What Makes Music American?

Tito and Donald have instituted a worthy tradition of posting music on the weekends here at American Catholic, and so as the weekend winds to a close I thought I would attempt by own contribution to the genre, though with a characteristically analytical slant.

I’m not sure how it is that one can say that a piece of music “sounds like” a particular country. And yet some pieces of music very clearly have a regional tone. For instance, Vaughan Williams orchestral music simply sounds like English countryside.

While I don’t think I could describe what it is that makes something sound American, the following are some of the most American-sounding pieces of music that I know of.

Jerome Moross received an Oscar nomination for the score he wrote for Big Country, the outstanding 1958 western staring Gregory Peck, Charleton Heston and Burl Ives.

The movie itself is very much worth watching, and the score is one of my favorite movie scores. This video illustrates the main theme with scenes from the movie.

You certainly won’t find a more American composer than Aaron Copland, and perhaps one of his most American-sounding pieces is Hoedown from Copland’s 1942 ballet Rodeo:

Copland draws in part on American folk melodies, but beyond that there’s an American feel to his music which evokes the vast expanses of our country — something which Moross, of course, is doing as well, though he makes no references to folk music in his score.

Also drawing very explicitly on American folk styles is Jay Unger’s 1982 composition Ashokan Farewell, which was made famous by its frequent use in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary series The Civil War:

When I first heard Ashokan Farewell, watching The Civil War, I had imagined it was a period melody. I was quite surprised to discover when looking for the piece on CD several years later that it was composed in the ’80s.

16 Responses to What Makes Music American?

  1. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    Don’t forget Gershwin…

  2. And Scott Joplin.

    I think if I were trying hard to justify a difference I’d say that Gershwin and Joplin strike me as more American in that they were from America and created some very new things (bringing a jazz vocabulary into classical music with Gershwin, pretty much creating ragtime with Joplin) rather than producing music that is American in a regional sense.

    But arguing the other way: Neither of their styles would have been developed anywhere but America.

  3. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    …and leroy anderson…

  4. Big Tex says:

    …and GWAR… oh wait, I jest. 🙂

    I tend to enjoy Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, and John Coltrane.

  5. Gerard E. says:

    Miles Davis also comes to mind. Belligerent, anti-social, thrashed around ex-wife Cecily Tyson. Reinvented jazz, the great American musical idiom, five times in his career. The rock and roll stuff sounds as valid as any of his other works. Kind of Blue, the 1959 improvisatory album, ranks as the ultimate achievement in the field. He wouldn’t happen elsewhere.

  6. Jay Anderson says:

    And don’t forget the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe.

  7. Big Tex says:

    If we’re gonna mention Bill Monroe, then we’d better get Flatts & Scruggs a mention too. 🙂

  8. Jay Anderson says:

    Well, hell, then let’s throw in Ralph Stanley as well!


  9. Dale Price says:

    While neither one can be counted as a composer, they are uniquely American voices delivering uniquely American music: Elvis and George Jones.

  10. John Henry says:

    Don’t forget the Monkees; they were a huge influence on the Beatles (jk!), and prefab boybands are a very American response to the convergence of music and commerce.

  11. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    And the incomparable Billie Holiday towers over many here..

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I can’t think of any American singer of the last half century who had a more distinctly American sound than the late, great Johnny Cash.

  13. Reading the comments here is highlighting two defects in my taste and character:

    – I don’t really listen to Blues or Jazz at all.

    – Although I still listen to a certain amount of modern music, when I think “music” I pretty much assume classical/orchestral.

  14. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    The composer John Adams is distinctly American enough to deserve mention here…

    And yes, Donald, Johnny Cash is a king of American sound…

  15. Mark DeFrancisis says:

    Don’t forget this, particularly with its associations with the deepest of 20th century American political tragedies…

  16. The adagio for strings never fails to bring tears to my eyes except when it is played on the Simpsons.

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