100 Years of Popular Music Genres… in 2 Minutes
Did you hear about 20x2?
Here’s how the organizers of this live event series describe it:
What happens when you take 20 handpicked creatives and luminaries, give them each two minutes before a live audience, and the same (fuzzy) question to unravel? That’s the premise behind 20x2 Chicago. The results can be as varied as the emotions and reactions they evoke. This edition’s question is “Did you hear that?” You’ll laugh, you may cry, and it wouldn’t surprise us if you came away inspired.
I was humbled to be among those asked to present at this edition and gave myself the daunting task of condensing the arch of 20th-century popular music into those two minutes—far more than should feasibly be crammed even into an hour-long lecture.
I had to leave a lot out. I’d like to have touched on the roots of country music, further explored jazz, blues, and soul, delved into gospel’s influence on rock and roll, and explained why I skipped over classic rock and disco. Sadly, I had to leave behind a treasure trove of untold stories in order to get my point across within the time constraints.
In this article, I’ll spread out a bit and hopefully get closer to what I would have presented if those 2 minutes were 10 or 15.
But first, here’s my 2-minute presentation:
Let’s Look at the History of Popular Recorded Music
New genres are a blend of their predecessors, mashed up in unique ways. I’m fascinated by the creative space where that synergy happens; where existing genres intertwine and influence one another, eventually becoming something new that demands its own name.
Here’s an example: In the early 1900s, when phonograph records became ubiquitous, many popular tunes bore the labels of “rag” (ragtime) or “blues.” While listeners today might perceive those tunes as early examples of jazz, the term “jazz” had yet to be codified as a genre. In fact, records bearing the labels of rag, blues, and eventually jazz continued to coexist for decades, even as some of those tunes were defining examples of new genres like country, R&B, rock, and soul.
Let’s break it down.
Did you hear that ragtime sound?
Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” captivated audiences on player piano rolls upon its release in 1899. However, it wasn’t for another 17 years, once phonograph recordings had become widely available, that Joplin himself was recorded performing his masterpiece. Here’s that recording, made just over a century ago, in 1916:
Did you hear that blues sound?
A couple of years earlier, in 1914 “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy was released. That recording is often cited as the first blues record. Some say it was also the first Jazz record, but, again, that genre hadn’t yet been named. That would happen the following year in the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Did you hear that jazz sound?
In 1917, a group of white musicians billed as the Original Dixieland Jass Band, who’d moved from New Orleans to play in Chicago clubs, recorded “Livery Stable Blues” which is often cited as the first Jazz record.
The first guitar blues record is thought to have been Sara Martin’s “Longing for Daddy Blues” in 1923. This record began to suggest the shape of blues to come.
I say the first “guitar blues,” because the recording most often cited as the first “vocal blues” record had been released 3 years earlier, in 1920. That one, Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” sounded more like jazz or ragtime.
So many of those early recordings which would likely be thought of as Jazz today, were called “blues” or “rag(time),” but jazz wasn’t the only other genre emerging out of those sounds.
Did you hear that country sound?
The guitarist on Sara Martin’s “Longing for Daddy Blues” was Sylvester Weaver, who around that same time released “Guitar Rag,” laying down the roots of country music.
Did you hear that rhythm & blues sound?
In the 30s, another new genre emerged out of ragtime, blues, and jazz. It was called rhythm & blues (R&B). The 1936 tune “Oh Red” by Chicago’s Harlem Hamfats was a good example.
2 years later in 1939, the first electric guitar R&B hit was released by Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, called “Floyd’s Guitar Blues.”
Over the next decade, R&B began to dominate the charts with Tunes like “Let the Good Times Roll” by Louis Jordan in 1947.
Did you hear that rock & roll sound?
4 years later, in 1951, Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (also known as Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm) released an R&B tune called Rocket 88 which is often cited as the first rock and roll record.
Did you hear the soul sound?
Just 3 years after that, in 1954, Ray Charles released another R&B tune called “I Got a Woman,” which some say was at the root of soul music.
Over the next decade, soul found its godfather—James Brown. Here’s his 1964 tune “I Got You.”
So much more happened in the ‘60s, for example, the British invaded with their take on R&B, but I’m skipping over The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin to point toward the future:
Did you hear that reggae sound?
On the small Caribbean island of Jamaica, beginning in the ’50s, DJs competed to host the best dance parties, driving artists to develop their own version of R&B called ska, and later rocksteady. In 1968 Toots and the Maytals released a rocksteady tune called “Do the Reggay,” sparking off another new genre.
Did you hear that hip-hop sound?
Over the following decade, Jamaican immigrants and others in New York City began DJing block parties and laying the foundations of hip-hop. In 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang became the first hip-hop hit. It used a disco• tune by Chic, refined into an instrumental track with the MCs rapping on top in order to rock the party.
•Disco: an offshoot of R&B and soul.
Did you hear that house sound?
So much happened with hip-hop over the next decade. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, DJs were reconfiguring disco, German electronic music, and new wave into a form of underground dance music that would come to be known as house music. In 1983, Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence produced what’s often said to be the first house record, “On & On.”
4 years later, in 1987, an offshoot called acid-house emerged from the Chicago clubs and ultimately became the sound of the UK rave scene. Phuture’s “Acid Tracks” is often cited as the first acid-house record.
Did you hear that reggaeton sound?
At the same time as house music was emerging, Panamanians were rapping in Spanish over Jamaican records to create reggae en Espanol, which eventually evolved into reggaeton; now one of the most popular genres in the world. Here’s El General in 1990 with “Tu Pun Pun.”
And there you have a few of the major 20th-century genres.
Did you hear that common thread? Nearly all of the innovators listed above were/are Black. Their creativity not only defined American popular music, but also global popular music.
Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring most of these tracks: