Music history of the United States in the late 19th century  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The latter part of the 19th century saw the increased popularization of African American music and the growth and maturity of folk styles like the blues.


African American music


In the 1890s, more sophisticated African-American styles of the cakewalk and then ragtime music started to become popular. Originally associated primarily with poor African Americans, ragtime was quickly denounced as degenerate by conservatives and the classically trained establishment. In spite of the denigration, however, the style continued to gain widespread popularity and became mainstream; it was adopted by Tin Pan Alley at the start of the 20th century.

Ragtime shared similarities with both blues and jazz, the two rival forms of African American music at the time. It was primarily piano-based, and could be performed by a single person (more like the blues) or by an entire orchestra (more like jazz). Scott Joplin was the most famous ragtime musician.


Solo performers in blackface were well-known by the middle of the 19th century. Similar parodies of Africans had been popular during the late 18th century in England, and they spread across the Atlantic through the efforts of comedians like Charles Mathews, Thomas Rice and George Washington Dixon. Rice remains perhaps the best known, chiefly through the historical importance of his "Jump Jim Crow". The first minstrel group was probably the Virginia Minstrels, who performing in 1843 in New York City (Chase, 232), though E. P. Christy's four-man show in Buffalo, New York the year before is another contender. Many other groups soon followed, usually using a banjo, violin, castanets and tambourine. Thomas Rice and other blackface entertainers adapted to minstrelsy; Rice wrote operas like Bone Squash Diavolo before his popularity declined in the 1850s. Another minstrel opera group was the Kneass Opera Troupe, which did blackface parodies of Rossini's La Cenerentola, Balfe's The Bohemian Girl and Auber's Fra Diavolo. These parodies were given titles like Son-Am-Bull-Ole for a parody of Bellini's La somnambula, the invented title being a humorous reference to the violinist Ole Bull. Minstrel shows spread to London by 1846m and remained a major fixture in London until at least the 1880s.

Black minstrels

By the end of the civil war, minstrel groups had appeared featuring actual black performers. Though their styles were no more similar to actual slave practices than those of the white minstrels, these groups billed themselves as more "authentic" and grew popular. Since many of the performers were light-skinned, black performers still rubbed their faces in cork, and entertained in blackface. This practice peaked in about 1872, having produced such stars as banjoist Horace Weston and comedian Billy Kersand.


A component of minstrel shows, blackface performances included white (or, more rarely, African American) singers dressed in bizarre costumes, their faces marked black with burnt cork, singing in a caricature of African American Vernacular English. Composers included E. P. Christy, Daniel Decatur Emmett and Thomas Rice; the latter's "Jump Jim Crow" was an immensely popular song, so well-known and widely-played that foreign leaders mistook it for the American national anthem. Other songs typically performed in blackface included "Camptown Races", "Old Dan Tucker", "Dixie", "Old Folks at Home", "Old Black Joe", "Turkey in the Straw" and "O Dem Golden Slippers".

Military marches

Military style March music enjoyed great popularity, and most towns had brass bands that performed them. The most popular of the US march composers were John Philip Sousa, Henry Fillmore, and Karl King.

Eastern European immigrants

Starting in the 1880s, Eastern European Jews immigrated to the US in large numbers. They brought with them klezmorim, or musicians who played "Klezmer music" at weddings and other community events. Soon, the United States became the international center for klezmer music, and it became a major influence on jazz and other genres.

Into the 20th century, immigration from Italy, Ireland, Armenia, China, Germany, Finland and elsewhere was widespread. Most of these immigrant communities kept their folk traditions alive. Some produced musicians of great stature, such as Ukrainian fiddler Pawlo Humeniuk in the 1920s and 30s. Much later, Armenian oud player Richard Hagopian also became popular at home and abroad. The Slovenian polka master, Frankie Yankovic, has had perhaps more crossover success than these other stars; his period of greatest popularity was in the 1940s.

Tin Pan Alley

In the later decades of the 19th century, the music industry became dominated by a group of publishers and song-writers in New York City that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley's representatives spread throughout the country, buying local hits for their publishers and pushing their publisher's latest songs. Song demonstrators were fixtures at department stores and music stores across the country, and traveling song demonstrators made circuits of rural areas. The industry was driven by the profits from the sales of sheet music. A piano was considered a must in any middle-class or higher home. Major 19th century Tin Pan Alley hits included "Only a Bird in a Guilded Cage" and "After the Ball Is Over".

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