History: American Music

United States history chronicled by music, from thewars, from political roots, economicballads, and from cultures fighting to be heard.

America has always had a song. And that song has often chronicled the events of the nation, reflecting both the people's mindset and the emotions they displayed. The 1940's followed World War II, but whereas it might have been expected for tensions between Russia and the United States to ease, just the opposite was the case. The Berlin blockade stood as a symbol of the less-than-warm attitude each nation had for the other. It was no surprise that this time was named the "Cold War" years.

Despite the general feelings of mutual distrust following the war, a popular song in the United States originated in Germany entitled "Du Kannst Nicht Treu Sein," translating into English as "You Can't Be True, Dear." But, for the most part, American songs were reflective of a nation that had had enough of war. Themes spanned a gamut of movie theme songs, musical solos, and light-hearted romance songs played on the radio. Songs of the day were "Tenderly," "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair" from the musical "South Pacific."

The 1950's caused Americans to once again think about war when troops were called into action in Korea. Though not officially deemed a "war," the Korean Campaign lasted three years and thousands of American soldiers fought and died on Korean soil. One song was inspired by the police action: "Sound Off," a military marching song. The Korean Conflict sent a chill through Americans who believed Communism a threat that seemed to continue to crop up, first one country and then another. Joseph McCarthy marched to the beat of that drum, directing the nation's attention to State Department searches for Communist informers. Folk music at that time sometimes cast shadows on American politics with veiled messages in their lyrics. Pete Seeger, lead singer for the recording group "The Weavers," was questioned regarding his song "Kisses Sweeter than Wine" but all charges against him were eventually dropped.

Eisenhower became President, ending the Korean Campaign during his administration. American economy took a turn for the better. The attitude was that "everything was cool," including the music. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Doris Day popularized styles that were relaxed and were often referred to as "crooning." "Be-bop" and "Cool Jazz" were the trademarks of the era. Popular songs included "Ebb Tide," "Kiss of Fire," and "High Noon." Jazz influenced Broadway as well, as evidenced by the style of music in "West Side Story." The Orioles topped the charts with a rhythm and blues jazz song called "Crying in the Chapel."

Jazz metamorphosed into rock and roll with hit songs "Sh-boom," "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," and "Rock Around the Clock." Historians tied the new style of music to Civil Rights victories of the 50's and the desegregation of schools, thus introducing more of America to an Afro-American culture that spawned both jazz and rock and roll. In 1955, a black group called the Platters started a climb to the top of America's music charts that would last for many years. Fats Domino won fame with "Blueberry Hill" and Louis Armstrong introduced America to "Mack the Knife."

As far back as 1951, Hank Williams had added to the national hit parade with two country songs: "Cold Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart." But it was Elvis Presley who blended country with rock and roll to create an explosive style that blew the top off America's music charts. "Heartbreak Hotel" heralded not only a new singer, but a new style. "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Love Me Tender" followed.

In the 1960's, John F. Kennedy took the office of United States President. Conflicts with Russia evidenced both in Berlin and then in Cuba, making national headlines. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was forefront in American politics. Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in working for the rights of minorities, using as his theme song, "We Shall Overcome."

Folk music of the 60's carried anti-war themes. Singers like Bob Dylan and the group Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote songs protesting the great losses caused by war. Other songs that were outgrowths of the Vietnam Conflict were "This Letter's Postmarked Vietnam" and "The Green Green Grass of Home." When Nixon became President, he reduced the number of troops in Vietnam, but the fighting continued. In 1968, the rock musical "Hair" opened on Broadway. "Hair" celebrated the culture of "flower" children, expressed a permissive lifestyle accepting of drugs and nudity, and allowed a peek into the occult. But, most of all, "Hair" told about a boy who didn't want to go to war. The Woodstock rock concert was further evidence of American youth's discontent and disillusionment with war, with songs that called for "love, not war." But it was not until the 70's that America would see the end of the Vietnam conflict. The song that welcomed "our boys" home? - "Back Home Again." And they were.

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