USA Literature: Arts in context. What can we gather from music?

As I begin to prepare for teaching American Literature for OCR A level next year, I want to explore the music which parallels our study. Art is holistic. To study literature without an awareness of music and fine art, for example, would be unhelpful.

I’m not sure how best to arrange this.  I will write a summary of what I see as useful and post a link to a Spotify playlist where examples can be found.  I hope this will be interesting and useful.

Beginnings and Puritans.

Before the arrival of Europeans on the East coast, there was music. Much has become extinct, but the Native Americans had a music, largely based on rhythmic drumming which was repressed as they were systematically chased away from the new ‘civilised’ inhabitants of the New World.

These were the religious escapees from Europe and the Empire builders. Their music and their literature was largely religious and reflected the stern puritan outlook of many. In the 17th Century, music was given to the Lord and not intended for relaxation and revel – unless one was not of the Chosen People. Sure, on board ship there were shanties and popular songs; soldiers marched to rhythmic folk ditties, but these were generally not regarded as men of class or men who had any form of soul worth redeeming.  Each European group brought its own version of the music of North or South Europe and church music, as exemplified by the Bay Psalm Book of the First New England School grew up. Composers were often self-taught and their music gradually deviated from the European norm as a result. Composers such as the splendidly named, Supply Belcher, were the first authentic voices of American music.


As the 18th century saw northern Europe dominate the development of New England and East Coast culture, so the voice of Catholic South was contesting the development of music in states to the West of the continent. The one an austere church music based often on Scottish Presbyterian models with ‘lining’ of simple melody a feature, the other, the rich polyphony of Spanish renaissance music.

And then there were the slaves.  Drawn from the vast array of races and cultures of West Africa, they brought no single influence, though once settled, there grew up a culture based again on the religious influence – the spiritual. As the influence of Christianity became rooted in the slave society, so the expression of sorrow, pain and patience under suffering began to pour out in musical form.  A form which would eventually mutate into the blues and thence to rock and roll. In essence a true American art form.

19th Century – civil war and emancipation.

The great change to society came in the 1860s. Until, this point American society was disparate. The war forced societies to merge. The great armies brought together soldiers from the whole of the continent and the boundaries between communities developing much along the lines of the historical ethnic forebears was changed for ever. This cultural shift was helped by the emancipated slaves, whose music could now become an influence beyond the South and also to a startling rise in urbanisation following the victory of the industrial North over the Agrarian economies of the South. In or around 1890, fewer than 1 in 4 citizens lived in urban areas. By the 1920s, more than half the population lived in the great cities.

The elite in the cities of the East coast had long established themselves as facsimiles of their European cousins – Philharmonic societies and Opera companies were founded and music performed – almost entirely European music. The closest thing to an American symphony at this period was Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony written in 1893. It is so called because it was written in America. The only evident Americanism is his use of ‘negro’ melodies. There wanted yet an American voice.  The musical directors of these companies were Europeans –   Mahler or Toscanini for example in New York.  Students of literature might compare this idea in a writer such as Kate Chopin. In her novel The Awakening, there is competition between the creole folk song – simple and alluring, the trite Europeanism of French Operetta and the emotionally explosive high Romanticism of Chopin and Wagner.  Her novel is set in the melting pot of New Orleans. The salons of Boston, where Henry James’ heroines reside was appalled and disgusted by the impression created.  Class was European, not American. Music and Literature agreed.

So what of the non-elite?

The war brought an upsurge in Military music and in the ballad form of popular song. The music of the ‘blackface’ popular song, of composers such as Stephen Foster became subsumed into the musical lexicon of the warring factions – as did the hymns of the European tradition. The ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ the anthem of the Union being based on the hymn John Brown’s body…’. Whilst the rousing tunes and military tread of John Philip Sousa engaged the minds of the victorious North European society of the great East Coast Urban elites, the South – the land of Dixie – continued to reflect music more redolent of a mixture of cultures -Creole, Slave, and French in particular and also that of another authentic voice – the hillbilly – the lowest stratum of society, the rural poor, carving out a living in the Appalachians and other areas of the Southern States. These areas were still dominated by country music – the folk song tradition of the settlers.

