America's Musical Heritage

In partnership with
Professor Anthony Seeger, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles
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Course No. 7244
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine why the idea of "home" was so integral to the enduring power of war-time songs in America.
  • Unearth the roots of vaudeville acts, considered more sophisticated and proper than burlesque acts.
  • Learn about the vocal style of "pushups" that serve as a distinct hallmark of powwow songs.
  • Explore the creation and evolution of banjos, sometimes referred to as America's musical instrument.
  • Investigate how regions of the United States have influenced musical styles like jazz and country.

Course Overview

You can understand a lot about America through its music. Hymns, spirituals, protest songs, campaign themes—music has always played a powerful role in American life. And befitting a country so diverse, American music is defined, above all else, by a creative mixing of styles and instruments, and a constant inventiveness.

From vaudeville and jazz to country music and blues, hearing the sounds of the American spirit is a truly unique way to appreciate centuries of the nation’s history in all its complexity. American music, according to Professor Anthony Seeger, has been a part of the religions Americans practice, the wars they’ve fought, the regions in which they’ve lived and worked, and the communal celebrations they’ve enjoyed. It’s an eclectic soundtrack that taps into the core of what it means to live in America, and it’s a soundtrack to which musicians in the 21st century remain indebted.

In America’s Musical Heritage, learn how to hear the music of America with new ears. Produced in collaboration with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings—the Grammy Award-winning record label of the Smithsonian Institution featuring a vast treasury of American vernacular music—these 12 lectures explore more than 200 years of music that will reveal a different side of the American experience. Professor Seeger traces the origins of the American music industry; the impact of instruments like the piano and the banjo; and the myriad ways music has shaped American wars, dances, elections, and public demonstrations. You’ll also hear informative interviews and eclectic performances from scholar-musicians, and sample original recordings that reflect the incredible richness of the American musical experience. Through the music and stories of trailblazers like Scott Joplin, the Memphis Jug Band, Woody Guthrie, and many others, you’ll hear an unforgettable story of American cultural innovation.

Uncover the Power of American Music

At the heart of America’s Musical Heritage is the idea that music and society are constantly intertwined. Music in the United States has been shaped by centuries of human interaction and musical encounters, from the traditions of Indigenous peoples and the influence of European empires that first staked their claim on North America to political struggles for the rights of women, workers, and other disenfranchised groups.

Professor Seeger’s lectures uncover the power of music to teach us new insights into America’s past and present.

  • Music and Colonialism: The territory we call the United States combined pre-existing musical heritages from both European and Indigenous communities, resulting in a tapestry of sound. For example, local music groups would play arrangements of European orchestral works such as Handel’s “Water Music”; the song “Farewell France” became an appropriate sentiment for residents of French Louisiana after Napoleon sold the region to the United States in 1803; and Indigenous peoples were often trained as musicians and composers in the large cathedrals of what is now Mexico.
  • Music and War: Ever since the American Revolution, music has always been a part of military life—and civilian life, as well; some of the nation’s best-known songs emerged during armed conflicts. During the Civil War, songs were important to both sides. The minimum salary for field musicians in the Union army was around $17 per month (more than a private’s pay). And Southern states stressed the importance of music in trying to establish a new country, particularly through songs that included “I’m Going Home to Dixie,” “The Flag of Secession,” and “God Save the South.” Both sides sang “Home Sweet Home.”

  • Music and Faith: Religious diversity in America produced numerous styles of singing and dancing that reflected not just major faiths but also the spiritual nature of specific regions and locales. Ring shouts were a specific type of folk spiritual in which worshippers moved around a ring, accompanied by singing, handclapping, and stamping. These ring shouts are still performed in some small rural churches in the South, as well as on the small islands along the coast between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.
  • Music and Hope: It’s impossible to ignore the centuries of oppression and disenfranchisement that remain a part of the American story. Even still, music was often a source of hope and inspiration for minority groups. African-American religious music was a wellspring for music of political struggle in the United States. Certain gospel songs and spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” gradually transformed over time into anthems for legal and social change through lawful intervention.

Survey Unforgettable Styles and Songs

At its core, America’s Musical Heritage is a wonderful appreciation of how distinctly American styles of music came to life and captured the ears, hearts, and bodies of millions of listeners. Throughout Professor Seeger’s lectures, you’ll discover how music in America developed not in a linear fashion, but rather through the adoption and reinvention of earlier forms and regional genres.

Some of the many musical styles you’ll survey in this course include:

  • Brass Bands, which in the post-Civil War years served as a badge of honor for towns and cities across the nation;
  • Powwows, which were public music events held by the Indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada, and which could last anywhere from one day to an entire week;
  • Country Music, whose performers often wear cowboy hats inspired by popular films featuring singing cowboys, sometimes called “horse operas”;
  • Ragtime, which synthesized African syncopation with European classical structure and harmony, and which often included elements of marches and church hymns; and
  • Jazz, which brought new opportunities, attention, and prestige to performers with its emphatic focus on musical improvisation and interpretation.
  • You’ll also learn the secret histories of songs you might be familiar with—as well as ones you’ve never heard before, including:
  • “The President’s March,” initially written to honor President-elect George Washington in 1789 and reworked in 1789 into the song, “Hail, Columbia!,” which would become the informal national anthem of the United States for much of the 1800s;
  • “Amazing Grace,” a powerful example of the sort of plain, direct hymns that tugged the hearts of Americans seeking spiritual guidance, and which became very popular in the closing years of the Second Great Awakening;
  • “Bo Weevil,” a minstrel song by African-American musician Pink Anderson which served as a comic take on the impudence of an insect pest that damaged the lives of Southern cotton farmers; and
  • “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem sometimes criticized for being too simple and optimistic, but which nevertheless became adopted around the world by disenfranchised groups.

