From the roots of music in North America to “Old Town Road,” collaboration has always been central to the people’s music.
“All music is folk music” according to Louis Armstrong, and “all music is ethnic music”, according to Philip Glass; that is to say, music is an activity that involves community and is always local to somewhere. We have the hindsight now to look at American music and see myriad cultural influences and countless collaborations that set the stage for the songs we hear on the radio today. I take a look at the history of music in America, from colonial times to “Old Town Road,” to show y’all how music has always been a communal activity that is intimately connected to people’s homes and shared experience, and to inspire more collaboration today.
Music has always been and always will be. Instruments from prehistoric times have been discovered. Ancient Egyptians credit the creation of music to the god Thoth which the god Osiris used as a tool in his work creating civilization. Music is in our blood and has been since before the dawn of civilization. Devotionals, work chants, songs for ceremony, songs for love, songs for children and play, folk ballads that tell tales: music is one of our favorite ways to experience beauty and joy, as well as share our feelings and wisdom. Research throughout time reports that music has always been a participatory and community-based activity.
In what is now the United States specifically, the many “discoveries” of this continent lead to European confrontations of native people. The Europeans were shown native peoples’ flutes and drums, and in turn, the native people were exposed to European music styles. The continuing invasion by European peoples of North America forced this cultural mixing and resulted in a genocide of those indigenous to the continent. This pattern continued in the 16th century, in the time of colonization. From the start, people were enslaved to help the colonists survive. This included folks of many races and many nations. Indentured servants of European descent worked, lived, danced, sang, loved, suffered, and rebelled with African peoples, all brought by force to this continent. All brought their traditions, including religion & spirituality, music, food, and other cultural knowledge (A good resource to uncover more history of race in the United States is The History of White People). Africans brought bowed instruments and gourd instruments that became what is now the banjo as well as syncopated rhythms, Europeans brought the violin, and first nation peoples shared their drums and flutes. Slave masters forced African-Americans to entertain them with their music, but enslaved peoples also had music and dances for their own enjoyment, like the cakewalk. A new, hybrid version of folk music emerged from all of this, local to North America. This history of cultural mixing, colonization, and genocide is where our story of n American music begins.
Let’s get this straight: the music we have today is complex, magnificent, and something to be proud of. We cannot forget, however, that the path we took to get here took millions of lives. By digging into the history of music in America, we can learn to give credit where credit has long been due, and find new cultural connections to inspire more music for today.
The Creation of Popular Music
Music, dance, and story from around the world were brought together through colonization and slavery and thievery as well as genuine cultural sharing. We must refuse to forget blackface minstrels and traveling medicine shows, the performances of which could be argued to be the beginning of popular music. In these events, blackface, a comedy based on racial stereotypes, and music to go along with it, were highly popular and profitable entertainment. These shows traveled around the nation, but so did African-American minstrels whose performances resisted these stereotypes and showcased true Black talent.
By the 1920s, “old-time” tunes were played in communities around the United States: at barn dances, around campfires, in living rooms, under the stars. One fiddler I want to mention is Manco Sneed, a Cherokee man from North Carolina. Recordings of his tunes are stored in the Library of Congress…they say he could play a whole hour straight without repeating a tune. He is renowned for pushing the limits of southern fiddle music; he developed his style in almost complete musical isolation. He took what he learned growing up and playing music in North Carolina and brought it to the reservation in Oklahoma his family relocated to, and there he developed complex, hard-to-accompany tunes that are unlike anything else, because of his unique merging of culture. The old time genre is teeming with cultural complexity: there’s Cajun & Creole music, Celtic melodies, klezmer music, just to name a few beyond the southern style. These melodies have been recorded and preserved and old-time music still lives on.
This was also the time of the radio, and the first record companies. You didn’t have to find a jam to listen to music, your favorite songs were playing over the radio waves. Jimmie Rodgers, one of the first music icons and country music stars in the United States, recorded the track “Blue Yodel #9” with Louis Armstrong, but that song was never as popular as Jimmie’s other music. Jimmie sang with the voice of the working people, the rural people, but his unique yodel is from Western Europe and his stories are of people of many places. The Carter Family, an old-time favorite, began a not-so-collaborative tradition: they had the black musician Lesley Riddle travel across the country to find common people with lyrics and melodies they could steal and rewrite to claim as their own and perform. Lesley Riddle was not a part of their band and did not share in The Carter Family’s fame. Much of the history behind the tunes The Carter Family played has been lost, but we know that they came from the rural south and that those tunes were not the creation of White immigrants alone, but people of all creeds.
