Styles & Forms | Roots of Country

Country music is identified with the American South and West, but its roots were established on the Atlantic seaboard, from Cape Breton to New England, then filtered into the lower-central USA through the 2,400-km 1,500-mile) Appalachian mountain range.

Eventually it proliferated everywhere. And if such a reach seems so vast as to defy a single culture, look at it this way: wherever country music comes from or gets to, it hearkens back to a rustic American past – real or mythic.

Indigenous Roots

The music of indigenous people of North America certainly had some bearing on the roots of country music from the start. Aboriginal Californians are documented as having encouraged Sir Francis Drake’s sailors to sing in 1579 by saying, ‘Gnaáh, gnaáh’– perhaps referring to the nasal quality of their vocalizations. But little of native musical practice – not its ritual chanting or insistent drumming or instrumental evocation of nature – looms large in country music.

Nor does Spanish liturgical music register obvious impact on country music, although the first book printed in America was an Ordinary of the Mass, produced in 1556. Spanish culture contributed hugely to American country, which enthusiastically embraced the Spanish guitar. However, guitars weren’t generally available until the late 1800s, when mass production made them affordable. And although French Huguenots settled on America’s East Coast – from Acadia to Florida’s southern tip – during the 1560s, French musical culture survives mostly in Nova Scotia and Louisiana’s Cajun communities as a grace-note to Great Britain’s cultural dominion over North America.

Psalms From Europe

Jamestown, Virginia, established in 1607, was the first enduring English settlement in the New World. There, Captain John Smith’s 104 men and boys entertained themselves by singing around campfires whatever bits of ballads and broadsides they recalled from their lives in Elizabethan England, and worshipped by singing the Psalms of David. Even the Pilgrims, who arrived in North America in 1620, sang psalms, and brought with them on the Mayflower Henry Ainsworth’s 342-page Book Of Psalmes, which featured 39 British, French and Dutch melodies.

The Puritans, who followed the Pilgrims in 1630, brought a psalter of their own – the Sternhold And Hopkins collection. This was the source for several hymns that remain in use in America today, notably ‘Old Hundredth’ (named for the hundredth psalm), known now as the ‘Doxology’.

Just as the first book printed by the Spanish in America was a Mass, the first printed in New England was the Bay Psalm Book, which originally had no music for the psalms, only suggestions of 48 appropriate tunes in four-part settings by English composers.

With or without music, early American congregations would have found it difficult to sing anything like harmoniously. Hymns were typically ‘lined out’ by a church elder, who ‘sang’ a line then paused for the assembly to repeat his rendition. This custom was highly problematic, yet when challenged it was fiercely defended, and succumbed only after serious debate to a newly emergent...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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