Music Is Organic. Music Is Alive. Music Is Breathing.

By Helen Gallagher and Denning Chambers

A short while ago Denning Chambers gave a most interesting talk, at The Lake Chapala Society Open Circle, on the origins of American music. She has kindly agreed to share some of the content of this talk with readers of El Ojo.

From birth, Denning was gifted with an ear for music in the form of a marvelous singing voice. Denning began her career as a professional singer/musician in 1971. She graduated from the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a BS in music education and gained a master’s degree in music education from SUNY Fredonia while performing on stage, radio and television. She went on to become a music educator in public schools for over 20 years.

Denning retired to Lakeside over eight years ago and has shared her professional musicianship by writing and producing her own musicals, giving concerts, teaching and singing/directing in many area choirs, including the Lake Chapala Chorale.
Denning has been featured in Marquis “Whose Who in American Women.”

Music is impacted and influenced by its environment, natural, political and historical: the timelines of who invaded whom, who explored where, changes and mixes of cultures,  whether it is clothing, music, food, or art.

In the movie Amadeus do you remember when the soprano enters Salieri’s salon for her music lesson and she is dressed in a gown with Turkish influences? There was a war around that time between the Hapsburgs and the Ottoman Empire (circa 1780s) Austro-Turkish wars, hence influences in fashion.

When the Portuguese sailors landed in the Hawaiian Islands, they brought a Portuguese mandolin, which later became the ukulele. The oompah-pa beat and brass instruments traditionally played in Mexican mariachi comes from the influx of German immigrants who fled to Mexico before and after the world wars.

In creating your traditional thanksgiving table, if you invite your Mexican or Asian neighbors to bring their favorite dish, your table will be influenced and changed to reflect that fusion of cuisines. In the musical world we call this musicology and ethnomusicology.

So it was in the early days of the colonization of the United States, a melting pot.

When the slave ships arrived from parts of Africa the slaves were ordered not to carry their drums. They were stripped of many things and put to work in the original colonies as well as the Southern territories. Equipped with an ancient oral tradition and a rich musical and dance tradition, they looked for creative outlets, the first of which would be the field hollers that were created, the first work songs. These utilized the call and answer pattern: “Hey there . . . Hey there. How’re cha pickin’? . . . “Pickin’ fine.”

Then to lighten the workload they created work songs: “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale o’ cotton.”  “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale o’ hay.” “Oh Lordy! Pick a bale o’ cotton.”  “Oh Lordy! Pick a bale o’ hay,” and the Jamaican “Day-O. Daylight come and we want to go home.”

Next came the genre known as spirituals. When Christianity was introduced to the slaves, the hymns influenced these song forms. The suffering and laments were disguised in celestial imagery: “Swing Low,” “I Got Shoes,” “Camptown songs” sound like early reggae.

Then there was a need for a more personal expression of that sorrow, and the blues was born. Musicologists say that the European, particularly Irish and British, airs or melodies melded and developed with the slow, hot Southern rhythms. They created the first renditions of the blues, iambic pentameter and blue notes, with personal laments:

“I hate to see the evening sun go down.” African music is filled with polyrhythms, many layers of different patterns.

The exotic influences of African culture brought spice and intrigue to the European culture. Case in point, the European march, African marching.

In the blues genre, men seeking jobs in the more liberal sociological climate (after the emancipation) moved up North and changed the music of Southern blues. The rhythms got faster with the colder climes and bigger cities. The blues forms like Chicago Piedmont Memphis developed. Jazz and blues music became more complex rhythmically as the century turned, resulting in ragtime, stride piano, honky-tonk, and roadhouse shuffle.

The development of the railway systems facilitated the cultural exposure. Brothels, riverboats, taverns, saloons, P.T. Barnum’s circus, and theaters created social opportunities for creative and artistic development. This is when the melting pot began to sizzle.

Jazz developed north and south. New Orleans’s Dixieland, Kansas City and Chicago’s swing, bop, cool jazz big band and smaller bands, emphasizing dance music in contrast to listening music.

Let us not forget political influences. Racism affected jazz music. The anger and frustration experienced every day by African American musicians pushed rhythmic and harmonic limits.  Bebop is an example of this. Bebop jazz was strongly influenced by the struggle for equality by African Americans. For me, it’s a challenge to listen to, because I feel the frustration and anger is palpable.

When I met Dizzy Gillespie in the backstage elevator of Avery Fisher Hall in NYC, his disdain for me—a Caucasian woman working in the inner sanctum of his jazz concert with other jazz greats—was apparent.

I was Gerry Mulligan’s personal assistant, music librarian and tour manager while I was in college.

But let me digress to something that was a total surprise to me. We were not taught about how Native Americans influenced American music. Native American Southern tribes had African slaves. Only recently have I learned from the Robbie Robertson, of The Band, documentary  that the Native American influence on early blues, jazz and then rock ‘n’ roll should not be ignored. But it has been ignored, hidden from the history books.

Apparently many slaves who escaped plantations before the emancipation fled to Indian reservations where they blended in and integrated into their culture. The big five Southern tribes held slaves for hundreds of years. Commingling with Indian blood, the African Americans adopted integrated Native American beats. The simple four on four beat in early blues and rock seem to me to be of Native American origin, more than polyrhythmic African. The lilt and cry of blue notes and jazz vocals could be Native American in origin, no doubt influenced by birdsong, animal vocalizations, the natural world. These multiracial people moved to New Orleans, blended in, and helped create these authentic, original music forms.

Robbie Robertson played a recording of a Native American blues singer who apparently was a precursor and influencer of early African American singers such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, etc. So the sorrows, struggles, art and uniqueness of both these cultures created the roots of blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Jimi Hendrix also comes to mind. He was rumored to have been part Cherokee. 

American music is original and authentic, produced by a mixture of immigrants, natives, and slaves. A melting pot, not only of people but of music, too.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit:

Denning Chambers
Latest posts by Denning Chambers (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *