Saturday, September 1, 2007

Black Music History - America

Allen L. Johnston
The Music Specialist

Has it ever occurred to you to teach a youngster WHY they make music?

It is historically known that we as a people have used music as a tool for various reasons. Upon our forced migration to this country the 2 main sources of communication among our people were removed, our tribal language and the DRUM. Our combined creativeness coupled with the need to subversively communicate among one another started the musical work song tradition. Songs that were sung to the swing of the hoe, pick or axe and helped set a pace for combined work efforts, but also allowed subversive communication between families, and plantations.

Between 1660 – 1860 one of the greatest influences upon Black music was the religion that the slave masters forced on our ancestors. As slaves our ancestors were not able to meet in any groups outside of the workforce unless it was church. The first series of hymns that slaves were legally able to sing were songs created by Dr Issac Watts of England. The poetry of Dr. Watts took the religious world of dissent by storm. It gave an utterance, till then unheard in England, to the spiritual emotions, in their contemplation of God's glory in nature and his revelation in Christ, and made hymn-singing a fervid devotional force, something that fit right in with our people. With the onset of Dr Watts hymns came the camp meetings where our music developed tambourines, banjoes and the occasional drum. From these poor beginnings came the Spirituals, music that was made to describe the feelings of a group of individuals. This music also morphed into a version of music that describes a large portion of our culture the foundation of the Blues.

After slavery two main influences helped shape the global convergence of American Black music. The first was the opening of Fisk University and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. These singers were the first internationally acclaimed group of African-American musicians who attained first recognition, then fame, and along the way, financed their school. The talented vocal artists introduced "slave songs" to the world and, in many opinions, preserved this music from extinction. The second was the creation of blues by post-slavery Blacks in Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, everywhere, which led to the first written blues, "The Memphis Blues," published in 1912, and great blues singers like MA RAINEY and BESSIE SMITH. February 14, 1920. MAMIE SMITH recorded the first major "race record," "That Thing Called Love" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," for Okeh Records. BESSIE SMITH and other artists sold a phenomenal number of records and ensured the survival of Columbia and other recording companies.

Gospel and Blues developed along very similar lines and in fact several major contributors to Black music were known to play both styles. One of the most prolific writers and performers was Thomas Dorsey. Reverend Dorsey as he was known in his later years was a composer and pianist for Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, plus he wrote some of the most performed Gospel songs in history.

In the late 1890’s a new sound was created by Blacks in Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and other places, followed by creative syntheses by great individual performers like BUDDY BOLDEN, JELLY ROLL MORTON, LOUIS ARMSTRONG and others. This was the collective creation of Jazz music. On November 11, 1925, Louis Armstrong recorded the first of the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings that defined the rhythmic and improvisational foundation of jazz. Once again music had been created that attempted to describe the emotional and spirit filled anxiety of our race.
The first all Black owned record company based in Harlem and founded in May of 1921 Black Swan Records was created by Harry Pace. Fletcher Henderson was the recording manager and played piano accompaniment, while William Grant Still was arranger and later musical director. Artists on this label included • C. Carroll Clark, baritone, made the label's first record. • Four Harmony Kings, vocal quartet • Henry Creamer and J. Turner Layton, vaudeville duo • Katie Crippen, vaudeville singer • Kemper Harreld, violinist • Revella Hughes, soprano • Alberta Hunter, blues singer • Trixie Smith, blues singer, was second only to Ethel Waters in Black Swan sales. • Florence Cole Talbert soprano • Ethel Waters, blues and pop song singer. She had the label's first commercially successful records, and remained their best seller.

This company produced several firsts that can be seen manifested today.
1. Publishing house that became a record label2. Created multiple genres of music, classical, instrumental, gospel and blues3. "Mamie Jones" was actually a pseudonym on Black Swan for singer Aileen Stanley, perhaps the only Caucasian artist to record for the label (she was "passing for colored" on these records).4. The company declared bankruptcy in December 1923. As a result, in March 1924 Paramount Records bought the Black Swan label.
White owned record companies began to recognize the demand for black artists to the point that major companies began publishing music by these performers. In addition, the Chicago Defender credited Mr. Pace with bringing major companies to begin targeting the black audience and advertising in black newspapers. Paramount discontinued the Black Swan label a short time later, but kept the artists recording under their label.

Several other advents helped Black music‘s popularity, on May 23, 1921. Shuffle Along, the first of a series of popular musicals featuring Black talent, opened at the 63rd Street Musical Hall in New York and Blacks began to invent Broadway or, at a minimum, Broadway musical culture. Two years later, on October 29, 1923, Runnin' Wild opened at Colonial Theatre on Broadway, introducing America's first dance hit, the Charleston, to the world. In 1925. PAUL ROBESON made his debut as a bass-baritone in the Greenwich Village Theatre singing the first concert consisting solely of Negro spirituals. On December 4, 1927. DUKE ELLINGTON opened at the Cotton Club, Harlem's Jim Crow musical magnet, marking the formal beginning of the Swing Age and the Age of the Big Bands of COUNT BASIE, ERKSKINE HAWKINS, JIMMY LUNCEFORD and, later, BILLY ECKSTINE. Ellington, who was arguably America's greatest composer, extended the harmonic and structural dimensions of jazz, which has been called America's classical music.
The 1930’s gave rise to an entire new era of Black Music. New Black urban migrants from the south to the north redefined church music, giving it a rhythm and passion that THOMAS DORSEY, the "Father of Gospel Music," put down on paper and SALLIE MARTIN and, later, MAHALIA JACKSON sang. In addition to inventing a name for the new sacred music of black Americans, organizing its first chorus, its first annual convention, and founding its first publishing house, Dorsey is credited with establishing the tradition of the gospel music concert.

