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The history of popular music in America is full of colorful events and achievements. American popular music exemplifies a unique and extremely complex blend of trends, cultural influences, and social connections. Campbell (2013) is right: the popular music of the modern time has deep social, cultural, and musical roots in the cultures of Africa and Europe. These musical traditions are highly controversial but not mutually exclusive. Since its beginnings and until present, the American popular music has been continuously incorporating the most valuable and even antagonistic elements to produce new music styles. Today, the legacy of African American traditions in popular music continues to persist, while the most famous composers of the 19th-beginning of the 20th centuries keep influencing the development and patterns of popularity in the American musical landscape.

Brass Bands, Popularity, and the Most Important Figures

Brass bands are fairly regarded as one of the most essential elements in the evolution of popular music in America. Campbell (2013) describes them as "concert bands", which achieved remarkable popularity at the end of the 19th century. At the World's Columbian Exposition that was held in 1893, brass bands enjoyed a unique and distinguished position among other musicians and orchestra groups. The organizers of the great fair even had to cancel the last concerts of the Exposition Orchestra, because the visitors were not very interested in their performance.

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Brass bands greatly influenced the development of popular music in America. At the end of the nineteenth century, when radio and television did not exist, such brass bands were touring among cities to popularize the new form of musical entertainment. Their chief function was to supply the audiences with a diverse range of musical experiences and impressions. They performed everything, from classical selections to the most current songs, thus setting the stage for the rapid popularization of various music trends. At the same time, the concert (or brass) bands greatly advanced the professionalization of popular music: by the end of the nineteenth century, most of them would have become professional ensembles, and their instrumentation would have been stabilized. The function of brass bands at the beginning of the 1900s was similar to the modern pop orchestras, which feature a mix of classical and popular music delivered by star soloists. The brass band movement brought to life numerous outstanding figures, chief among them being John Philip Sousa and Patrick S. Gilmore.

Sousa's New Marine Band was the most popular brass band in America at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Sousa is claimed to be the most outstanding and talented band composer and bandleader during that era. For twelve years, he had been a composer and leader of the Marine Band, before his own band was established; in 1892, Sousa's famous band was formed to give about 10,000 concerts during their entire career. The popularity of Sousa's band was determined by its unique musical taste, precision during performances, as well as the special emphasis made on the soloists' professionalism. They performed a variety of musical compositions, including marches and opera overtures.

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Equally profitable and popular was the Salem's Brass Band led by Patrick S. Gilmore. "Gilmore was approached with an offer to lead the Salem Brass Band with the promise of one thousand a year and all the money he can make". The band's fame stretched far beyond the boundaries of one state, and its continuous popularity became a source of strong envy for other Boston bands. The legacy of the brass band movement went further into the 20th century, as the marches composed and played by brass bands shaped a fruitful basis for the subsequent emergence of jazz, syncopated music, and ragtime.

Three Important Song Composers

Early nineteenth century America was full of talented song composers. Still, the most popular and remembered were Stephen Foster, Harry von Tilzer, and George M. Cohan. Stephen Foster is mentioned in the context of the so-called "parlor song", which was quite similar to classical art songs but did not have much expressiveness. Parlor songs told a sentimental romantic story, being presented as a simple melody with modest piano accompaniment. Foster's most famous songs were "Camptown Ladies" and "Oh, Susanna!"

Then, waltz songs came, headed by Harry von Tilzer. His most famous product was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Von Tilzer is described as the most successful songwriter of his era. His songs were neither nostalgic nor sentimental. They had simple texts and, like parlor songs, emphasized melody and music. Finally, George M. Cohan became well-known for his commitment to patriotic songs. They had a vigorous melody and carried the spirit of braveness and power, without a single tint of sentimentality that was so characteristic of nineteenth century songs. "The Yankee Doodle Boy" (1904) was Cohan's most popular song, where wise lyrics were presented through everyday language.

Campbell (2013) defines popular music as that, which is widely heard and financially profitable. However, in case of the song composers of the nineteenth century, it is familiarity that made the songwriters popular. Over years, they enjoyed little public recognition and failed to derive any profits from their talent, as the fame and glory of their songs were given mainly to the celebrity performers. Few, if any, songwriters ever managed to make fortune on their songs, because publishers took the lion's share of their revenues, thus turning songs into a unique musical commodity.

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African American Influences: Musicians and Their Contributions

Popular music in America has deep roots in the African American culture. African American musicians have profoundly altered the direction of the entire musical culture in America. The most distinguished of them were Scott Joplin, Bessie Smith, and Joe "King" Oliver. The three figures corresponded to the three most essential music trends at the beginning of the 20th century – ragtime, blues, and jazz. All three trends eventually predetermined the development and quality of the modern popular music in America.

Ragtime was, probably, the most significant feature of the nineteenth century musical culture. Its popularity roots could also be found in the brass band marches played all over the country. In the late 19th – early 20th centuries, the ragtime played by Scott Joplin made a true revolution in American popular music. They became the central element of the national ragtime repertoire. Joplin and other ragtime musicians of the time made three essential contributions to popular music in America: (1) they created new music that had a very strong public appeal; (2) they set a new stage for the revival of African-American music; and (3) they started the long revolution leading to the creation of modern popular music. Ragtime expanded the boundaries of music, making it lively and loosened. It led to the emergence of jazz and other styles.

The figure of Bessie Smith embodies the success of the blues at the end of the 19th – the beginning of the 20th centuries. A typical blues song was performed with a strong personal feeling and accompaniment from jazz musicians. Bessie Smith made blues so popular that it touched every aspect of mainstream music in America, turning popular music into the source of joy for everyone's soul and heart. Finally, the jazz spirit of Joe "King" Oliver created a new kind of music, where rhythm was more important than melody. Today, jazz is claimed to have changed the public perceptions of popular music and retains its solid influence on popular musicians and songwriters.


Overall, the development of popular music in America was accompanied by numerous cultural and social changes. American popular music incorporated and accumulated numerous features, traditions, and styles. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries became a turning point in the evolution of American popular music. The legacy of those changes continues to persist until present.

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