The people of the Great Plains have created a diverse spectrum of musical practices whose initially autonomous forms have combined to generate a wellspring of acculturative popular music that is now heard throughout the world. Native peoples have maintained a musical life of great spirituality in spite of repression and isolation. White settlers entering the area evolved sturdy uses of European folk music into a sophisticated tradition of American art music, reflected in regional symphony and opera companies as well as university music programs. Evolving through gospel, blues, and ragtime, African American musicians created a distinct jazz style centered on the territory bands. Many facets of African American music were incorporated into rhythm and blues and combined with western swing and rockabilly to help define rock and roll. From Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly to Lawrence Welk and Garth Brooks, from Jay McShann and Ornette Coleman to Howard Hanson and k. d. lang, musicians from the Great Plains illustrate a diversity that is central to American and Canadian life.
The First Musicians
The earliest music in the great swath of open space dissecting the middle of North America collectively known as the Great Plains has, like the constant winds that scour the open land, been lost to time. The Native peoples of the Great Plains traditionally practiced a musical culture that was rich in diversity yet unified by important issues. Like many tribal societies, especially those seminomadic ones with a minimum of material possessions, the Plains Indians developed much of their cultural expression through music. Music and religion were inseparable, and symbolic ritual maintenance of natural law through ceremonial affirmation played a central role in coordinating tribal life. Prayers for divine intervention in hunting and war, healing songs, and clerical divinatory songs all connected the individual with the supernatural.
Music was also used to regulate the more mundane social needs of the community. The rhythms of narrated songs that perpetuated the history of the people, social singing and dancing at feasts, love songs, boasting songs, work songs, and lullabies, performed by all members of the community, not just a professional elite, filled the daily life of the group. Another commonality the Native Plains peoples shared with other Indigenous groups in North America was the interconnection between music and dance. Musicians moved while singing, and dancers sang and played (with anklets) while dancing. Though many forms of musical expression were lost in the turmoil of the European American incursion, others have persisted and remain a vital part of Native American life and of Great Plains music.
Even more than other regions, the Native American music from the Great Plains was predominantly vocal. Men singing with an ecstatic high register (falsetto) or the unison singing of men and women was the most common (singing in harmony was not practiced). Loud, robust melodies appropriate to the open spaces of the Plains tended to begin in the upper register (in contrast with the European folk song curve, which begins low before reaching a high point near the end). Another important characteristic of Plains singing was, and is, the use of vocables, or "nonsense" syllables. While considered a coded hermetic language by some, most scholars believe nonlexical sounds are used for their euphonious sensuality. Often a song will begin with vocables, giving way in the middle to a text section, often sung by an individual. These lyrics may be altered to fit changing conditions.
As to the question of authorship, the concept of the "composer" is a much different one from that found in European music. In Native cosmologies, all songs are in existence; the individual singer receives the song as a supernatural gift. For example, through the vision quest, the arduous process involving fasting and other self-sacrifices, a song is granted as a gift from the supernatural. Perhaps the most famous result of such divine intervention is the complex series of visions and songs bestowed upon the Lakota chief Black Elk as a boy:
Then I looked up at the clouds and two
men were coming there, headfirst like arrows
slanting down; and as they came, they
sang a sacred song and the thunder was like
drumming. I will sing it for you. The song
and drumming were like this:
Behold, a sacred voice is calling you;
All over the sky a sacred voice is calling
Another, less cosmic approach to composing consisted of assembling a new song out of sections of other tunes. Contrary to popular opinion, improvisation holds a smaller role in tribal music than is generally believed. While individual songs may change when passed on in the oral tradition from generation to generation, the creative function of the individual is secondary to the continuity of the community; therefore, the songs are conducted within careful structures. The misconception of "primitive" music being primarily improvised was perpetuated by the racist belief in the superiority of notated (nonimprovised) European art music.
