Feature 20th Century Music

Learn more about America's musical history.

20th Century Music

For many, the 20th century was seen as "America's century." It was a century in which the United States' influence would be felt around the globe. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of music. From jazz to rock, America was the birthplace to some of the most influential music the world had seen-aided, of course, by the popularity of new technologies such as phonographs, and radios. There was one other very successful distributor of American tunes: the American GI, who brought his music with him wherever he went.

The most important influence on 20th century music? African Americans and the musical culture they brought to this country – developed within the bonds of slavery.

Even before the 20th century began, blues music was evolving across the country out of the traditional African slave spirituals, work calls and chants. Of all the developing genres, the blues would be the most far-reaching, with its influence felt in everything from jazz to rock, country music to rhythm and blues, and classical music.

That said, jazz's influence on the world music scene would be nothing short of transformational. Jazz saw its early development in the African American communities all throughout the South – with rhythms reflecting the diversity of cultural influences from West Africa to the West Indies, from ragtime to the blues.

With similar roots to blues (and blues as one of its roots), jazz also took from another American art form – ragtime – to create its unique syncopated sound. Its early detractors were many, from Henry Ford to Thomas Edison, but racism was often the reason for cries of "it's immoral." Yet the insistent, danceable, heartfelt sounds quickly spread American culture to the far corners of the globe.

Its ever-mutating style turned itself into swing music, soul and cool jazz. Jazz's knock-on effect was further seen in rock and roll's development in the United States in the 1950s. Artists from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry created their rock and roll using the musical influences of boogie-woogie and blues, along with jazz. Rock's popularity quickly spread around the world, with groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones often crediting early 20th century American music such as blues for their inspiration.

Soul music, which grew up alongside rock and roll, also developed out of African American gospel, and rhythm and blues traditions. As the century wore on, rhythm and blues boy bands such as New Edition (which could have stayed merely a bubblegum pop band of black youth created for a mainly white audience) took control of their music and helped create the new jack swing movement. A fusion of hip hop and R & B, new jack swing helped laid the groundwork for the next two decades of popular music.

The end of the century saw the birth of hip-hop music and culture. In the mid-1970s in the Bronx, New York DJs began isolating percussion rhythms from songs and talking over and between the songs.

Rap music, with its semi-autobiographical lyrics and deep rhythms were just one more evolution in the blues tradition that had started at the beginning of the century, and one further, enormous transformation in the world of music created and nurtured in the African American community.