When the curtain rose on Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the Apollo Theater in 1957, the cheering audience was stunned into silence. The African Americans who filled Harlem's most famous theater had expected the band to be black. Years later, according to the documentary, Muscle Shoals, Paul Simon called Al Bell at Stax records and said, "Hey man, I want those same black players that played on 'I'll Take You There'."
"That can happen," Bell replied, "but these guys are mighty pale."
"These guys" were the Swampers, a group of north Alabama country boys.
"We didn't expect them to be as funky or as greasy as they were," Aretha Franklin remembered.
American music has been one of the most unifying forces in our history, transcending differences that have polarized the country. In a recent lecture on "Gershwin, Ellington and the Search for an American Sound", Georgetown professor Anna Celenza described a music, anchored in folk, blues and gospel, that has sprung from the lives of Americans, both black and white, and mostly poor. It influenced not only Gershwin ("Rhapsody in Blue") and Ellington ("Symphony in Black"), but such classical composers as Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Antonin Dvorak, the Czech native whose use of folk melodies had a huge impact on American music.
"They saw music as a way of creating community," said Celenza, and I like to think of the American Sound as the bedrock of our sprawling culture, creating harmonies in a land that seems elsewhere discordant and fragmenting.