Purely instrumental music not connected with singing was uncommon in Native American music. The most important instruments are percussive. Drums, especially the collectively played large tom-tom, are central to Plains Indian music, and their cosmic significance to the community can be compared to the role of the gamelan in Javanese society or the organ in European church music. Smaller drums, rattles, and whistles are also common. String instruments are virtually nonexistent. Flutes were much less common on the Plains than in the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest.
The arrival of Spanish, French, and English explorers, trappers, and settlers, beginning with the Spanish in the 1500s, while influencing Indian music, never led to the kind of acculturated music found in Mexico or parts of South America, where Indigenous elements were more fully integrated into the new society. Rather than blending in with the new cultures, Native Americans remained separate, and music in general tended to unify around a kind of "Pan-Indian" style, much of which was derived from the Plains style. Two important instances of this during the nineteenth century were the Ghost Dance and peyote songs. Begun after 1880 in the Great Basin area of Nevada, the Ghost Dance was an attempt to reverse the recent tragic tide of history. In 1890 the U.S. Congress cited the dance's popularity with Plains warrior groups as an excuse to outlaw it. Similarly, peyote songs, revolving around the sacramental ingestion of peyote buds, which contain the hallucinogen mescaline, originated in Mexico and were introduced to the Plains area by the Apaches. They remain an important element in many Native societies today.
Traditional Native American music today has become dominated by the Plains style and has witnessed a surge in popularity since the 1950s through powwows and the growth of Indian-oriented recording companies such as Canyon Records. While the purity and motives of some of this music, with its obvious appeal to a white, tourist, New Age audience, may be deplored by some, authentic music and ritual true to its ancient and sacred heritage continues to be practiced, representing a vital living tradition as well as an invaluable link to the past.
Contemporary Indian blues, country, and rock can also serve as a powerful vehicle for social statement. The mixing of politics, music, and poetry is particularly evident in the work of John Trudell. Trudell was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up on the Santee Sioux Reservation. He first came to prominence as a national spokesman during the Indians of All Tribes' occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. He was national chairman of the American Indian Movement (AIM) from 1973 to 1979, a period of intense Indian activism. His first album on a major label, AKA Graffiti Man, released in 1992, was highly acclaimed and featured the work of the late Kiowa guitarist Jesse Ed Davis.
While often lacking the mystical element so important for Native peoples, music for the first European American settlers in the Great Plains played an important functional role in their daily lives. Music was used to cope with an alien environment, alleviate a drab, lonely existence, and perpetuate traditional cultures. In its path from the rural to the urban tradition, pioneer music was defined first and foremost as entertainment, with the emphasis on family singing and community dances. Folk songs inherited from various ethnic backgrounds, popular songs, and hymns (aided by hymnals that contained only the words) constituted the early repertoire. They were sung and passed on by oral transmissions and provided the principal form of home entertainment. Instruments, whether homemade jugs and spoons or fiddles, guitars, banjos, and Jew's harps, were present from the beginning. Later, piano became the most important parlor instrument, a symbol of "civilization" in the Great American Desert. As villages began to grow, organized dances evolved from family jam sessions and became a focal point of community life. Spurred on by the hornpipes and reels of the fiddler, the vigorous dancing provided an important emotional and physical outlet. Similar to these dances were the "play party games," featuring circle and line dancing. In time, these amateur affairs turned into barn dances, hops, and stepping bees featuring more trained musicians.
The legacy of this emphasis on dance survived in polka bands and popular dance bands, including those of Lawrence Welk. Welk, born in Strasburg, North Dakota, in 1903, became a popular television icon in that particular mid- American mold that also produced comedian Johnny Carson and newscaster Walter Cronkite. Welk's long-running program defined an unabashedly sweet, sentimental, "corny" musical idiom drawn from Slavic folk dances and semiclassical and country selections and featured accordion solos that have been copied by legions of lesser-known players. The central European polka heritage has remained particularly vital in the Northern Plains, highlighted by the annual Czech Festival, during which Wilbur, Nebraska, showcases homegrown artists such as Math Sladky and Ernie Kucera.
