Whiteman was soon called the "King of Jazz", a title that would have been given to influential musicians such as the pianist Jelly Roll Morton or the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, but they came in times of racial segregation, when black musicians offered their pieces for the Afro-American Markt intended "race records" published, for such a title out of the question. Whiteman tried to prepare jazz for an affluent white middle class, to give it a classic look, so to speak, and to disguise its origins in the entertainment districts of New Orleans. For this he needed the help of the composer George Gershwin, who wrote a piece on his behalf in which he wove jazz elements into a symphonic structure, such as in "Rhapsody In Blue" from 1924. Whitman's recordings of the piece sold and prepared millions Way for the great jazz big bands of the swing era.

The formative band leaders and arrangers here included Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Bennie Goodman, as well as African-American artists such as Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson. The greatest of them was the son of a musician from Washington, D.C., who was to become one of the most influential and greatest composers in the country in the following decades: Edward Kennedy Ellington, whom everyone called the "Duke" because of his elegant demeanor. The swing era came to an end when the entry of the United States into World War II made it impossible to entertain big big bands. The ensembles got smaller. In New York in particular, musicians such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk began to understand jazz as an art form beyond the pleasure of dancing. The pieces became faster, the rhythms more complex, the solos more aggressive. Bebop was the name of this new variety that made something for connoisseurs out of the former pop music.

Jazz as utopia

At the end of the forties in New York, around the trumpeter Miles Davis and the arranger Gil Evans, an opposing, softer and more melodic style developed: cool jazz, which was finally celebrated on the west coast by trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. But with the increasing popularity of "Rhythm and Blues" and Rock’n’Roll, the tempo has picked up again in so-called hard bop.

Towards the end of the decade Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the pianist Bill Evans no longer improvised according to conventional harmonic chord progressions, but instead used medieval church keys, Indian, Arabic and African music in addition to conventional scales. The milestone "Kind Of Blue" by Davis is probably the best-known example of so-called "Modal Jazz". The urge for freedom embodied in jazz finally manifested itself in "free jazz": the rhythms became free, the harmonic tonality was abandoned, the difference between solo and accompaniment, sound and noise, abolished. When the blues bore witness to the tragic history of the African American population, slavery and racism, poverty and disease, jazz was the utopia of liberation.

Elvis Presley: The "King of Rock´n´Roll"

In the blues, too, rhythms became increasingly dominant at the height of swing. The individual artist on the stage became an orchestra. The rhythm & blues emerged, which eventually became popular among white listeners. At the beginning of the 1950s, the DJ Alan Freed gave the popular rhythm & blues music the name "Rock'n'Roll". A sensational name creation, the slang term among African Americans was a term for sex. At this time, white musicians began to develop their own form of rock'n'roll: the "rockabilly", a mixture of country and rhythm & blues, initially played without drums. One of the first rockabilly recordings was made in 1954 by a white boy from Tupelo named Elvis Aaron Presley. He was discovered by the producer and owner of the "Sun Records" label, Sam Phillips, who mainly recorded the music of African American artists such as B. B. King, Howlin ‘Wolf and Junior Parker in his studio in Memphis. But he knew that if he wanted to popularize this music he loved, it would need a white artist in the segregated music market.

Elvis didn’t realize that much of his singles on Sun Records. But his new manager Colonel Parker got him a bigger record company with RCA. His first album was released there, a collection of country and pop songs by White Songwriters and three rhythm and blues numbers that were also in the repertoire of Black artists such as Little Richard or Ray Charles.

Elvis was the new big sensation in show business. His manager christened him the "King of Rock’n’Roll" - just as Paul Whitman was once the "King of Jazz". Was that fair? Or had he robbed those black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard who invented this music? It is called cultural appropriation when members of a ruling class adopt the strategies and art forms of an oppressed class in order to make a profit. This problem is reflected more and more comprehensively in the discussion about hybrid identities in multicultural societies.

Folk and rock

The American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. (& copy picture-alliance, CAP / PLF Image supplied by Capital Pictures)
At the end of the 1950s, rock'n'roll fell into a crisis in the USA. Shallow popular music conquered the radio stations. In university cities in particular, young people turned to the supposedly uncommercial, politically and socially motivated folk music, which gave artists such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter Paul & Mary a second chance. Bob Dylan became the most famous representative of this folk revival with protest songs like "Blowin In The Wind", "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" and "The Times They Are Changing". But the singer was a restless spirit and soon turned to more personal subjects. His texts became more poetic; his music was based more on the beat and rhythm & blues of British bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, which took the US music market by storm in the mid-1960s. Together with the Californian band The Byrds, who played his folk songs such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages", Bob Dylan is considered to be the inventor of "Folk Rock". Popular music was no longer just a dance fun for teenagers, it was as pervasive as it was in the legs. The Beach Boys, who had shaped the surf sound on the West Coast in the early 1960s, also turned to more complex topics - inspired by their British rivals, the Beatles. The music on her album "Pet Sounds" from 1966 enlivened pop, jazz, classical and avant-garde. The (white) pop music had grown up.

Effects of "Motown" until today

Singers Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson from the American soul pop band Supremes at EMI Records in London. (& copy picture-alliance, empics)

Around the same time as Elvis Presley began his career, secular rhythm and blues combined with church gospel to create so-called soul, which was mainly in the songs of the black musician Ray Charles and shortly afterwards in the pieces by James Brown 1960s became popular with the pleasing songs of the Detroit "Motown" record label, which were mainly produced for a white audience, with artists such as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Jackson Five . From Michael Jackson to Mariah Carey to Beyoncé, many of the current US superstars under the label "Contemporary R&B" represent the "Motown" legacy to this day.