At this point there is a necessary divergence:

Post war: Urban

In cities like New York, music flourished. By the early 20th century the growth of an audience for the Musical launched many a career, at the same time as the explosion in recording technology and simple publication of sheet music. Apart form the great European music widely available in the concert hall, the 3 minute song became the currency of popular music. As the ‘Jazz Age’ approached, access to music had never been simpler. The arrival of emancipation  had allowed black culture to spread rapidly. The blues, derived from spirituals had evolved into Jazz in cities like New Orleans, in the South. This in turn became blended with popular culture and hit songs like ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the musical; Show Boat blended the former slave culture with the new popular music of the North. Among the librettists on Show Boat was none other than P’G’ Wodehouse who joined composer Jerome Kern in the great hit number ‘Bill’. Boundaries were falling.  The composer who best encapsulates this era is George Gershwin. He travelled from popular song, via works for full symphony orchestra to his opera Porgy and Bess (1934). This is a true landmark of American culture – An opera in the vernacular, written about life in the poor black community, with a heart-lifting message, which does not shy away from issues such as drugs and racist bullying and which requires a black cast. It has not been universally popular -many black actors have refused to play roles which they feel perpetuate negative stereotypes – drug peddlers, prostitutes and so on, but it is a vital step in the development of an American Classical Music canon – the mixture of ragtime, keening, blues, and great romantic arias is a first fusion of the rich tapestry of music available in the America at this time.

Rural South and the birth of Jazz.

In new Orleans at the end of the 19th century the melting pot, as suggested earlier, was beginning to develop another authentic voice of American music: Jazz. This is a form associated with the black community and originates in processional and marching music based on the songs and spirituals which has typified the community hitherto.  The new feature of Jazz, over the dance-oriented forms of ragtime which represented ‘black’ music to this time, was improvisation – the free voice taking a theme and owning it – a true sense of self-expression. Ragtime, typified by composers such as Scot Joplin, the first musician from the black community to become a household name, was ubiquitous in the dance halls and bars of the country. Jazz would become the voice of the South and the voice of a race.

Jazz Age.

I’m sure every student reading Gatsby will have been asked to research the Jazz Age. What a time. Just as Gatsby’s mansion is filled with the flotsam and jetsam of an immigrant society, so music was beginning to fill its various voices. Ragtime develops into dance crazes such as the Charleston and Jazz is tamed to develop into the phenomenon which will mark the 1940s – Swing.  Improvisation is still a part of the process, but the whole is tightened and organised to best fill the three minute needs of a 78RPM  disc and to provide comfort food for the masses and in time to spread the American image overseas. Jazz would need to wait for the next artistic explosion – the be-bop experimentation of the 1950s and 60s – the erosion of rules and rejection of form that can be seen in poetry of the time and the beginnings of utterly abstract art movements.  In Gatsby, the music is ‘there’, not central, yet it is such a clear symbol of a shift in society. It is now post world war 1, the societal boundaries are breaking, a musical form which encompasses all is developing, yet it is a sanitised form of the genre – not the scream of freedom and self expression of New Orleans, but the tamer ‘danced Jazz’ of the northern cities.

In parallel change had come upon the European Classical tradition in the form of Charles Ives (1874-1954). No composer can be as worthy of consideration as the authentic voice of American Classical music even if his experimentation renders much of his music ‘difficult’ even today. He takes the sound effects of composers such as Mahler or Richard Strauss – particularly the use of ‘noises off’ and offers a specifically American take. Mahler may embed the cowbells of his Austrian heritage in his symphonies, Ives runs recognisably American marching bands straight into each other whilst establishing a musical narrative in the forefront of the hall – about as wild a rule breaking as Whitman or Eliot or other voices of modernism found in literature. The effect is disconcerting to say the least.