New Musical Avenues to Explore

Every musical selection in America’s Musical Heritage comes from the collection of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and includes the talent of well-known artists and lesser-known professionals alike. At the end of every lecture, you’ll find a list of music played during the lecture, as well as playlists of additional listening suggestions.

In nearly every lecture, Professor Seeger is joined by other musicians, scholars, and specialists who demonstrate musical instruments (such as the banjo and piano) and help further explain the richness of American musical genres.

“Your musical heritage is shaped by the music of the communities you identify with,” says Professor Seeger. “I hope you’ll come to appreciate your heritage—and that of others who live in the United States—more than ever before.”

With America’s Musical Heritage, Professor Seeger has crafted a rich and rewarding course that offers new ways for you to experience both music and American social history. You’ll discover new tunes to hum, new rhythms to tap your feet to, and new musical avenues to explore on your own.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Inheriting America's Musical Traditions
    Use classic children's music-everything from jump rope rhymes to lullabies-as a fascinating window into America's musical traditions and how they open up a plethora of musical doors and memories. Also, get an introduction to some of the many incredible treasures contained in the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings series. x
  • 2
    American Revolutionary and Wartime Music
    American music has shaped the meaning of war, making it a more shared experience. Take a closer listen to music from the Revolutionary War (The President's March") and the Civil War ("I'm Going Home to Dixie"), as well as anti-war songs including "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."" x
  • 3
    European Empires and American Music
    The United States is built on a foundation of pre-existing musical heritages from people who were already in North America before the nation was born. Survey the musical traditions of the British, French, and Spanish empires, as well as influence from Indigenous groups-some of which still endure to this day. x
  • 4
    Minstrel Shows and Variety Shows
    In this lecture, Professor Seeger wrestles with the development of American minstrel shows in the 1830s, with their roots in slavery and racial stereotypes. Then, he reveals how these problematic shows laid the groundwork for other musical traditions, including circuses, medicine shows, and the popular entertainment known as vaudeville. x
  • 5
    Music of American Movement and Dance
    From square dances (the official state dance in over 20 states) to the waltz (one of America's earliest dance crazes), investigate the relationship between movement and music in the United States. Discover how the human body can synchronize itself to an external rhythm-a response known as rhythmic entrainment. x
  • 6
    Hymns, Spirituals, and Chants in America
    Examine the main strands of religious music in the United States. Among the many you'll look at are spirituals (both European and African variations); religious chants from Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim traditions; and ring shouts and shape-note singing. Also, spend time with popular compositions like Northfield" and "Amazing Grace."" x
  • 7
    Brass Bands, Powwows, and Folk Festivals
    How does music bring like-minded people together? In this lecture, turn to three traditions of voluntary, public music in America: brass bands, powwows, and folk music festivals. Learn how each tradition-despite their unique sounds and histories-offers fellowship, reinforces bonds, and helps foster a sense of communal history. x
  • 8
    American Music of Politics and Protest
    In the United States, the ties between music and political and protest movements are deep and long-standing. Here, explore political parodies known as zipper songs" and iconic songs about disenfranchised women, workers, and African-Americans, including "Bread and Roses," "Solidarity Forever," and "We Shall Overcome."" x
  • 9
    The Banjo: An African Gift to American Music
    Follow the story of the banjo, a musical instrument whose development is intertwined with larger American themes of slavery, conflict, struggle, ingenuity, and musical inventiveness. Plus, learn how musical instruments change shape and sound, and deepen your understanding of the ways we interpret cultural and musical ownership today. x
  • 10
    The Roots of Country Music in America
    Visit the Appalachian region of the Southeast and unearth the roots of country music" (a term that wasn't used until the 1950s) in mountain "hillbilly" music. Along the way, consider some of the many tropes of this genre of music, exemplified by a song from 1947 called "Goodbye, Old Paint."" x
  • 11
    American Piano, Ragtime, and Early Jazz
    From concert pianos to player pianos, explore the inner workings of one of music's most iconic instruments and its many variations. Then, witness the power of the piano in ragtime music (including Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag") and its role in the emergence of jazz, one of America's most thrilling musical forms." x
  • 12
    The Musical Gumbo of New Orleans
    What makes the city of New Orleans more musically extraordinary than other American cities? The answer: a rare combination of distinct musical and cultural influences coming together in one place. Professor Seeger closes out this course with an appreciation of the importance of place in American music. x

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  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

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Course Guidebook Details:
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  • Charts & diagrams
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  • Questions & answers

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Your professor

Anthony Seeger

About Your Professor

Anthony Seeger, PhD
University of California, Los Angeles
Anthony Seeger is a Curator and Director Emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Additionally, he is a Distinguished Professor of Ethnomusicology Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. Born into a musical family, he is also an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, audiovisual archivist, record producer, and amateur musician. Professor Seeger received his BA in Social Relations from Harvard University and his...
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