I’d like to explore the idea that musical styles evolve and adapt in response to their surroundings. Economics, new technologies, and social factors change the way people value, consume, and participate in music. All of these forces play a huge role in the way music evolves. Think of it as a Darwinian view of musicology.
A commonly held misconception of music creation is that new styles of music emerge from lone innovators who through sheer creativity, talent and force of will, develop a new style or genre of music. An element of this is certainly true – music always needs innovative musicians. However, I think a more relevant view is to look at how music evolves and adapts in response to forces of change and finds new ways to obtain value and relevance.
One particularly interesting story of musical evolution and adaptation is about the Carter Family, and revolves around the birth of what we now call “country” music. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, the Carter Family became one of the first groups to have success in the new born industries of music recording and broadcast radio. For the first time, Americans had a way to either play back music in their house, or have access to free music broadcast over the radio.
The Carter Family’s history looms large over American country music. Their story has been told many times over and is fascinating in and of itself. Largely left out of that story is where their songs came from, what their musical influences were, and why the formula worked so well to result in their larger-than-life legacy.
The Carters most famous songs came from one of two sources. Either they were popular hymns or songs from the decades following the Civil War and the turn of the century, or they were “collected” by founding member A.P. Carter, who would travel the American South looking for songs. In both scenarios the Carter Family would modernize and adapt these songs for their recordings and broadcasts.
The first source of Carter Family songs is an interesting look at how music can adapt to best serve the format of distribution. Post-Civil War in the South saw the beginning of a cash economy, more rail roads, and the advent of mail order catalogs. Mass produced instruments became commonplace in homes, along with sheet music and song books. This almost-forgotten form of musical distribution relied on simple song structure, singable melodies, and the ability for various skill levels to play it. The most successful songs from this era were the ones that could adapt to this method of distribution and propagation. The Carter’s choice of these familiar and catchy songs was key to their commercial success.
The Carter Family’s distinctive sound had a profound influence on all American music. Maybelle Carter’s signature guitar style had a direct influence on the rhythms and idioms we associate with country music, rockabilly, bluegrass, etc. What isn’t so apparent is that buried within the patterns and rhythms of their music is a lineage to the music brought over to the Americas by African slaves. Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing technique is a direct adaptation of banjo styles from the Old South. The banjo’s origins are from West Africa, and the rhythms and techniques of Old Southern banjo music is distinctly African. (Don’t believe me? Read my last blog post.) The adaptation of this rhythm into country music is a story largely lost to history – but critical to its popular appeal.
Around this time in the late 1920s, recording technology made a significant leap forward from wax cylinders to what was then referred to as “electrical recording,” which simply means using microphones to convert sound into electronic signals (still in use today!). Regardless of this breakthrough, capabilities were limited and the technology expensive. Recordings needed to be captured in one take, be of limited length, and be a balanced compliment of instruments. In this environment, each recording effort represented a considerable financial investment and risk. The content and performance had to be something that would sell and appeal to a large group of people.
With these forces at play, what kind of music would you invest the time and money into? Preferably, the songs would be familiar, and they would be easy to sing back. The style would need to have a mass appeal too, perhaps something that reflects a wider American influence?
Let’s regroup and look at the whole picture for a moment: Were the Carters brilliant and hard working musicians? Absolutely. Were they critical in the establishment of country music as we know it? Absolutely. But it’s also important to look at all the surrounding forces that shaped their music and gave it the value it still has today.
I think this is fascinating. The Carter Family’s music and legacy was the result of many external forces and influences. It had musical DNA from Africa combined with simple song structures from older commercially-written hymns. It worked well within the new format of recording, and the commercial success enabled their music to influence a wide array or styles, genres and musicians (Jonny Cash, Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris, just to name a few).
In many ways we, as creators of music, don’t actually control its evolution. We don’t even really have the power to give music value by fiat. We are more like caretakers that help it evolve and adapt, allowing it to find value along the way, which in turn, ensures it will be passed down to future generations.
Dan Venne is VP, Supervising Producer at Man Made Music. Talk to him on Twitter @therealdanvenne.
What if I told you that the most influential and important instrument to the history American music is the banjo? To most, mentioning the banjo conjures up images of “hillbillies” playing on a back porch somewhere deep in Appalachia. To the urban, Portlandia mind-set the banjo is an instrument used maybe twice in a live set by a bearded indie band in Brooklyn. Baby boomers might associate the banjo more with the sounds of ‘50s folk revival lead by the likes of Pete Seeger. In contemporary country music like Florida Georgia Line, the banjo is again present – this time juxtaposed against “modern” elements such as electronic dance beats. I could go on and on pointing out the genres, sub–genres and trends of the past hundred years where the banjo makes a brief appearance before being relegated to the likes of a novelty instrument. But I don’t want to talk about that today. I want to look at where the banjo came from and why it’s so important to understanding the heritage of American music.
Banjo as an African instrument
The banjo’s lineage can be traced directly back to Africa. The banjo’s closest overseas cousins are the Xalam and Akonting. Look at the construction of a modern day banjo – now compare this to the basic design of these African instruments. In the 18th century, slave ships brought more than just human cargo. They carried with them cultures and traditions whose music would go on to have a profound effect on defining American music. Africans in the new world were continuing a tradition of instrument building but now in a completely different environment and social structure. The earliest examples of these instruments have gourd bodies with an animal skin stretches over the top. The necks of the earliest banjos are smooth sticks with no frets. The use of steel strings and fretted necks weren’t widely seen until the end of the 19th century. Another defining feature of early banjos are “drone” or “thumb” strings.
What’s with the funny little half string on the banjo?
Look again at the banjo picture above. There are five strings, but one of them is shorter than the rest. That short little string is the aforementioned “drone” or “thumb” string. The idea behind a drone string is that it provides a rhythmic accompaniment to melodies played on other strings. In traditional banjo music the drone string is played on the “upbeats.” This kind of rhythmic accompaniment on “upbeats” is a distinctly African influence. Additionally, the use of a drone string can be found in stringed instruments throughout the west coast of Africa. The rhythmic accompaniment from this style of drone playing has had a direct influence on country music, R&B, pop and rock music.
There are four and six string banjos that have no drone strings, but these are the more Europeanized versions of the original instrument. The four string banjo was inspired by the mandolin in its tuning and went on to become the first stringed instrument to be used in the earliest styles of jazz. (The guitar in jazz would have to wait until the advent of the electric guitar to be able to be heard above the other instruments). The development of the five string banjo that we know of today probably codified in the decades after the civil war. More complex means of manufacturing allowed for machine–fretted necks and steel strings as opposed to cat gut.
Throughout the centuries the banjo has worked its way from Africa to New World plantations to Appalachia to Europe (and back), leaving its footprint throughout the landscape of American music. On its voyage it has brought along musical traditions and idioms that still live on in our music today. To me, this makes the banjo the quintessential “American” instrument. Next time you’re at a concert and someone pulls out the banjo – try and think past the current image you might have of the instrument. You’re looking at one of the most important contributors to American music.
I’ll end this with a great clip I found of musician Cedric Watson playing a traditional song on a fretless gourd banjo.