Morgan poster
Banjo Player
String Band
Tickler Poster
Public Enemy
Beach Boys
A Few of the Varied Sources
of America's Music

America's Musical Origins (L)

Saturdays, 12:30 to 2:45 p.m., Mendocino 1003

Mike Harkins

The diverse music of America continues to be its most popular export. By studying recordings of greatest influence, we will explore the evolution of America's many music styles from their European and African origins. From "penny broadsides" of the colonies and "slave hollers" of the rural south, we will trace the evolution of jazz, blues, folk and country to their modern forms. We will track jazz ensembles to big swing bands; rhythm and blues to rock and roll; soul to disco; urban funk to rap; and rock to its many spin-offs (such as metal, punk, and grunge). No presentations required. For a shortened 12-week term, Beginnings and Singers (which would normally be covered over the first 4 weeks) are condensed into the first 3 weeks. This seminar is a drop-in; no registration required. But if you would like to get the weekly lists of featured artists and commentary, contact Mike by email.


Sept. 2: The Beginnings, Part 1
To study the evolution of American music over the past 250 years, we will first look at the defining traits of its two most influential sources: European melodies and African rhythms. We will also establish a set of terms to use as we analyze each of the evolutionary steps we will encounter this semester. But because it took our new country nearly 50 years before it produced the first truly original American songs, this first week will be largely devoted to the music that led to that landmark achievement.
Sept. 9: The Beginnings, Part 2
After establishing the fundamental elements of the music from Europe and Africa last week, we will now see how the first ever all-American music came out of a blending of these two distinctly different music traditions in the early 19th century. The primary focus this week, both before and during class, will be on the prolific output of songs in and around the Civil War years—many of which still live on today. But even as an American style evolved, we still turned to England to define the formation of our musical theatre.
Sept. 16: Singers
This week we survey the evolution of popular singing between 1890 and the present day, and how advancements in sound recording technology influenced the development of various vocal styles. We will examine styles ranging from 19th century "bel canto" to 20th century conversational, crooning, scat and jazz-inspired interpretative phrasing to the melismatic flourishes and rap singing of the 21st century. We will also explore the many breakthroughs in technology that led to the Great Music Revolution of the 1950s both vocally and instrumentally, and thereby set the stage for all that has evolved since then.
Sept. 23: Country
This week marks the beginning of the three-week section on the evolution of America's roots music. This week we look at the first of our four roots music genres and track the evolution of Country music through a labyrinth of parallel and opposing trends that is unique among American music. Of all American roots music this one steadfastly adhered to its original White European roots almost completely untouched by any direct influence from the Black music culture (apart from its adoption of the African "banjar"). Thus, its evolution has been more internally driven than any of the other roots music genres.
Sept. 30: Folk and Blues
This week's class covers first Folk then Blues. They are allotted shorter time slots than the other roots genres because Folk and Blues are both very linear in their evolution without the complexity of parallel branching that is found in the other roots music (Country and Jazz). The other aspect they both have in common is that their identities have suffered through overlapping styles with the other roots music (namely, Blues with Jazz, and to a lesser extent, Folk with Country).
Oct. 7: Jazz
This week is one of my favorite classes as we explore the origins of Jazz and its development up through Swing. Because this is long form music, it is essential that each composition be played in its entirety so that we can better understand its construction. With each progression, we will analyze the instrumental structure so the nuances of the evolutionary process can best be appreciated.
Oct. 14: Rock and Roll
This week we begin the three-part leg of our journey that takes us through the largely White-dominated Rock-based genres. This first week we trace the evolution of Rock and Roll, a brief but extremely important chapter in American music during the late 1950s. In the years following World War II, there was a boom in high-energy, sexually-tinged music known as Rhythm and Blues (or R&B). The evolution of this boogie-woogie-based R&B with some input from the edgy-sounding rockabilly music of Country (within the context of the modern recording technology) sparked a revolutionary revision of the music industry in America.
Oct. 21: Rock
Last week we heard how Rock and Roll revolutionized American popular music. The consequences were so pervasive that several seminars are dedicated to addressing just some of these new musical forms. With only this one session to address Rock, I choose to focus on how rapidly its evolution advanced in the Sixties—propelled mainly by the stiff competition among three top groups: The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Oct. 28: Punk and Grunge
This week we have a double-barreled salvo of first Punk followed by Grunge. This is uncharted territory for most of you, and so we will be listening to many (short) excerpts of the various musical forms that resulted in these two genres becoming the most distinctive traits of mainstream popular music in the 21st century. So many commercial soundtracks I hear nowadays have been influenced by these two formerly fringe genres.
Nov. 4: Soul
This week we begin the last three-part leg of our journey as we head into the predominantly Black-dominated Soul-based genres. Both Rock and Soul were spawned from post-WWII Rhythm and Blues and so both have a lot of parallelism in their evolution. We will use the Rock template to trace the corresponding development of Soul from Doo-wop through Motown, Deep Soul, Philly Soul, Quiet Storm and Urban Contemporary to today's Neo-Soul and Hip-Hop.
Nov. 11: No Class
Veterans' Day
Nov. 18: Club
Most modern popular hits can basically be sorted into four categories: mainstream pop, post-grunge/alternative rock, rap/hip-hop, and club-based music. The latter encompasses many different styles and so this week we will track the development of dance club music: the heavy bass lines of Funk, the metronome beat of Disco, the diverse Dance Pop that is at the core of much of popular music today, and finally to the recent growth of EDM (electronic dance music).
Nov. 25: No Class
Thanksgiving Holiday
Dec. 2: Rap
This week we conclude our long journey from Colonial times by exploring the evolution of Rap. While many of you probably have a biased view of Rap based on the vulgarity and repugnant themes of certain sub-genres, there is much more to the full range of Rap you may not have heard. Rap has also developed in a parallel fashion to many more familiar genres, progressing from the amateurish to mature to socially conscious to mainstream to experimental. Rap is also old enough now that its earliest trendsetters are being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and I will highlight them all.