American Experience

Music Feeds the Soul

The diversity of America is found in its music and musicians. The best expressions of the country’s race, religion and culture are found in the sheet music, records, cassette tapes and CDs over the last 240 years. American music and its evolution started long before the revolution.

From American Indian melodies, fife and drum marches, spirituals, soul, R&B, blues, and disco to hip hop, rock and roll, rap, country and of course, jazz, there is a sound for everyone. I learned this at an early age as the son of a music teacher and student of the piano, saxophone, bassoon and drum set. (Sadly, my world-class drumming career was cut short when patience for the drum set practicing was short-lived in my house).

With the musical tastes of the Founding Fathers and Mothers, slavery, prohibition and wars, every key moment in our nation’s history has its own music. It can evoke a time of fondness or sadness. It can symbolize collective triumph or personal tragedy. If you heard the famous theme music of the Olympics, what moment(s) would you immediately think of?

U.S. history is no different with many iconic musical moments. Who could forget the famous meet-and-greet between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, President George W. Bush presenting Aretha Franklin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or a young Bob Dylan singing at the March on Washington in 1963? And it was at a White House event when Lin-Manuel Miranda tried out a tune from “Hamilton” long before his Broadway fame.

So this week, dust off your record player, 8-track player, or Walkman and get nostalgic for the music that captures the spirit, diversity and events that made America.

Patrick Madden
Executive Director
National Archives Foundation

The Great Jazz Legends

Jazz emerged as a major form of musical expression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its influence can be felt and heard throughout American history. The National Archives holds an incredible number of jazz-related records, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman to Lionel Hampton. Records even tell the tale of Hampton’s illustrious time serving as the “Ambassador of Goodwill” on his Far East tour in the 60s. Jazz became even more important during this time as he used it to bridge gaps across cultures; everyone could speak the same language of jazz.

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The Right to Sing

Renowned American contralto singer, Marian Anderson, was no stranger to concerts after performing throughout the U.S. and Europe since 1925. But after Howard University petitioned to use the Daughters of the American Revolution music hall for a concert with Anderson, their request was denied because the singer was black and they had an all-white performer policy. This gained national attention when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in. Instead of the music hall, Anderson ended up performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 and becoming an important figure in the fight for equality among African-American artists.

Peace, Love, and… Nature Calls?

The Woodstock Music Festival brought together nearly 400,000 people to see 32 different acts. The “3 Days of Peace and Music” solidified the counterculture generation and was a high point for 1960s youth culture. But with so many people gathered in one place, you can imagine some logistical snafoos ensued. One such instance lasted for years after the concert. Read about the stinky situation here.

A Guitar Like No Other

Coming from a musically-inclined family in Genoa, Italy, young Pasquale Taraffo felt the call to follow in his family’s footsteps. Beginning with guitar concerts, Taraffo eventually graduated to the harp guitar––an interesting looking device with fourteen strings that had to be mounted on a pedestal. The virtuoso brought his music to many world tours, where he even ended up in the United States on more than one occasion.

British Invasion

John, Paul, George and Ringo rocked the nation and the world in the 1960s, impacting America’s youth and counterculture and popularizing British culture in the United States. Check out this clip from the Beatles’ roaring welcome at John F. Kennedy Airport in 1964.

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