With the influx of American settlers and the establishment of towns, the musical life of the Great Plains entered a new, more refined existence. The first true professional musicians were probably itinerant singing teachers who taught both round and shape notes and teachers of piano and violin. Communities rushed to acquire fife and drum corps, bands, orchestras, vocal ensembles, and opera companies as status symbols indicating their civilizing position in the "wilderness." For example, as early as 1880 the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, had a philharmonic society, three orchestras, a military band, two string bands, an opera house (opened in 1873), an oratorio society, and two male chorales. European artists, including Ignace Paderewski, Leopold Goldowsky, Josef Hofmann, Pablo Casals, and Jan Kubelik, as well as European opera companies began concertizing the Great Plains. In addition to these public arenas, private musical clubs offering recitals and lectures on the arts proliferated. Eventually, symphony orchestras and opera companies would be established in Fort Worth, Tulsa, Wichita, Omaha, and Colorado Springs. Beginning in 1897, Canadian orchestras were founded in Calgary, Winnipeg, Regina, and Saskatoon. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Canada's oldest, was established in 1938.
Concurrent with these developments was the rise of music education. Among the earliest schools of music and conservatories in the area were those at the Universities of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. A seminal figure in this movement was Willard Kimball, who, after studying in Leipzig, graduated from Oberlin and lived in Iowa for nineteen years before moving to Nebraska to establish what eventually became the University of Nebraska School of Music in 1894. Kimball also organized the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, held in Omaha in 1898. This lavish fin-de-siecle World's Fair, which was seen as an important "coming of age" of Plains culture, featured members of the Chicago Symphony and the U.S. Marine Band as well as the famous black cornetist Percy Lowery. The Canadian Prairie Provinces also began developing music programs at universities, beginning with the University of Winnipeg in 1880 and followed by the Universities of Saskatoon (1907), Edmonton (1908), Regina (1911), and Calgary (1945).
The legacy of this rich musical tradition can be appreciated in the number of classical musicians born or educated in the Great Plains who became prominent during the twentieth century. Three important composers from the region helped create an American music that was more homegrown and less dependent on European classical models. Pulitzer Prize winner Howard Hanson (1896–1981) was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska. He went on to direct the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, which became one of the most prominent in the world. Hanson forged an accessible American romantic style that incorporated material reflecting his Scandinavian ancestry. Roy Harris (1898–1979), born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma, studied in Paris before composing his Third Symphony in 1939, a classic of musical populism. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, Virgil Thomson, born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1896, expressed regionalism in his operas and film scores and, as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, promoted the cause of American music.
Later composers born or active on the American Great Plains included Anthony Donato, Cecil Effinger, and Robert Beadell. All enjoyed long careers as teachers and composers. Prominent composers from the Canadian Prairie Provinces include Barbara Pentland, who studied at Juilliard before teaching at Toronto and Vancouver; Harry Freedman, who was raised in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and later became composer in residence with the Toronto Symphony; and Sydney Hodkinson, who was born in Winnipeg, later taught at Eastman and Southern Methodist University, and also directed the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
From Cowboy to Coutnry: The Importance of the Lone Star State
In spite of the European-derived Plains music described above, for most classically trained musicians, like Willa Cather's heroine in The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronenborg, the ultimate success of "making it" necessitated relocation to the East, especially New York. The unique and significant contribution of music from the Great Plains lies not in replication of an outside aesthetic but in the creation of a vital new form of American popular music that drew its strength from a mixture of European American, African American, and Latino sources. Some of the first stirrings of this truly authentic music originated on the Southern Great Plains, especially in the state of Texas. From a potent mix of Appalachian folk songs, Cajun music from nearby Louisiana, Mexican norteña, mariachi, and corridos, along with the influence of a distinctive regional African American blues, Texas musicians created or popularized a host of forms such as the cowboy song, honky-tonk, western swing, and various Tex-Mex hybrids that eventually merged into the country and western music of the late 1940s.
