Without doubt the music that has come from the USA, especially in the 20th century, has gone on to shape and influence modern popular music as we know it. Of course, the history of American music is long and complex, but the foundation trio of blues, rock and roll, and country is a good place to start.
And let’s not forget jazz too.
Like many cultural explosions, technology played its part when it came to jazz and blues. Both were able to reach wider audiences thanks to Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph, which gave birth to recorded music. Through the 1920s blues and jazz grew to become hugely popular genres. By the 1940s blues had diversified, giving rise to rhythm and blues (R&B), country music, and gospel music.
A fusion of blues, country, and R&B would go on to create a little known genre called rock and roll. You might have heard of it. Early pioneers like Chuck Berry took influence from the guitar riffs and showmanship of blues musicians like T-bone Walker. Elvis was heavily influenced by country, among other genres, and Berry and Elvis would go on to influence seminal rock and rollers, like Jimi Hendrix—who would in turn influence other genres of rock and roll, like heavy metal. Elvis, of course, is a huge, towering figure in popular music and is one of the most iconic cultural figures ever.
This iconic photo (above) of Elvis is available to buy here.
But the growth of American music was an assault on all fronts. Because while Elvis was making his first recordings for RCA in Nashville, and on his way to becoming a breakout commercial superstar, Miles Davis was in New York recording his 1957 album Round About Midnight.
On it he worked with saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist Paul Chambers. And much like many of the musicians who loomed large in 20th century music, Davis had a chameleon-like ability to change his styles, approach and form.
It meant he would continue to be at the vanguard of developments in various jazz styles throughout his 50 year career.
The limited edition photo (below) of Miles Davis and John Coltrane is available to buy here.
Meanwhile, a few years later in Minneapolis, Robert Zimmerman began his studies at the University of Minnesota. While there he started to perform at a coffeehouse near the campus, getting involved with the Dinkytown folk music circuit.
It was while performing there that he changed his name to Bob Dylan. Counterculture hero Dylan, although a fan of acts like Elvis and Little Richard, would have a huge influence on shifting rock and roll into new, uncharted territories.
In footage of Dylan’s live shows of his tour of England in 1965, captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s doc Dont Look Back, Dylan takes on a sneering, brash attitude on stage—while being impish and abstruse off—an attitude that is very much proto-punk.
This iconic photo of Johnny Cash (above) is available to buy here.
Another proto-punk figure, who also took influence from Elvis and the American song heritage that Dylan also soaked up, was Johnny Cash. Like Elvis and Roy Orbison, Cash recorded his first songs at Sun Records, run by businessman and record executive Sam Phillips, and based in Memphis, Tennessee.
But it’s Nashville, Tennessee that Cash’s name is more famously associated with. He even has his own museum there. Cash became a global superstar and by the 1970s even had his own TV show.
Cash is also one of the country music stars who would have a big influence on later American musicians, musicians who would make their own form of mould-breaking music.
This iconic photo of Guns N' Roses (above) is available to buy here.
After the rise of glam rock in Britain in the 1970s, heavy metal and punk-influenced LA rock acts like Guns N' Roses began to become popular, filling stadiums and the Billboard charts with a more rebellious sound in the 1980s. Guns N' Roses particularly put the focus back on rock and roll, bringing it away from glam rock and channelling the insurgent spirit of the genre—and the rebellious nature of acts like Cash.
Another band who were channeling that same rebellious nature, and also tapping into punk, were Nirvana. Although quite alike, the lead singers Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, had a long-running feud—and seemingly so did their fans. But they were both influential in helping the rise of the rock genre that would dominate after, in the 1990s: the alternative indie rock scene.
This iconic photo of Nirvana (above) is available to buy here.
The 90s is by no means where the story of American rock and roll and popular music ends. But interestingly, Dave Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana, made his own take on the history of American music.
In his 2014 documentary miniseries for HBO Sonic Highways (watch the trailer for the documentary below), Grohl and his band Foo Fighters spend eight episodes charting American music history through eight different cities. It was tied in with the recording of the band’s eighth album and saw Grohl interview artists including Dolly Parton and Guns N' Roses bass guitarist Duff McKagan.
His investigation into American music saw him journey to cities including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York. Watching that series might be a good place—not to end an exploration of American music—but to begin it.
Photographer Andy Willsher recalls, "This was backstage at a small venue in London called ULU (University of London Union), extremely small for The Foo Fighters anyway. I’d had the idea to drape the towel over his head beforehand – thankfully he obliged before the tour manager dragged him away."
This iconic photo (above) of Dave Grohl is available to buy here.
Take a look below of more imagery from 'Born in the USA - America’s Musical Legacy'