Who is on your Mt. Rushmore of American Music?

Who is on your Mt. Rushmore of American Music?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – You’ve heard the question asked before: “Who would be on your MT. Rushmore of…”

Often times we’re talking about sports. Other times it’s an individual genre of music or another platform of pop culture like filmmakers or authors.

The actual Mount Rushmore was created over a 13 year period from 1927 to 1941 by sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The four presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – were chosen to represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of America.For our experiment, we applied those virtues to American music. Emphasis on the AMERICAN part.

We’re dealing with artists who were born in the U.S.A. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, David Bowie, Eric Clapton and The Clash are all out. The same goes for The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who were all born in Canada. And sorry Bob Marley, U2, Carlos Santana and others.

Another important thing you have to keep in mind is that Mt. Rushmore is about individuals, not bands. So, in choosing the four American musicians on our Mt. Rushmore, we are picking four people.

When you’re talking American music, you have to start with the blues. It’s the genre that served as the foundation for rock and roll, R&B, funk, soul, jazz, electric blues, boogie woogie and so much more. Before we can even begin to discuss artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis and just about anyone, we have to start here.

The origins of blues bring about names like Bill Broonzy, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Son House and others. Meanwhile, Muddy Waters and B.B. King are probably the two artists most music fans think of when they hear the term blues.But our pick from the genre is the man known as the grandfather of blues. Robert Johnson was the building block for rock and roll and all its sub genres. The music that gained popularity during the 1960s, from Chuck Berry to The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, starts with Johnson’s unprecedented combination of powerful vocals and guitar skill.

Blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson in 1935 in Memphis, Tenn.

The Plain Dealer Archives

Blues guitarist and singer Robert Johnson in 1935 in Memphis, Tenn.

Our next step is an obvious one. Jazz has been called one of American’s only (if not the only) true art forms. It’s the American version of classical music.

Choosing one jazz musician presents its own challenges. There are several to consider, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

But perhaps none of them could have succeeded without Louis Armstrong. When most people think of jazz, they think of Davis. But the aforementioned virtues of “birth, growth, development and preservation” scream Armstrong. He is the cornerstone of American’s greatest original art form.

Louis 'Satchmo' ('Satchelmouth') Armstrong (1900 - 1971).

Getty Images

Louis ‘Satchmo’ (‘Satchelmouth’) Armstrong (1900 – 1971).

Next, we turn to rock and roll, the genre that brought jazz, gospel, blues, folk, country music, swing and boogie-woogie together to produce what’s been the centerpiece of popular music in the United States for more than 50 years.In deciding the most important American rock and roll artist of all time, you have to go back to the pioneers of the 1950s. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Ike Turner and others come to mind.

In the end, we were left with the biggest star in rock and roll history, Elvis Presley, and the man considered the archetype for modern rock and roll, Chuck Berry.

There’s no wrong answer here. But it’s hard not to choose Elvis Presley, the man who every performer and icon in rock and roll history is measured against. Rock and roll would never have taken off if not for Presley’s rise to stardom.

Elvis Presley, the King of Rock 'n' Roll.


Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Before we reveal our final choice for the Mt. Rushmore of American music, we should address the fact that we don’t have any women on our monument.

You could make cases for Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Patsy Cline and several others. For us, Billie Holiday came the closest for her contributions to jazz and the art of singing overall. But we could only choose four and those four happened to be men.

We also shied away from more contemporary artists like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna or even Kurt Cobain. Did they do enough to rise above influencers that came before them? It’s the same debate you might have in choosing Tom Brady over Johnny Unitas for the Mt. Rushmore of sports.

We opted for the building blocks of American music. And perhaps the most important building block we have yet to touch on is American folk music.

If we were going with the start of the genre, we’re talking Lead Belly. If you’re thinking in terms of influence, then Jimmie Rodgers deserves consideration. Then there’s folk music’s first huge star, Woody Guthrie.

But the face of folk music probably always will be Bob Dylan, who modernized the genre by becoming its biggest star during the the peak of the folk music revival during the 1960s.

If Dylan’s legend stopped there, we might have chosen someone like Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, or Ray Charles for the final spot on our Mt. Rushmore. But Dylan is called America’s poet laureate for a reason. He is one of the most important figures in pop culture of the last half century and, arguably, the greatest American musician of all time.

Bob Dylan performs during his Rolling Thunder tour in 1976.


Bob Dylan performs during his Rolling Thunder tour in 1976.

Before we wrap things up, we want to remind you: This is just one person’s opinion. There are so many artists to consider for a Mt. Rushmore of American music. We haven’t even mentioned Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder or Hank Williams.

That’s why your opinion matters! Share your Mt. Rushmore of American music with us in the comments section. We will reveal the four most popular acts later this week.