The cowboy, one of the most enduring of American myths, emerged from the brief period of the open-range cattle drives from 1865 to 1885 and endured because of romantic dime-novel portrayals of heroes such as Buffalo Bill Cody (1846–1917). Cowboy song lyrics began to appear in the early twentieth century. Some of the most important were collected by N. Howard "Jack" Thorpe. Thorpe, an authentic cowboy who worked in eastern New Mexico and West Texas, published an important collection of 101 cowboy songs (lyrics only) in 1921. The first recordings of cowboy songs followed in 1925. Among the initial stars of this new genre was Woodward "Tex" Ritter, who became interested in singing while a drama student at the University of Texas at Austin. His first recordings in 1933 are considered among the most authentic. Paradoxically, his famous nickname was acquired in New York while appearing on a popular radio program.
Of all the singing cowboys from Texas, the most famous was undoubtedly Gene Autry. Born on a ranch near Tioga, Texas, in 1907, Autry grew up in neighboring Oklahoma until he ran away from home to join the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show as an Al Jolson impersonator. Following some advice from Jimmie Rodgers, he adopted the cowboy persona, billing himself as Oklahoma's Yodeling Cowboy. Autry later starred in many movies that elevated him, along with his chief rival, Roy Rogers, to superstar status.
Among the other important musicians from the Lone Star State were the Traveling Troubadour, Ernest Tubb (1914–84), and fiddler Bob Wills (1905–75). Born near Kosse, Texas, Wills formed his first band, the Light Crust Doughboys, in 1931 before moving to Tulsa with his most famous group, the Texas Playboys. Wills and his band were broadcast regularly on radio station kvoo from 1934 through 1942 before moving to Hollywood to pursue a film career. Wills's music helped define an approach that became known as western swing, a hybrid style incorporating instrumental elements of jazz and blues within the country string-band tradition. Another Texan, Roy Orbison, born in the town of Vernon in 1936, became a top rockabilly star after he signed with Sun Records in 1956 before moving to Nashville. Orbison's ballad style exerted a tremendous influence on both American and British singers, including the Beatles, who opened for Orbison on his 1963 tour of England. The preeminent position of Texas country music has continued unabated with the success of the outlaws who spurned Nashville conventions, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and David Allen Coe as well as newer country groups like Asleep at the Wheel.
While only peripherally part of the cowboy tradition, mention must be made of the contributions of folksinger Woody Guthrie, the person who, perhaps more than any other, shaped American folk music. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1912, and as a young man he experienced the deprivations of the Great Depression. Taking to the road as a wandering minstrel, Guthrie created a repertoire of protest songs championing the rights of the poor and oppressed. His songs speak to the plight of migrant workers and coal miners, and he strongly supported the cause of the unions. His song "Pretty Boy Floyd" interprets the outlaw of the 1930s as a Robin Hood character, stealing from the banks and giving to the poor disenfranchised farmers. He published a collection of folk songs and an autobiography and became a major influence on later singers such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In 1961 Dylan made a pilgrimage to Guthrie's bedside in New Jersey as he lay dying from Huntington's disease, and his early composition, "Song to Woody," was his commemoration to this American original.
Black Music on the Plains
Originating at first in segregated isolation, then finally merging with white styles in the period after World War II, black music of the Great Plains developed unique and influential forms of blues, ragtime, swing, and jazz. The first major entry of African Americans onto the Plains began after the Civil War. Between 1868 and 1895 more than 5,000 black cowboys worked the ranges from Texas to Kansas. Like their white counterparts, they passed the lonely time with singing and fiddle music. These cowboy minstrels included "Big" Jim Simpson, who worked the Chisholm Trail before settling in Wyoming, and fiddlers George Washington and Sabrien Bates, who rode with Billy the Kid.
