How immigrants created America's mix tape

Without the breakthroughs of blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish and others, would this country's music even exist?

  • Pin It

As immigration legislation grinds through Congress — and as immigrants are branded “illegals,” “criminals,” “anchor babies” and worse — perhaps it's time to think of this population in another light.

Not so much as individuals coming here to feed their families but as part of a larger wave of humanity that repeatedly has transformed and deepened culture in America, nowhere more than in music.

For if you subtract from our musical landscape the work of immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, you have a rather anemic sound. Jazz, blues, gospel, ragtime, spirituals, marches, Broadway show tunes, Hollywood film scores: It all ultimately derives from those who came to these shores (and their children), some by intent, others in chains.

The template for American music, a cacophonous merger of a thousand cultures thrown together like nowhere else on Earth, is built on the shoulders of immigrants. And it's not simply that they brought with them their music and cultural values: More important, they applied what they knew to a wholly unfamiliar environment, along the way conjuring radical new methods for creating music. Their work came to define the American sound and has been embraced and celebrated as such around the globe.

"The contribution of the immigrant to American music is comparable to the immigrant's contribution to the American political system," says Sterling Stuckey, a retired University of California history professor and author of the landmark book "Slave Culture" (which will be reissued in a 25th anniversary edition by Oxford University Press in the fall).

"The contribution has been immense."

And it goes back centuries. Though it's impossible to pinpoint a particular moment when immigrants began inventing American music, a dramatic turning point surely occurred in 1804, the year a young nation made the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson sought to buy from the French just the city of New Orleans, because of its crucial value as a port. But a cash-strapped Napoleon sold the entire, still-uncharted Louisiana Territory for $15 million — roughly 4 cents an acre.

In a single stroke, America became a thrilling, noisy eruption of sound.

The Louisiana Purchase "gave American music a plural nature," says Alfred Lemmon, director of the Williams Research Center of the Historic New Orleans Collection, an enormous archive of Southern culture.

Or, as Lemmon put it to me several years ago, "Before the Louisiana Purchase, everything cultural in America was pretty much focused in New England, which means it was white European musical culture. With the Louisiana Purchase, the complexion of life and music in America changed abruptly."

All at once, slave chants, African prayer, Creole songs, street music, parade music, marching bands and more rang out under the American flag. The most profound contribution came from Place Congo, today known as Congo Square, the New Orleans gathering place where slaves were allowed to convene periodically to participate in the singing, dancing, drum-beating and hand-clapping exhortations of their distant homeland.

"Upon entering the square, the visitor finds the multitude packed in groups of close, narrow circles, of a central area of only a few feet," wrote Henry Didimus in a rare eyewitness report of the slave-era ceremonies at Place Congo. "And there in the center of each circle sits the musician, astride a barrel, strong-headed, which he beats with two sticks, to a strange measure incessantly … for hours together, while the perspiration literally rolls in streams and wets the ground.

"And there, too, labor the dancers male and female, under an inspiration or possession, which takes from their limbs all sense of weariness, and gives to them a rapidity and a durability of motion that will hardly be found elsewhere outside of mere machinery."

Here was ground zero of the new American music, rooted in the ancient cultural practices of Africa but soon to morph into original, distinctly indigenous art forms.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave, wrote of spirituals that expressed "souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish," but this was just one musical byproduct of the transplantation of African culture here. In the aftermath of the Civil War, an evolving repertoire of church music, band tunes, funeral marches and ragtime flowered in America, setting the stage for blues, gospel and jazz.

Each represented a new, wholly American way of creating sound — through group improvisation, call-and-response, bending of notes, swinging rhythm — the very antithesis of formal, rigid, European music.

Blacks, Creoles, ethnic whites and others were writing new rules for how music was made in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by the 1920s Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton were sending the new music around the world from Chicago via recordings and radio broadcasts. Both early jazz giants were born in New Orleans, and both transformed the cultural legacy of black antiquity into a music recognized everywhere as distinctly American.

Their innovations would foreshadow other breakthroughs, including the blues-tinged songs of gospel pioneer Thomas A. Dorsey; the soulful, sacred-meets-secular singing of Ray Charles; the church-inspired exclamations of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin; and so many more.