But as early as the 1960s, this smooth form of pop music was not enough "black" for many Afro-American artists. The "Stax" label from Memphis served a rougher soul variety with singers like Otis Redding or Isaac Hayes. Other soul singers such as James Brown, George Clinton with his band Parliament and the band Sly & The Family Stone broke away from the catchy song formats at the end of the 1960s, made their pieces more rhythmic and expressive and thus developed "funk", the again formed connections with rock and soul and in the second half of the 1970s led to disco. In the songs of the superstars Prince and Michael Jackson in the 1980s, from rhythm & blues to soul, funk and disco, all varieties of African American music were found.

HipHop: From the Bronx to the charts

A mural painting of Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in 1998, on a house wall in Tampa, Florida. (& copy picture-alliance,, Edmund D. Fountain)

In the 1930s, the urban planner Robert Moses was commissioned to change the profile of the city of New York, to defuse the socially disadvantaged areas and to smash the working-class neighborhoods. For the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, he had hundreds of residential and commercial buildings demolished in the 1960s, around one hundred and seventy thousand people were forcibly relocated, others fled. The southern part of the Bronx became a ghost town until the city government began to settle socially disadvantaged African-American families here, and Puerto Rican and Jamaican migrants moved into empty houses.

One of them was Clive Campbell, from Kingston, who called himself DJ Kool Herc, who played at parties in the abandoned or occupied blocks of flats in the Bronx and in the Twilight Zone club. Soon he no longer just played the latest soul, funk and disco records, but limited himself to their danceable instrumental passages and played them again and again. Other DJs followed him and started developing their own techniques. Above all Joseph Saddler from the Caribbean Barbados, who had given himself the pseudonym Grandmaster Flash, and who collaged different pieces using several record players. Between the DJs, a so-called Master Of Ceremony (MC) acted as a kind of animator through the program.Over time, the MCs stylized their contributions and adapted them rhythmically to the beats. This new technique was called "rap" a little later, until the genre was finally called "hip hop".

"Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang from 1979 is widely considered to be hip-hop's first single. Hip hop went mainstream in the US in the 1980s with albums by LL Cool J and Kurtis Blow. The first hip-hop LP, which made it to the top of the US charts in 1986, came from a white band: "License To Ill" by the Beastie Boys. But hip-hop remained the pop music genre in which the black self-image was expressed. Bands like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest from New York began in the late 1980s to address the problems of African American citizens and to stand up for their rights. On the west coast, meanwhile, bands like NWA described life in the ghettos of the big cities with harder beats and with texts revolving around drugs, sex and violence. Together with the singer Ice-T, they are still considered the pioneers of so-called gangsta rap. This style, in which rappers processed and glorified their experiences, developed in Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles, which is characterized by violence and gang crime. The violence was not limited to the lyrics of the pieces. There was a real battle between the hip-hop scenes on the west and east coasts, which mainly centered on the New York rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and his label Bad Boy Records and Tupac Shakur, also from New York but living on the west coast, and the label Death Row Records.

The present in hip hop and social media

Beyonce Knowles performing for her album "Black is King". (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Travis Matthews)

Hip hop remained the dominant music in the United States after Shakur's death. Artists such as Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Eminem and the duo OutKast became superstars, but the genre did not stay as it was, it was always connected to other styles: in R&B and neo-soul - Rap pieces have been commonplace since the nineties. Rock, punk and metal bands also worked with hip-hop elements. To this day, this music, created in a ghost town by socially excluded migrants and disadvantaged Afro-Americans, seems to have been created like no other genre of popular music to depict our complex and confusing times. It's not singing or playing an instrument, but sampling, the idea of ​​quoting, sharing and recontextualizing that best sums up the digital age. The topics that are dealt with in hip-hop have hardly changed; it is still the mouthpiece for minorities and those who are discriminated against.

When more and more cases of racist police violence against Afro-Americans went through the media in the early 2010s and the Black Lives Matter movement formed, it found its mouthpiece in artists such as Kendrick Lamar from Compton, who plays through many genres of Afro-American music on his albums and among other things made the saxophonist Kamasi Washington a star and thus ushered in a jazz revival. In 2017 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his album "Damn". The work was - so it said in the explanation - a "haunting snapshot that captures the complexity of modern Afro-American life".

While Lamar depicts the prevailing conditions in his lyrics, the R&B singer Beyoncé Knowles stages a "black feminism" in stage shows and film versions of the songs from her album "Lemonade" from 2016. One can find here borrowings from Madonna, who brought feminism into mainstream pop with her staging of female dominance, at the same time she joins a tradition of Afro-American artists from Nina Simone to Missie Elliott. In the meantime, it is primarily women artists - including Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga - who use the power of images to question attributions and roles.

But reality is still far from where pop wants it to be. A few days after the African-American George Floyd was killed in a violent arrest in May 2020, the hip-hop duo Run The Jewels spontaneously released their fourth album "RTJ 4", which has been announced for a later date and sounds like an angry report on the situation of one nation still trapped in racially motivated violence and social inequality. Pop can not only play through identity concepts, blur and even dissolve boundaries, it can bring social developments to the point with great urgency and directness like no other art form. The digital distribution channels help to do this at a speed that can keep up with the media preparation. This makes pop a social force more than ever, especially when it comes to identity politics, which popular American music is obsessed with, because the diverse identities of its creators are its foundation.