Another access for African American music onto the Great Plains occurred through regimental bands. The black Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry bands served from Texas to the Dakotas.
Emerging out of the African American band tradition was Perry George Lowery (1870-1942). Born in the Flint Hills country of eastern Kansas, Lowery was the product of a small but successful group of self-sufficient African American farmers. He began by playing drums, then switched to cornet. After studying in Boston, Lowery became known as the World's Greatest Colored Cornet Soloist and was featured at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition.
Most distinctive forms of African American music that emerged in the twentieth century were based on the blues. Blues-derived music evolved from slave field hollers and gospel music and had a major impact on jazz, country, and rock. Rooted in the South, the blues developed into several distinctive regional styles. One of these early country blues styles arose in Texas and was characterized by single-string guitar playing and a more relaxed vocal sound than found in the nearby Mississippi Delta. Male blues singers from the Plains region include Roy Brown and Amos Milburn from Texas, Robert Jeffrey and Lemuel Johnson from Oklahoma, and "Gatemouth" Moore from Topeka, Kansas. Two important female blues artists, both from Kansas City, Kansas, were Hattie "Hi Hat" McDaniel and Ada Brown (a cousin of ragtime composer James Scott). McDaniel later moved to Hollywood and became a film star in 1939, when she was awarded the first Academy Award ever given to an African American for her role in Gone with the Wind.
Note should also be made here of another great musician from the Southern Plains who began as a blues guitarist before moving east and almost single-handedly defining the electric guitar as a jazz solo instrument. Charlie Christian, from Bonham, Texas, recorded with Benny Goodman from 1939 to 1941 and also played in with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. Christian created a clean, linear style that became the model for most later jazz guitar players. He died from tuberculosis in 1942 at the age of twenty-five.
The blues also was the basis of a new type of piano music that developed in the Great Plains region. Dubbed boogie-woogie, Texas barrelhouse, or honky-tonk, this exciting style featured a steadfast, rocking bass line synchronized under tremolos and triplets in the right hand. These traits, especially the active bass line, became prominent in later Kansas City jazz, urban blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Complete with melody, harmony, and bass, blues piano was a self-sufficient music machine, able to provide solo entertainment for dances at roadhouses and private parties. One variation was the house rent party, when guests, for a small fee to help pay a month's rent, would be treated to good food and piano music. Plains pianists included Sammy Price, Pete Johnson, and Jay McShann. At the time of writing, McShann, in his eighties, is still active and a consummate master of virtually every classic jazz piano idiom.
Beginning after World War I and continuing throughout the 1920s until their decline during the Depression, territory bands flourished in the Great Plains. Stated simply, a territory band is an ensemble based in an outlying area, where sparse population necessitated traveling great distances for social activities. Territory bands tended to monopolize the music of these regions, and, like big fish in small ponds, they enjoyed a local but not a regional reputation. Because the early recording industry was centered in the East, many of these barnstorming groups have not been preserved on vinyl; however, several future jazz and blues stars cut their teeth in territory bands. The goal of most groups was eventually to relocate to the big cities, especially Kansas City, which by the mid-1930s had become a mecca for jazz.
The musical styles of these groups, though varying considerably, involved an approach, distinct from the recorded groups in the East, that eventually became defined in the Kansas City style of the late 1930s and was also an integral component of bebop jazz, which emerged after World War II. A brash exuberance, heavily based on the blues, marked the sound of the territory bands. Using the familiar blues as a framework encouraged improvisation, and some of the arrangements were assembled on the spot without written charts. These "head arrangements" used short, repeated motifs called "riffs" that could be easily picked up by ear and that served as melodies and backgrounds behind soloists. Another ingredient of the sound of these groups was the use of syncopated ragtime rhythms. Much of ragtime was developed in nearby Missouri, especially in Sedalia, with the work of Scott Joplin. The typical instrumentation of these bands consisted of about three saxophones, three or four brass instruments, and a rhythm section of piano, guitar or banjo, bass (tuba later replacing string bass), piano, and drums. Over time, the size of the orchestra was increased with the addition of more reed and brass instruments.