In the 1940’s Jazz took another divergence when CHARLIE PARKER and DIZZY GILLESPIE brought their musical groups to New York's 52nd Street, inaugurating the Be-Bop age and changing the structure and harmonic foundations of modern jazz. Still Black music in all of its forms attempted to describe the feelings and spirituality of not only its creators but of its listeners as well.

The 1950’s saw an explosion of Black music, RICHARD (LITTLE RICHARD) PENNIMAN recorded "Tutti Frutti," and CHUCK BERRY recorded "Maybelline," followed by other recordings by Black artists (BIG MAYBELLE, WILSON PICKETT and others) who influenced the Beatles and Elvis Presley and played major roles in the development of rock `n' roll. SAM COOKE, a well-known gospel singer, crossed over into what some then called "rhythm and blues," recording "You Send Me," which marked the beginning of soul music. MILES DAVIS recorded “Kind of Blue”, "a milestone in jazz history," which changed the directions of modern American music. Motown Records was founded by BERRY GORDY JR., who gave the world the JACKSON 5, the SUPREMES, STEVIE WONDER and MARVIN GAYE, and who helped change the understanding, marketing and promotion of American music.

And the biggest phenomenon of the 1950’s was FREEDOM MUSIC based on the whoops, hollers and affirmations of the Black Spiritual-gospel-blues-jazz tradition, annealed and transformed African-Americans and their allies in the UNCOUNTABLE mass meetings, marches, vigils and protests of the Freedom Movement, which was the biggest U.S. social movement of the 20th century and which influenced singers in Soweto, Eastern Europe and Tiananmen Square. Major Black singers sang in the chorus or the choir of the Movement, notably MAHALIA JACKSON ("I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned"), HARRY BELAFONTE ("Matilda"), Aretha Franklin ("R-E-S-P-E-C-T"), SAMMY DAVIS JR. ("Mr. Bojangles"), JAMES BROWN ("I'm Black and I'm Proud"), CURTIS MAYFIELD ("Keep on Pushin'"), SAM COOKE ("A Change Is Gonna Come"), NINA SIMONE ("What are we going to do now, now that the King of Love is Dead?"), BERNICE REAGAN ("Before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free").

Music created for a purpose that touched the spirit and spoke about the injustices of the world.

The 1960’s brought us ERNEST (CHUBBY CHECKER) EVANS recording "The Twist," setting off the biggest dance craze since the Charleston craze of the 1920s. The craze changed the patterns of American dance and changed, perhaps forever, the dominant patterns of men and women dancing together. Plus a new gospel music with a more worldly sound and a catchy, pop-flavored beat flowed out of urban Black churches and was given form and passion by JAMES CLEVELAND and SHIRLEY CAESAR, leading to ANDRAE CROUCH and the EDWIN HAWKINS SINGERS and contemporaries like KIRK FRANKLIN, the many WINANS and a new growth industry, White gospel singers.

The 1970’s brought us synthesizers and over-dubbing and detailed preparation of albums all epitomized by STEVIE WONDER. The end of the 70’s introduced THE SUGAR HILL GANG who produced the first rap hit, "Rapper's Delight," introducing the world of rap and hip-hop with implications that are still reverberating in the music world.

In 1984 MICHAEL JACKSON'S Thriller video premiered on TV, and revolutionized the making and marketing of pop music, leading to MTV and the new pop technology. The 90’s popular crossover success of singers like WHITNEY HOUSTON and JANET JACKSON started new merchandising, marketing trends and led to numerous White imitators like Britney Spears.
Success stories abound but the biggest change in Black music has come about in the 2000’s. Hip Hop originated as an expression of individuality, a description of anger and distrust against the unjust governmental systems we now live under. Just as Slave work songs, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Be Bop and the majority of our cultural music had done. Now this new music is made only to make certain individuals wealthy and unfortunately the wealthy are not the artists making the music. This new breed of music is designed to make both Black & White consumers / listeners controllable and ignorant. It is now promoting unbridled loveless sex, drug usage, murder and mayhem.

Isn’t it time to let your child know WHY they make music?

1 comment:

William J. Zick said...

Black Swan Records was indeed an important cultural institution which was enriched by the talents of William Grant Still. He is profiled in detail on the William Grant Still page of The site also devotes a page to the classical music of Duke Ellington, which was never recorded until after his death. Black music ran on two tracks during the centuries of slavery. People of African descent who managed to study music also composed, conducted and performed classical music. The earliest classical music figure of color who is profiled at is Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), who was Afro-French and was the son of a slave on a Caribbean plantation. He first won fame as the best fencer in France, then established himself as a virtuoso violinist, fashionable composer who helped develop the string quartet in France, and conductor of the two finest orchestras in Paris. A total of 52 African, African American and Afro-European classical composers and musicians are profiled at the website, which offers a Black History Quiz and over 100 audio samples. When the Black British violinist George Bridgetower premiered the Kreutzer Sonata in Vienna in 1803, he was accompanied on piano by its composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact the work was originally titled the Bridgetower Sonata; a personal disagreement caused Beethoven to change the name to the Kreutzer Sonata. A number of Black musicians have reached the top of the classical music world, making this genre an authentic musical expression of people of African descent. has a companion blog,