Let The Music Play
Black people have contributed so much to American popular music that June is designated Black Music Month. Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, this month celebrates the African American musical influences that comprise an essential part of our nation’s treasured cultural heritage. We couldn't possibly tell the whole musical story here. This is just a taste of what the evolution of Black music has brought to the global music scene.
Day 13 - M is for the Music
A spiritual is a type of religious folksong, most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. In Africa, music was central to people's lives. Music making permeated important life events and daily activities. White colonists of America were alarmed by and frowned upon the slaves' African-infused way of worship; they considered it idolatrous and wild. As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes.
The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the 18th century. Many spirituals, or "sorrow songs," are intense, slow and melancholic, and describe the slaves' struggles and identification with the suffering of Jesus Christ. Famous spirituals include Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, composed by a Wallis Willis, and Go Down Moses. The African American or Negro spiritual is one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong.
Lead Belly By Dan Spoul
The Blues' originated as a style of local folk music from around the Mississippi Delta as the 20th Century began. Its influence was spread across the Southern States by travelling shows and 'wandering songsters' like Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who sang Blues songs along with folk ballads, spirituals and Ragtime ditties, and both used Blues forms in their own compositions in their later recording careers.
In 1920, the first Blues song was recorded by Mamie Smith, and when 'Crazy Blues' sold close to a million copies all the record companies looked for their own Blues Diva. The greatest of these Divas was Bessie Smith, inspired by her mentor Ma Rainey, and she was a rôle model for many female Blues stars to follow.
Rhythm and Blues
1970s Rhythm and Blues alone could fill several volumes. The bands, the vocal groups, and the sisters with voices - Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan- all contributed to what is often called the golden age of RnB. The music was a natural evolution and fusion of Black music that came before it. Other genres like funk, disco, and house music grew from it. Before it was RnB, it was soul music, an appropriate description. Whether a smooth love ballad or a throbbing dance track, true RnB touches your soul. No one did it better than Motown.
James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder added social conscience with Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, What's Goin' On, and Innervisions. There was no confusing one singer for another; they all had a unique style and they could all sing, with just a stage and a microphone. RnB reaches and touches people in a way other forms of music don't. You're not likely to hear The Beatles at a Black wedding, but you're likely to hear Kool and the Gang's Celebration at any wedding. That's the power of Black music and Black voices.
Parliament Funkadelic c. 1978 (Click the pic for P-Funk)
Funk might be described as RnB with an attitude. Two men are primarily responsible for the rise of Funk: "The Godfather of Funk," James Brown and "Dr. Funkenstein," George Cllinton. When Brown released the hard hitting Cold Sweat in 1967, he opened the door for Sly and the Family Stone, and the fully funky albums produced by Clinton's bands Parliament and Funkadelic. Other funk bands like Kool & The Gang, The Ohio Players, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and Earth, Wind & Fire saw major success in the years that followed.
Musically, the foundation of Funk is what James Brown called "The One," the first beat of a bar. Funk is aggressive, driven by hard syncopated bass lines and drumbeats and accented by any number of instruments involved in rhythmic counterplay, all working toward a “groove.” Artists like Rick James and Prince emerged in the late 70s and scored some of funks biggest hits, including James' Super Freak and Give It To Me Baby and Prince's early albums, Prince and Dirty Mind. By the end of the 80s, funk bands began to disappear, but much of RnB still follows Brown's blueprint, on the one.
Rick James c. 1981
Where did jazz originate? Jazz originated in New Orleans in the second half of the 19th century. Jazz is often thought of as being founded on the musical traditions of West Africa (rhythm, “feel”, blues) and Europe (harmonic chords, variety of instruments). Early jazz also incorporated church hymns, slave songs, field chants, and cuban-style rhythm.
However, jazz didn’t get it’s big break until the 1890s when “ragtime," a precursor to jazz, started to catch the ear of white Americans. The most famous of the artists at the time was Scott Joplin who composed 44 original ragtime pieces before his death in 1917. It was around this time that other artists started to add in improvisation to the sound, a crucial component of what would become modern jazz.
In the 1940s, New York musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey developed a jazz subgenre called bebop. This style of music involved lightning fast playing, prolific soloing over chord changes, and routine syncopation.
Post-bebop (or post-bop) slowed down the tempo and added harmonic sophistication. Musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis cut their teeth in bebop but became better known for their post-bop compositions. Davis developed a genre called cool jazz, which emphasized slower tempos, more minimal textures, and modal playing.
Rock N' Roll
Yes. Rock N' Roll too. Richard "Little Richard" Penniman will be the first to tell you that he is "the creator, the originator" of Rock N' Roll, even though we don't tend to think of it as Black music. He also acknowledged the influence of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973), the "Mother of Rock and Roll."
She was a talented electric guitarist, who combined blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie into a loud, flamboyant, virtuoso style that only later would be called “rock and roll”. Today's rock music has its roots in rhythm and blues. Rock legends Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones all acknowledge the influence of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
"Rap Music is one of the most popular musical forms in the world. Its reach and longevity have been much greater that most expected when it was a New York City street phenomenon in the late 1970s. Although no single individual can claim credit for the founding of rap music or the hip hop culture, New York DJ (disc-jockey) Kool Herc is generally considered the most important figure in the early years of the genre. As a DJ, Kool Herc would sample the danceable parts of jazz and funk records, typically the parts featuring drums and a consistent rhythm. Kool Herc also spoke and rhymed over the songs he played, which was one of the earliest versions of rapping.
Rap music did not consistently do well commercially until Run D.M.C. released its debut album in 1983. Rap music continues to be controversial and draws a wide range of critics both within and outside the African American community. Even if many Americans consider rapping and hip-hop culture detrimental to American culture at large, their complaints are largely lost upon a now nearly thirty year old culture which accepts rapping as a legitimate art form. In 2007 hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first rap group elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
Missy Misdemeanor Elliott, Rapper/Producer
Since the beginning, women have been powerful voices in rap. Roxanne Shante, MC Lyte, Salt N Pepa and Queen Latifah all contributed to the evolution of rap through the 1980's. Among the most prolific and innovative is Missy Ellliott, whose unique style and versatility, along with some of the most dynamic music videos ever produced, have made her a hip hop icon.
Disco gets a bad rap, but the whole world was enthralled by it for much of the 1970s. Donna Summer was the undisputed Queen of Disco. Her original 16 minute version of Love to Love You Baby set dance floors ablaze. The band Chic delivered the classics Le Freak and Good Times, which was the song sample that gave life to the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight. Diana Ross, of course, came from Motown and cannot be called a "disco artist," but she lent her superstar power to the genre with the classics Love Hangover, The Boss, and I'm Coming Out, which became an anthem for the LGBTQ community. Disco supposedly died at the end of the decade, but the dancing, and the music, go on forever.
MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC
- Library of Congress: African American Spirituals
- All About Blues Music
- What is Jazz? The History and the Sound of Jazz
- Tell It Like It Is: A History of Rhythm and Blues
- Black Past: Rap/Hip Hop
- Disco: A Complete History
- Celebrating Black Music Month
Click Here for Day 14 - N is for The National Pan-Hellenic Council