One of the most important Plains territory bands was Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy, which originated in Oklahoma City and included future piano sensation Mary Lou Williams. Buster Smith's troop began in Dallas before relocating and gaining fame as the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. This legendary group included Walter Page on bass, the influential Lester Young on tenor saxophone, blues shouter Jimmy Rushing, and the great Bill "Count" Basie on piano. George Morrison's band, which dominated the Denver scene well into the 1940s, served as an apprenticeship for John Lewis (later of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Jimmy Lunceford.
The most classic synthesis of African American musical evolution on the Plains was Kansas City jazz. In the competitive struggle of the territory bands for preeminence, the band of Bennie Moten and Count Basie won the day. Moten began leading bands in the early 1920s, making his first recording in 1923. Eventually, he lured an impressive lineup away from rival bands, including Walter Page, Jimmy Rushing, trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page, and, most importantly, Count Basie, who joined Moten in 1929. During an East Coast tour, Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra recorded what many scholars feel are the first definitive swing classics. Moten died unexpectedly during minor surgery in 1935, and, after a brief hiatus, the band was reassembled with Basie as the leader. This ensemble featured Lester Young, Walter Page, Freddie Green on guitar, and Jo Jones on drums. Basie's orchestra went on to rival Duke Ellington's as the most important black ensemble of the period. Its no-nonsense, "straightahead" style is still emulated by many traditional big bands of today.
It remained for a native of Kansas City, Kansas, to complete the transformation of the territory band tradition to modern jazz. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, born in 1920, came of age during the decade of the 1940s, the golden age of Kansas City jazz. Wide-open jam sessions featuring traveling musicians provided a democratic forum for young players to learn and to prove themselves. Playing professionally by age fifteen, Parker made his first important recordings in Wichita, Kansas, in 1940 with Jay McShann's blues-based band. There he also acquired his nickname, "Yardbird" or "Bird." Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others, went on to create bebop, the first modern jazz style, combining the energy of the blues and territory bands of the Plains with the harmonic sophistication of the East Coast. Parker died in New York City in 1955, a victim of hard living.
The Plains region has proven especially fertile soil for saxophonists. These include tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, born in Kansas City, Missouri, and Herschel Evans, from Denton, Texas. Webster's deep tone was a feature of the great Ellington bands of the 1930s. Evans played with Count Basie alongside Lester Young. Later players included the iconoclastic Ornette Coleman, born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. Playing in a highly original style that combined elements of blues and bebop, Coleman helped create a new, avant-garde language for jazz in the 1960s. More recently, Dewey Redman and Julius Hemphill, both also from Fort Worth, have continued the rich tradition of Plains saxophonists.
Previously separated for the most part by segregation, the streams of black and white music began swimming together after World War II, leading directly to the rock and roll of the 1950s. The most important immediate precursor to rock was rhythm and blues. R&B (the term was first coined by Billboard Magazine in 1949) combined elements of earlier blues and gospel, big band swing and boogie-woogie, and resulted in an infectious dance music that appealed to both white and black listeners. Initially shunned by major labels, R&B was recorded by small, independent recording companies and disseminated over radio.
Important R&B artists from the Plains included Wynonie Harris and King Curtis (born Curtis Outen). Harris, born in Omaha in 1915 (or possibly 1913), began as a big band singer before making his most influential R&B recordings with King Records. King Curtis became one of R&B's most sought after saxophonists. Born in Fort Worth in 1934, he went on to record with the Coasters, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and Aretha Franklin before launching a successful solo career. He was stabbed to death in New York City in 1971.