After Ives, Aaron Copland is probably the next voice to create a distinctively American sound. His ballet Appalachian Spring taps into an artistic movement which was seeking to link back to tradition and the ‘old ways’ in the aftermath of the War, much as the Georgian movement in Edwardian England had done. He makes dance heroes of figures of the American West in the ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid and creates an instantly recognisably ‘American sound’ with spacious chords, slow moving often recalling the huge spaces of the country, mixed with popular folk song and religious melody recalling a more innocent time.

The European tradition continued to flourish – though not widely performed in Europe, composers such as Walter Piston and Howard Hanson followed the lead of the late 19th century 2nd New England School, writing in a highly Romantic language. There was also the influence, again, of immigrants. It is hard to decide whether composers like Stravinsky, Rachmaninov or Schoenberg can be said to be ‘American’. They are great composers resident in America, but it is hard to point to direct American influence on their music. Kurt Weill, on the other hand underwent a complete change of voice. Rejecting the Brechtian sparseness of his Berlin Years in favour of a directly American popular song sound exemplified in works like his opera Street Scene.

Post World War 2.

Now it gets complicated!

As the soldiers returned and American society tasted prosperity like never before, a new segregation developed in addition to the segregation of the blacks in the Jim Crow South. In turn the state turned on possible Communists, those opposed to the increasingly belligerent actions of the state in the Far East, those who seemed to be misfits due to their sexuality or their choice of relaxing stimulants and so forth. Each time this manifested itself, art responded accordingly. The blues developed into the teenage phenomenon of Rock and Roll (complete with lewd hip swivelling), and that in turn into the huge range of sub genres that we see today. Society was fragmenting and each fragment carried its own bubble of musical stimulus. The urban jazz world explored be-bop as an antidote to swing in the same way as the Beat poets rebelled against the strict notion of form applied to earlier poems. Writers like Bob Dylan recalled the folk music of earlier times in his largely acoustic writing of protest songs around the time of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, only joining mainstream music in 1966 with the use of electronic instruments and amplification. In the late 60s the psychedelic drug culture reached its apogee at the great Woodstock festival – free love and drugs were on the bill in New England, as well as in San Francisco – long seen as a somewhat louche city. In the classical sphere, minimalism, led by Steve Reich and Philip Glass reflected the minimalist movement in art, and a new type of Classical music was born after the war: the Film Score.

In this field, there had always been music – pianos accompanied the silent movies of the early 20th century and artists such as Charlie Chaplin not only acted but also composed his own soundtracks.  After the war, filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock altered the medium forever. In a Hitchcock film, the music is a character – the shrieking violins in psycho or the pounding orchestral pursuit in North by North West. Pre-war composers such as Eric Korngold and newer voices such as Bernard Herman rose to prominence. By the 1980s composers were stars in their own right: John Williams is probably the finest example of the group, though Elmer Bernstein and Ron Goodwin or James Horner also stand out.

Unlike in the UK where serious composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold were heard both on screen and in the concert hall, few Americans seem to have done the same. The notable exception is the remarkable Leonard Bernstein.  Composer, conductor, educator…

The post war American city was a divided place-  increasingly a divided society was withdrawing into small sections of closely guarded territory. Bernstein caught this shift like no other. His musical West Side Story merges Shakespeare with the Upper West Side of Manhattan – the gangs are now American boys and their Puerto Rican neighbours. This musical exploded onto Broadway in 1957 and caused a wave of shock and adulation. Gone was the safe ‘American musical’ in which love was chased in the strange worlds of South Pacific or sanitised Nazis. Bernstein probably has marked American Classical Music forever in this work – part Jazz, part twee glee song (the satirical Officer Krupke), part full blown Romantic Opera, this work encapsulates the divisions of the society it portrays whilst merging the Latin sounds of the Puerto Ricans with the European and ‘American’ musical language  of the Jets. A true American masterpiece for the masses.

Enough. This has strayed form my original idea – there is not enough direct Literary linking – I may have to come back to it.

The Spotify soundtrack can be found USA playlist