Where does American music come from? Listening to some Irish reels recently, and then hearing Alison Krauss on A Prairie Home Companion, I was struck by the obvious similarity: just a little shift in rhythmic emphasis, and Scotch-Irish folk music becomes Appalachian bluegrass. At the same time, the recent passing of Ali Farka Toure, the great Malian guitarist, has put a lot of his music onto the airwaves, reminding us that the roots of American blues can still be found in West Africa.
But there’s another piece to the puzzle of American music, one that gets less credit than either Scotch-Irish folk or West African traditions. Without this piece, American music would never have developed its brassy, big-band sound. The third great component of American music is Oompah.
More broadly, the third point on the American musical triangle is Germanic brass-band music and its relatives, in the broad category of polka. According to the Wikipedia entry on brass bands, they “were developed early in the 19th century in Prussia, when all military and government bands were issued the new technology of rotary valve instruments and instructed to use standard tuning.” That’s just slightly late to have been brought over by the Hessians, the German mercenaries employed by the British in the Revolutionary War, but not too late to have been brought by the waves of German immigrants who followed. By the 1790 census, Germans constituted 9 percent of white Americans, while far larger numbers of Germans would arrive in the middle of the 19th century, bringing their musical traditions with them.
I don’t happen to have much in the way of oompah or polka music because, well, it sucks. Mostly. In the right hands, though, any kind of music can come alive, and Gogol Bordello, a New York City “Gypsy punk” band, many of whose members hail from Eastern Europe, manages to play in polka rhythms with rip-roaring grit and fire. More videos and music is available on their website.