Rockabilly and Rock and Roll
During the 1950s white musicians began combining elements of rhythm and blues with country music in a classic phase of early rock and roll known as rockabilly. The most important early rock and roll musician from the Great Plains was Buddy Holly. Charles Hardin Holley, born in 1936 in Lubbock, Texas, was one of rock's first great composers, guitarists (he helped popularize the Fender Stratocaster), vocalists, and bandleaders. He had a direct influence on many later artists, including Bob Dylan and the Beatles, whose very name is a tribute to Holly's band, the Crickets. Yet his career, cut short by a plane crash that also claimed the lives of the Big Bopper and Richie Valens, only lasted two years. Holly started out playing western swing, but after his band opened for Elvis Presley in 1957 he turned to rock and roll. Spurred on by the success of his number one hit, "That'll Be the Day," Holly and the Crickets became one of the few white bands to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Unlike his chief competitors, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, Holly's success was based more on his musicianship than on a frantic stage demeanor. Another early rock star from the Plains was Eddie Cochran, who like Holly had a spectacular brief career cut short by an accident. He was born in Oklahoma City and enjoyed his greatest success as a singer-guitarist with "Summertime Blues" in 1957. He died in an auto crash in London in 1960.
Perceived as a menace to society and incurring the envy of the major recording companies, rock and roll came under attack at the end of the 1950s, and a clean-cut, toned-down, more acceptable form of rock was created that centered on so-called teen idols. While many of them came from Philadelphia (home of the influential Dick Clark TV program American Bandstand), one of these popular singers hailed from Fargo, North Dakota. Bobby Vee got his start when his band filled in for the late Buddy Holly in Moorhead, Minnesota. His innocent songs of teenage love made him a star by the early 1960s. While hardly a teen idol, mention should be made of another popular success from North Dakota, Peggy Lee. Born in 1920 in Jamestown, Lee's long and varied career began as a vocalist with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Popular Music of the Sixties
The decade of the 1960s saw an explosion of popular music, the most important of which adopted a political and social agenda not found in the music of the previous decade. Furthermore, the music deepened in technological, compositional, and textual complexity, creating a myriad of styles that combined and reconfigured older forms. While the principal creative arenas for this activity were on the coasts and in England, some prominent rock stars of the 1960s originated in the Great Plains.
The most influential rock styles emanating from the Great Plains quite naturally reflected the region's long background in blues and country music. Buddy Miles was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1946. His early solo efforts combined R&B with psychedelic rock. He has also enjoyed a diverse career, playing with Wilson Pickett, Electric Flag, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana. Elvin Bishop, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, absorbed the Chicago blues style and played with Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band before leading his own rock band in the 1970s. Other rock musicians from the Plains include Randy Bachman, J. J. Cale, and the band reo Speedwagon. Bachman was born in Winnipeg and was a founding member of the Guess Who. After leaving the band, he went on to form Bachman-Turner Overdrive, which reaped immense success and helped to define a middle ground between the emerging heavy rock of the mid-1970s and more conventional rock idioms. J. J. Cale, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a prolific country-blues- rock singer-songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Just as rock dipped into country music for new fusion possibilities, progressive country purposefully incorporated rock elements to broaden its fan base. Delbert McClinton, born in Lubbock in 1940, has recorded in blues and country styles. Closer to the country style are such well-known performers as John Denver (born in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1943) and Tanya Tucker (born in Seminole, Texas, in 1958). Garth Brooks, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1962, became country's biggest star of the 1990s. Influenced by diverse bands such as Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Styx, combined with traditional models such as Hank Williams Sr. and Lefty Frizzell, Brooks's music appealed to crossover fans of both country and rock. Listed by Billboard Magazine as the top grossing country artist from 1991 to 1993, Brooks led the way in creating a new eclectic style and confirmed country's position as the most popular musical genre in America.
