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Music

Geoffrey C. Ward, writer of a major new book and 19-hour
documentary (directed by Ken Burns) on the subject, discusses the joys and wonders of our native art form

Geoffrey C. Ward is no stranger to American Heritage, where he served as editor and later as a columnist. Read more >>

Reflections on the Rat Pack
Everybody knows what they did. This is what they meant.

  On January 19, 1961, at a gala in Washington’s National Armory on the eve of his Inauguration, President-elect John Kennedy made a remarkable gesture. He rose to tell the crowd, “We’re all indebted to a great fnettes—Frank Sinatra.” Read more >>

A singer’s journey through the life of Irving Berlin

Like most baby boomers, I grew up hearing his songs and taking them for granted. I never gave a thought to who Irving Berlin was or how he had come to write the music that flowed through our lives. Read more >>

Bessie Smith was the greatest blues singer of all time; and her influence still permeates popular music though almost no one listens to her records. An appreciation by an eminent jazz singer.

Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. Read more >>

LOCKED IN A STRANGE, TESTY COLLABORATION lit by the fires of a burning world, George M. Cohan and James Cagney produced a masterpiece of popular history in which everything is true except the facts

Yankee Doodle Dandy was made because a Los Angeles grand jury in 1940 released testimony identifying James Cagney as among a group of “communist members, sympathizers or heavy contributors.” Read more >>

ALBERT MURRAY SEES AMERICAN CULTURE AS AN incandescent fusion of European, Yankee, frontier, and black. And he sees what he calls the “blues idiom” as the highest expression of that culture.

Wynton Marsalis believes America is in danger of losing the truest mirror of our national identity. If that’s the case, we are at least fortunate that today jazz’s foremost performer is also its most eloquent advocate.

When Wynton Marsalis burst into the public eye in the early 1980s, it was as a virtuoso trumpet player. From the start he was an articulate talker too, but his bracing opinions were off-thecuff and intuitive; his ideas, like his playing, needed seasoning. Read more >>

You’ve probably never heard of them, but these ten people changed your life. Each of them is a big reason why your world today is so different from anyone’s world in 1954

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Read more >>

It’s the fastest-growing music in America. It’s a three-billion-dollar-plus industry. Cable stations devoted to it reach sixty-two million homes. And yet, says one passionate follower of country music past and present, its story is over.

Country music is one of those phenomena that remind us how much we’ve packed into the twentieth century, for it is younger than many of our parents. This is its story. Read more >>

A veteran recalls the everyday courage of a threadbare generation

My brother called me from Youngstown recently with a bright idea. Why not get up a three-piece band for a meeting of his musical club next month when I planned to be in town? Read more >>

Ethel Waters was an innovative and terrifically influential singer, and she broke through racial barriers in movies, theater, nightclubs, radio, film, and television, opening doors for everyone who came after her. She deserves to be much better remembered.

The greatest nostalgia of all is that which we feel for what we have never known,” an elderly English journalist told me when I wondered aloud why I, a 1960s rock ’n’ roll child, had become obsessed with 1930s jazz. Read more >>

It opened fifty years ago and changed Broadway forever

Only in retrospect does it seem surprising that there were empty seats in the St. James Theatre the night Oklahoma! opened, on March 31, 1943. Read more >>

The great Czech composer arrived on these shores a century ago and wrote some of his most enduring masterpieces here. Perhaps more important, he understood better than any American of the day where our musical destiny lay.

I did not come to America to interpret Beethoven or Wagner for the public. That is not my work and I would not waste any time on it. I came to discover what young Americans had in them and to help them express it.” Read more >>

Seventy-five years ago this month, a not especially good band cut a record that transformed our culture

About 325,000 jazz performances have been recorded for commercial release in the twentieth century, according to the Institute for Jazz Studies, at Rutgers University. Plus thousands more have been taken from radio and concert events. Read more >>

Robert Johnson died in obscurity in 1938; since then he has gradually gained recognition as a genius of American music. Only recently have the facts of his short, tragic life become known.

Who was Robert Johnson? For so many years that question haunted all of us who loved the blues. Certainly we knew about Robert Johnson’s music. Read more >>

It didn’t last long. But we never got over it.

The player piano came of age in America ninety years ago, and it caused an almighty stir. Within four decades it appeared to be dead. The craze dwindled, and in 1932 not a single player was shipped from the factories. Read more >>

Lorenzo Da Ponte, New York bookseller and Pennsylvania grocer, was a charming ne’er-do-well in the eyes of his fellow Americans. He happened, also, to have written the words for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro .

It was to be a historic moment, the opening of the very first authentic production of an Italian opera in America, in November 1825. Read more >>

The men and women who labored in the ghostly light of the great screen to make the music that accompanied silent movies were as much a part of the show as Lillian Gish or Douglas Fairbanks

If I ever kill anyone,” D. W. Griffith once exclaimed, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” He had been arguing with Joseph Carl Breil, his collaborator on the score for The Birth of a Nation. Read more >>

The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo

WHEN, ON COLUMBUS DAY OF 1980 , the operatic superstar, Luciano Pavarotti, sitting on a bay horse, his massive bulk arrayed in fancy dress, jounced up New York’s Fifth Avenue at the head of the annual parade celebrating the discovery of Am Read more >>

The ceaseless clatter of cheap pianos from a mid-Manhattan side street was once music to all America

ONE DAY IN 1922 a young would-be composer named Richard Rodgers paid a call on Max Dreyfus, head of the publishing firm of T. B. Harms and dean of Tin Pan Alley. Read more >>

… illuminated by the hand-tinted slides that helped make it a hit

ONE NIGHT in 1888, from the stage of a Broadway theater, the actor DeWolf Hopper recited for the first time a poem about a ballplayer, known only as the Mighty Casey, who struck out. Read more >>

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

The year 1896 found Oscar Hammerstein in trouble. He was in debt, and the acts he had brought to Broadway weren’t doing well. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he is reported to have said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters. Read more >>

How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure

Whistling women and crowing hens Always come to some bad ends. —American folk-saying Read more >>

An Inquiry Into the Origins of Jazz

Jazz endures in a special sort of American reserve. Accepted as a part of our national heritage, still it is as if the interior sound of this music prevents most of us from embracing it as fully as we have its derivatives, pop music and rock. Read more >>

But was Louis Moreau Gottschalk America’s first musical genius or simply the purveyor of sentimental claptrap?

Even for a city that prided itself on being a preeminent center of European musical activity, the Parisian concert debut of Louis Moreau Gottschalk on April 2, 1845, was a singular occasion. Read more >>

The Story Behind a Legend

For reasons best known to the muse of history—or to the gremlin of tradition—the state of Arkansas has contributed more than its share to that agglomeration of legend, myth, tall tale, music, raucous humor, bawdry, and regional peculiarity known as American f Read more >>

An Interview With the King of Swing

Benny Goodman strolled down New York’s Second Avenue one recent morning, covering the nine blocks between his apartment and a health club, where he swims each day, in about ten minutes. Read more >>
The roller skate was born centuries ago in Europe when small boys tied wooden spools to their shoes. Read more >>

The story of the world’s longest-running radio program and the extraordinary American music it helped make popular

The Nashville winter of 1974 was the Grand Ole Opry’s last season at the Ryman Auditorium, its home for thirty-three years. Read more >>

Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum

When it comes to the performing arts, Americans have often suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority. Foreign artists are considered somehow better—more glamorous, more gifted, more refined—than our own. Read more >>