Music and literature


Considering the forbidding aspect of their new land, it is not surprising that the music of the early settlers was essentially prayer set to song. The first music published in the Colonies appeared in the 1698 edition of the Bay Psalm Book.

In the early 1700s the well-to-do imported manuscripts of music from Europe to play for dancing and concerts. In the early 1800s more people had time and money for the pursuit of culture, and the music of European courts and concert halls was widely heard, especially in the cities.

By the mid- 1800s European romantic melodies were the favorite music. Into this "sea" of romanticism sailed American first great songwriter, Stephen Foster, who became famous in the 1850s for "My Old Kentucky Home" and other "plantation songs", as he called them. America, at last, was beginning to find a voice of its own, and Foster's melodies were sung in the minstrel shows popular in his day.

With the wave of German immigration in the mid-19th century came many trained musicians who — as performers, composers, and teachers — spread an enthusiasm for romanticism and for that romantic instrument, the piano. The already growing piano business increased tremendously. One of the chief manufacturers was Henry Steinweg, a German immigrant, who changed his name to Steinway. By 1860 there were 22000 pianos in America.

The Civil War brought martial music, and this music, in its turn, accelerated the development of the bright sound of the brass band, which — with Sunday concerts in the park — became one of America's most popular musical institutions for the next half century. Enthusiasm for martial ensembles spread so rapidly that by the turn of the century more than 20000 amateur and professional brass bands were giving regular concerts in towns and villages throughout the country.

At the turn of the 20th century the music most widely representative of this country was gaining a fast-growing audience. This appealing new freewheeling sound was called jazz. Rooted in the field hollers and work songs of the plantations, levees, turpentine camps, and prisons, early jazz and the blues had haunting echoes of an American past. This music, in all its cultural and ethnic permutations, has perhaps done as much to create understanding and respect among all races as any other single force in American history.

The popular song, that tuneful product of Tin Pan Alley, and country Western music are two other American creations that have struck responsive chords around the world.

Until the early 1900s most classical music and most of the conductors and soloists came from Europe. Then a few American musicians, such as Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, began to create new sounds in their own way inspiring interest in contemporary music. Encouraged by outstanding schools of music, this interest has made the United States a leader in musical experimentation and innovation. Classical music composed in the US today is as American as folk music and jazz.


In colonial times, when the majority of the population was Protestant, most serious music was in the form of hymns because the Puritans always put religion first, even in their music. Although they did enjoy such entertainment as folk songs outside the church, most of the music in their lives was in the form of the psalms they sang at services.

Meanwhile, Negro slaves were allowed some religious expression and much of their music came out of their hymns. So black churches were developing their own gospel songs, blending African rhythms with religious texts.

More and more religious verses were sung to popular melodies, patriotic airs, and dance tunes. Such were the hymns sung at camp meetings in the late 1800s and early 1900s in isolated areas where there were no churches.

Those meetings, which went on for 4 or 5 days, featured rousing evangelical preaching, praying, and singing. The songs were revival hymns — simple, folklike, repetitious pieces that were often called spiritual songs and, later, spirituals. Negro religious songs, which blended African musical traditions with Christian themes, became known as spirituals, too, because of their similar use of repetition.


After the Civil War, as black musicians began to play European instruments previously unavailable to them, Negroes created many minstrel songs and transported the minstrel style to the piano. Negro talent, influenced by minstrel sounds applied to European-style melodies, ultimately produced a new form called ragtime. The term probably derived from the ragged, uneven sound of this syncopated piano music, which mixed Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms with the accents of the quadrille, the polka, the schottische, and the march.

Ragtime faded during World War I but won a new audience in the 1960s and 1970s television shows and in personal appearances.

Along with ragtime, another new kind of music, also played mostly by blacks, was gradually taking shape. It was not yet called jazz in the mid-1890s when musicians were playing it at outdoor dances. Indoors the new sound was heard on piano. Bands played music derived from African melodies and rhythms mixed with hymns, blues, quadrilles, funeral marches, ragtime, and even operatic arias. The rough-hewn, self-taught approach of onetime slaves or descendants of slaves blowing brass instruments and woodwinds was leavened by the technical precision and pure, warm tones of "Creoles of Color", many of whom were trained musicians.

The exciting effect of "singing horns", so called because the instrumentalists tried to reproduce the slurs and blue intonations of black singing, was not lost on white musicians. But when they tried to copy it, the emphasis shifted from the relaxed, blue tonality that came so naturally to the black musicians to a more staccato style of stricter tempo. This created the basis for the line of jazz still known as Dixieland, named after Tom Brown's Band from Dixieland, which, in 1915, was the first white band to take the music north to Chicago.

"Jass", a slang word, was applied to this new music by disgruntled musicians who could neither play nor understand it. But this connotation was soon lost.