Broadway, too, benefited from the largesse of black cultural innovation — ragtime piano master Eubie Blake, a son of former slaves, joining with Noble Sissle to create the breakthrough 1921 show "Shuffle Along" and others yet to come.

"I can't imagine what this music would be" without them, says David Baker, chairman of the jazz studies department of Indiana University. "Without Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, there probably never would have been a 'West Side Story.'"

Nor without the influx of European Jewish immigrants, who raised families on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and elsewhere, early in the 20th century. The most celebrated of their offspring, George Gershwin, was born Jacob Gershwine, his scores to "Porgy and Bess," "Rhapsody in Blue" and other works merging black musical technique with Russian-Jewish melodic inflections.

But Gershwin was just one of a wave of Broadway and Hollywood tunesmiths who forged a musical theater decidedly more colloquial, breezy, snappy — more American, in other words — than its European operatic counterparts. Irving Berlin (born in Russia as Israel Baline), Harold Arlen (Hyman Arluck), Jule Styne (Julius Stein), Sammy Cahn (Samuel Cohen) and others similarly brought immigrant Jewish musical culture to the stage and screen, embracing elements of jazz and all-American swing along the way.

The great songwriter Cole Porter, born and raised in Indiana, acknowledged as much, telling Richard Rodgers that he had decided to start writing "Jewish tunes."

"I laughed at what I took to be a joke," Rodgers wrote. "But not only was Cole dead serious, he did exactly that. Just hum the melody that goes with 'Only you beneath the moon or under the sun' from 'Night and Day,' or any of 'Begin the Beguine' or 'Love for Sale' or 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' or 'I Love Paris.' These minor-key melodies are unmistakably eastern Mediterranean. It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theater that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring 'Jewish' music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Ind."

And let's not forget the Hollywood composers who came here fleeing Nazism, such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (scoring Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as "The Sea Hawk"), Franz Waxman ("Sunset Boulevard" and "Rebecca") and Friedrich Hollander ("Sabrina" and "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T").

It's critical to understand, however, that the expat Jews and other Europeans who influenced American music were preceded and followed by waves of immigrants, all scraping their way up from tenements.

"The ghetto is the cradle, because the struggle is to get out of the ghetto," songwriter Cahn told Max Wilk in "They're Playing Our Song: The Truth Behind the Words and Music of Three Generations."

"In the beginning, the first waves, everything was Irish. The songs, the performers, comics — (Edward) Harrigan and (Tony) Hart, Eddie Foy, George M. Cohan, all Irish. Politicians, entertainers, writers, all Irish. …

"Next wave into the ghetto, Jewish. Same pattern emerges. Singers, performers — (Al) Jolson, (Joe) Weber and (Lew) Fields, comics, all Yiddish. Now it went to the Italians. Think hard — Italians. Performers — (Frank) Sinatra, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, (Perry) Como. Politicians, writers, gangsters, prizefighters, all Italians, all struggling to get out of the ghetto."

That's how it always has been in American life and musical culture, the sounds of immigrants rushing forward, even in classical music. The rhythms of the Caribbean course through the work of America's first great composer, the Creole pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk; jazz-age syncopations punctuate scores of Gershwin, Aaron Copland, William Schuman, Leonard Bernstein and many more.

The process came to a kind of apex in the enormous oeuvre of Duke Ellington, whose works defy categorization but embrace jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals and other facets of the immigrant experience.

"If you look at it like a stream, it's like the Mississippi River," says Gunther Schuller, the eminent American composer-scholar-author. "It just keeps spreading out. … It's what we've called the grand melting pot, and that's what it is. And you can't stop the melting."

Indeed, Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, Mexican mariachi music, South American tango and other traditions too numerous to name long have echoed in our music and continue to do so.

Why does it matter? Why should we understand that American music is predicated on the work of generations of immigrants?

"People say … we're in this post-racial period," says Monica Hairston, executive director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago.

They say, "We're past all that, since we know that things like race and ethnic differences don't matter anymore. …

"It's really the opposite. I think it's really important we keep talking about it and remind everyone.

"It's not divisive. It's our story."

As our country assesses the value of immigrants, it's a story worth remembering.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

  • Pin It

Local & National Video