By the early 1950s jazz had lost some of its appeal to a mass audience. A new form of pop music, rock and roll, evolved from rhythm and blues: songs with strong beats and provocative lyrics. To make the new music more acceptable to a mainstream audience, white performers and arrangers began to “cover” rhythm and blues songs – singing them with a toned down beat and revised lyrics. At the beginning of his career, Elvis Presley covered black singers. One of his first big hits was Hound Dog, which had been sung by blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Soon, however, Presley was singing original material, supplied by a new breed of rock and roll songwriters.
A challenge to rock appeared in the form of folk music. Folk music was based largely on ballads brought over from Scotland, England, and Ireland; it had been preserved in such enclaves as the mountains of North Carolina and West Virginia. Bob Dylan extended the reach of folk music by writing striking new songs that addressed contemporary social problems, especially the denial of civil rights to black Americans. The division between the two camps, rock enthusiasts and folk purists, came to a head when Dylan was booed for accompanying himself on electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Far from being deterred, Dylan led virtually the entire folk movement into a blend of rock and folk. This merger was a watershed event, setting a pattern that holds true to this day. Rock remains the prevalent pop music of America – and much of the rest of the world – largely because it can assimilate almost any other kind of music, along with new varieties of showmanship, into its strong rhythmical framework.
Like folk, country music descends from the songs brought to the United States from England, Scotland, and Ireland. The original form of country music, called “old-time” and played by string bands, can still be heard at festivals held each year in many southern states. Modern country music developed in the 1920s, roughly coinciding with a mass migration of rural people to big cities in search of work. Like many other forms of American pop music, country lends itself easily to a rock-and-roll beat, and country rock has been yet another successful music merger.