We can’t forget jug bands, ragtime, the blues, gospel music, and jazz. All these genres we think of as truly American and are celebrated by all people owe their creation to the nations of the enslaved forefathers of African Americans, and also are not the productions of one musician alone. It is here we see the beginnings of the music industry, where the issue of copyrights and ownership attributed ancient tunes to single singers. This industry contributed heavily to the erasure of African American people in music despite their cultural ownership of much of what came to be. What I’m getting at here is that music is and always has been a shared activity! The tunes the Carter Family played on the radio were songs that were sung together in homes for a long time, before the creation of the United States. In today’s world, there is no need to forget this past or ignore the opportunities to share culture and music in a respectful and consensual way.
The 1950s brought the early days of rock and roll. Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, The Beatles, all the way to Jimi Hendrix. If you look close enough, you can see the contributions of African rhythms and instruments in all of this music. Despite Jim Crow laws and the continued forced displacement of native peoples, musicians of different heritages influenced and collaborated, and the advent of World Music furthered the reach of music local to places other than the US. Playing music together in the living room was not as common as it was in the old days, but music made by many peoples was still present in everyone’s lives.
Modern Day Music
By the 21st century, the music industry is humongous. Even in that world of wealth and talent and sold-out arenas, we can hear our heritage and see inspiring collaborations between unexpected artists. I’m thinking of FourFiveSeconds by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney. This acoustic ballad is unlike most of Rihanna’s music, yet was a chart-topping song across the world. You wouldn’t expect a collaboration of such different artists, but if you dig deeper, you find Kanye’s connection of Rihanna’s vocals to that of Annie Lennox, and this lends itself to the ballad-quality of the song. The collaboration of Tim McGraw and Nelly in “Over and Over” did something similar: using the musician’s differences and similarities to create a song people can relate to and enjoy. And this is where I bring up Philip Glass and Aphex Twin (one of my favorite collaborations of all time). It is our curiosity and enjoyment of other people’s creations, other people’s company, that brings us together. Philip Glass was a student of professional musicians around the world before becoming the famous, inventive composer; that training and openness to all music, that curiosity, has led to such beautiful, such interesting music, and many many collaborative pieces. Richard David James (Aphex Twin) had no formal training in music, he merely found electronics at junk stores and made music with the sounds they made. Philip Glass merely recognized James’s musical instinct and was so curious about such music he didn’t understand that he decided to create music with James. They complimented each other by doing what they do best.
The feelings of love, regret, loss, joy, and belonging are cross-cultural and cross-genre and exist in all our hometowns. It is only fitting that in these interconnected times, more and more people are finding they have something in common with their neighbor, a teenager on TikTok, or a famous rapper. We are still the “folk” of this nation and our music still speaks to us. “Old Town Road” is a hilarious, delicious, and catchy example. The histories of black music and white music in America are not completely discrete, they begin in much of the same place. So it isn’t too surprising to listen to Lil Tracy’s “Like a Farmer,” and see other rappers featuring country stars. The neighborhood, the town hall, and other references in the music video for “Old Town Road” speak to universal themes, specifically American ones, like the cowboy, racing cars, suburban neighborhoods, bingo halls…and old town roads. One of those, in Billy Ray Cyrus’s hometown, influenced his decision to participate in the song. The culture of the United States is everywhere, to the joy and dismay of many other places. But I would be significantly disappointed if the album Bulawayo Blue Yodel was never released, or if K-Pop hadn’t ended up in North America.
Without African gourd instruments, we wouldn’t have…any of our music of today. Where do your ancestors hail from, and what does their music sound like? What does your music sound like? What does the music of your neighborhood sound like? What kind of music could you create with your friends, your grandparents, your community? On first listen, I despised “Old Town Road.” But regardless of its controversy in the music industry, it speaks to a feeling in the United States today, and after I watched the music video, I teared up with laughter and joy.
Further resources, some of my sources, and things I really enjoyed reading while writing this article:
Distrokid on collaboration in today’s music
Library of Congress Country Music Timeline
Library of Congress Article on Minstrels
I also love this conversation between Devonté Hynes and Philip Glass.
And this interview with Hynes about his journey and music and inspirations.
Story of Nelly & Tim McGraw making “Over and Over”
An article on Black Hillbilly music
History of Rap & HipHop
African-American Influence on American Music
A Tribe Called Red, and indigenous influence on electronic music
Native American influence on music
Let us know what you think about the history of American music, or the state of collaboration in music today! Send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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