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BGX Black Music Month Special: The Start of our Soul

“A cotton field near Houston, Texas.” Source: Massachusetts Collections Online, Digital Commonwealth.

On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter decreed the month of June a time for the nation to celebrate and reflect on Black music’s contributions to America’s cultural heritage. Carter couldn’t initially convince Congress to pass a bill to make June Black Music Month, so when activist Dyana Williams successfully lobbied Congress to pass Carter’s Black Music Month bill in 2000, she helped the nation finally recognize the international movement that first came to America in chains.


Work Songs and Field Hollers

When the first wave of enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S., they sang songs infused with African tonality and rhythms to lighten the workload. The difference between these “work songs” and “field hollers” lies in rhythm. The field holler has a flexible rhythm that lends itself to improvisation, while the work song uses a steady rhythm meant to set the work pace. Both contained African musical elements “call and response,” polyphony, polyrhythm, improvisation, and sliding blue notes. These would soon serve as the foundation for something big. Very big.


Negro Spirituals and Gospel

A pivotal aspect of early Black music that emerged in the 18th century was the so-called “negro spiritual.” The result of Christian indoctrination of enslaved Africans, spirituals led to hymns such as “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Deep River.” Because there is no divide between sacred and secular music in African tradition, the “negro spirituals” used the same elements as the “field holler” and “work songs.” One sang of God and heaven, while the other sang about work.


Spirituals did more than ease the spiritual ache of slavery’s victims. They could also serve as a tool for liberation. Historian Henry Louis Gates says negro spirituals were instrumental in helping those who escaped slavery navigate hostile terrain on their way to freedom. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” allegedly instructed runaways to follow the Big Dipper, pointing North to freedom.


The 1890s saw spirituals evolve into folk gospel. Ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby says more traditional gospel began in the 1930s with quartets like the Dixie Hummingbirds—who are still active today with new members—singing in four-part harmony. Ten years later, the self-contained gospel group officially arrived on the scene. Ten years after that saw the advent of gospel choirs singing still more complex vocal arrangements and music. The 1970s gave us modern gospel, which incorporates elements of pop music. Audiences credit André Crouch as the father of modern gospel, and today it continues to flourish with contemporary artists like Kirk Franklin, Smokey Norful, and Ty Tribett selling millions of records.


The Blues

Blues legend Robert Johnson. Devil and crossroads not included. Source: Wikipedia commons.

It’s difficult to pinpoint blues’ exact birthday. Maultsby suspects the earliest example to have appeared in the 1880s. Ethnomusicologists Lucy Durán and Gerard Kubik trace Blues’ melodic structure to West and Central African music, noting the similarities between early Blues and the music of the Bambara, Soninke, and Wolof people. Blues is known for being played on an acoustic guitar in the fashion of Robert Johnson, often accompanied by a harmonica. Song themes usually revolved around heartache, pain, and plantation life. While Mississippi is widely acknowledged as the birthplace, blues was in every state in the Deep South.

In the 1900s, musicians started using the piano to play a percussive uptempo syncopated style of blues with the right hand playing riffs against a driving pattern of repeating eighth notes on the low end of the piano. This style is known as “boogie-woogie blues.” The style traveled with southern Black people in their exodus from the rural South to the urban North, where it continued to evolve.


By the 1940s, blues musicians like Muddy Waters went from playing acoustic guitars to electric guitars, and blues themes shifted from rural plantation life to the perils of urban life. Rhythm & blues and rock & roll sprang from this electrified branch, and subsequent genres arose from these two, including heavy metal, punk, soul, funk, go-go, hip hop, and a legion of others. Even country and bluegrass wouldn’t exist without blues.

All About Jazz

 Just as Mississippi is the birthplace of the blues, New Orleans is the home of jazz, also called American classical music. Jazz combines African rhythms, European melodies and blues to create an American gumbo of music.


Scott Joplin was one of few Black Ragtime composers to receive wide acclaim and be paid for his work. Obsession with his projects led to him being institutionalized in 1916. His music later got a boost from the 1970s film industry, and he won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Source:

“Jazz symbolically is a unifier, the result of hybridization of cultures,” says jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. “You cannot separate Irish jigs and forms of European music, theme, and variation—those things cannot be taken out of jazz or diminished because it also adds African sounds. Those things came together in our music.”

The genre’s roots stretch back to the 1890s with the advent of ragtime. Popularized by composers like Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott, Ragtime is characterized by a syncopated rhythm that gives it its “ragged feel.” Rag Time was originally played on piano in brothels, but by the 1900s, New Orleans brass bands were playing it at parades and funerals. New Orleans jazz (or “Dixieland”) took off in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s, Jazz music was all the rage in illicit gin joints, speakeasies, and nightclubs.

Count Basie led a band for nearly 50 years and recorded on nearly 500 albums with entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. Some of his best work emerged as late as the 1960s and ’70s. Image source: Wikipedia commons.

Ten years later, “swing” established itself as the popular music of the day. Swing is a rhythmic uptempo form of jazz played by big bands led by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. It dominated the scene for nearly 20 years until the 1940s, when young musicians like Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and others started hosting experimental jam sessions after their regular gigs. These intense jam sessions gave birth to “bebop,” which departs from its predecessor in three major ways. The first is tempo: Bebop is generally played at a faster speed than swing. The second difference is bebop’s melodies, which are more complex than swing and more difficult to play. Lastly, bebop emphasizes solo improvisation, which is far more complex than Swing.

Jazz is still evolving into new sub-genres today including hard bop, post-bop, avant-garde, fusion and smooth jazz. However, Black music itself is adapting fast to new societal changes and moods and it remains a powerful and enduring creative force reflecting the resilient spirit of the African American community.


Charlie R. Braxton is a noted poet, playwright, cultural critic and hip-hop journalist whose work appears in Beatdown, 4080, Blaze, The Source, and others.


1 commentaire

20 juin

Thank you for this information to know that the world need to know! Dr Terri Brookshire

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