Another fusion music developing in the Southern Plains reflects a Latino, Tex-Mex heritage. Joe "King" Carrasco was born in Dumas, Texas, and began working in the Austin area in 1973 performing what he calls "nuevo wavo," a combination of rock, Chicano polkas, and new wave. Brave Combo, also from Texas, blends polka, rock, salsa, and other Latin styles to create a quirky, iconoclastic mix. Both Carrasco and Brave Combo, while enjoying regional fame, have yet to achieve national attention.
Combining the improvisation of bebop with the rhythms and amplified instruments of blues and rock, jazz rock (or fusion) became an important direction in the 1970s. Two Plains bands reflecting two different approaches to fusion are Kansas and Mannheim Steamroller. Kansas, formed in Topeka in 1970, began as a high school garage band before evolving into an ornate art rock ensemble, utilizing classical and jazz elements. Chip Davis and his synthesized Mannheim Steamroller came out of Omaha and have maintained a large following through a commercial, formulaic mix of New Age and fusion patterns.
Although relatively few in number, singersongwriters from the Canadian Plains exerted their special influence on mainstream popular music. Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree Indian, was born in Saskatchewan in 1941. She became the first popular Native American musician, recording extensively from 1964 to 1981. An activist for Native peoples' rights, she also appeared on the children's TV program Sesame Street from 1976 to 1981. Joni Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alberta, in 1943, began performing while a student at Alberta College of Art in Calgary. Mitchell emerged as a distinctive voice in midsixties folk rock with her sophisticated confessional lyrics sung in a unique recitative style. Continuing to evolve, she has incorporated jazz elements and world music into her repertoire. The controversial k. d. lang (Katheryn Dawn Lang) was raised on a farm in Consort, Alberta, in 1962. lang (she prefers the lower case) studied classical piano and guitar before turning to country music with a style partly modeled on that of Patsy Cline. She was voted vocalist of the year by >Rolling Stone Magazine in 1983 and achieved international recognition with her performance at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Her open lesbianism and activity as a spokesperson for the "antimeat" movement have imbued recordings such as All You Can Eat (1995) with the kind of controversy associated more with rock than country music.
Another seminal figure from the Canadian Plains, one who has defied categorization by covering a variety of rock idioms during his career, is Neil Young. Born in Toronto in 1945, Young moved to Winnipeg when he was fifteen before moving to California in 1966, where he helped form the rock band Buffalo Springfield. An ensuing solo career that has lasted to the present day was punctuated by a stint with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, including an appearance at Woodstock. One of the most enduring and consistently creative of the 1960s generation of rock stars, Young has turned out more than fifty albums, ranging in style from acoustic ballads to country rock and especially hard rock.
The Great Plains region continues to provide a nurturing environment for young musicians: Melissa Etheridge from Leavenworth, Kansas, Matthew Sweet from Lincoln, Nebraska, and Reba McIntire out of McAlester, Oklahoma, are among the most recent in this distinguished parade of artists. The winds that have eavesdropped on so much diverse music still blow unimpeded through the Great Plains, but today this music is no longer lost to the open spaces. Classical music, no longer an imported product from Europe or the East Coast, flourishes in universities and in symphony and opera companies. Community bands with summer concerts in the park as well as the polka bands of the Sokol Halls and roadhouses are still found in numerous Czech, Swedish, and German communities and help maintain a sense of cultural continuity. New country music, especially on the Southern Plains, continues to combine and reinvent itself, while blues and jazz are studied and preserved in schools and community ensembles and played in venues throughout the region. The underground rock scene prospers in college communities, and, perhaps most significantly, given its longevity, Native American music is alive and evolving while still maintaining its ties to tradition.
See also AFRICAN AMERICANS: Christian, Charlie; Coleman, Ornette; Harris, Wynonie; McDaniel, Hattie; McShann, Jay / FILM: Autry, Gene / NATIVE AMERICANS: Powwows / RELIGION: Black Elk, Nicholas; Ghost Dance; Native American Church; Vision Quest.
Randall L. SnyderUniversity of Nebraska-Lincoln
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