Jazz became so popular that it became established in the national consciousness. The word "jazz" was so firmly planted in the public mind that the decade of the 1920s was known as the Jazz Age. Louis Armstrong and Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington have become jazz classics.

While jazz, the first distinctively American music to emerge in that country, was winning adherents and acceptance, the ballads, broadsides, jigs, reels, and sacred songs that had come to America with English, Scottish, and Irish settlers were evolving their own American forms. Abandoned by the culture-minded Eastern cities early in the 19th century, this music was nurtured in rural mountain areas of the Southeastern States. There it remained for a century, virtually unchanged except for slight colouration from contact with black music. Then, like jazz, it was spread beyond its narrow boundaries, first by the phonograph, and then by radio.

Country music has made an important contribution to a new phenomenon called rock'n'roll.

While country music was being recorded in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s specifically for its regional audiences, black performers were making the so called race records for Negro audiences in the big Northern cities as well as throughout the South. Those records featured black singers of country blues and little instrumental groups often called jump bands. After World War II the blues singers began to move from the rural South to Northern cities, primarily Chicago, where they joined forces with the instrumental groups.

By the time they had come together, the race designation had fallen into disfavor, and this black music was broadly identified as rhythm and blues. In 1954 one of the white country groups made a rhythm and blues disk of "Rock Around the Clock". White listeners became aware of the excitement and validity this music could generate. The way was opened for another white performer, Elvis Presley, to project the essence of the black music, which became known as rock'n'roll. Presley's performing style stirred so much anger in the adult world that teenagers made him a symbol of their beliefs, and rock'n'roll became a musical expression of rebellion.


America's earliest literature flowed from the quill pens of European explorers, and the wonder and promise it told of proved a powerful lure to prospective settlers. The Puritans, whose representatives colonized Massachusetts and whose influence was felt in other Colonies, valued the written word primarily as a tool for religious instruction. While they tolerated it as a medium for secular enlightenment, they thoroughly condemned its use for frivolous entertainment. Despite limitations they set on writing, the Puritans, as well as other colonists, placed a high value on education and laid an enduring foundation for literature.

By the time of the Revolution such native offerings as Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanack" had helped to establish a sense of national identity among the colonists. In the Revolutionary epoch, fiery pamphleteers proved that literature could be highly effective in moving men to action.

In the early and mid-1800s Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and a remarkable group of New Englanders gave voice to a fresh new culture that was no longer intellectually dependent on Europe.

After the Civil War Bret Harte's colourful naturalism and Mark Twain's native humour and delightful story-telling made indelible impressions on US letters. Henry James's novels were internationally recognized at the time the country was becoming a world power. Such post-World War I authors as Earnest Hemingway and T. S. Eliot gained world-wide recognition, as did William Faulkner and John Steinbeck in the 1930s. Eugene O'Neill's searching plays raised American drama to the level of literature and paved the way for the internationally known dramatists Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

No more vivid record of the sum of a people's experience can be found than in their national literature. America's writers have given the world living documents of all that has gone into the making of the greatest country in history, and the saga is still being written.


The Mississippi River cuts a strong, wide swath through the heartland of America. In the flow of the Mississippi's waters, many see a symbol of freedom, a reflection of the strength of the American character. Among the millions who have drawn inspiration from the mighty river was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known to the world as Mark Twain.

Sam Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, a small town on the Mississippi. In 1847, when he was 12 years old, his father died. The boy quit school and started working for a printer. Stimulated by the material he was handling, he soon began writing stories of his own and later became a journalist.

From 1857 to 1861 Clemens worked as a riverboat pilot. Judging from his later writings, his years on the Mississippi were the happiest of his life. The observations he made on the river nourished much of his later work, and the people he knew there helped to form his concepts of humanity and the world.

In 1861 Clemens went to Nevada Territory. There— after unsuccessful attempts at prospecting — he returned to journalism and short-story writing. It was at that time that he adopted the pen name Mark Twain, a riverman's term for 2 fathoms deep.

In 1867 Mark Twain left America to tour Europe and the Holy Land, sending back humorous travel sketches. On his return to the United Sates he settled in the Northeast, married, and spent the rest of his life writing, lecturing, and traveling. He died in 1910.

Mark Twain is generally recognized as America's greatest humorist. He was also a shrewd chronicler of his times and a fine novelist. His "Life on the Mississippi" is a magnificent study of what it was like on the river before and after the Civil War. "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" is one of the most entertaining boys' books ever written. But "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is Twain's masterpiece. On the surface, it is a book for juveniles, but ultimately it is a penetrating look at the human estate and the decaying civilization of the South. It is a uniquely American work — the first major novel written in an idiom that is wholly American. Another great novelist, Earnest Hemingway, felt that all modern American literature stemmed from this one book by Mark Twain.

Mark Twain's works stand today as landmarks of wit and wisdom and as reminders of the vitality and earthiness of the young American heartland.