African American Music

African American music has a rich history rooted in the brutal treatment of slaves who were shipped from West Africa from the 1600s onwards. Early African American music encapsulates the enduring spirit of the people who were transported to the United States. In its basic form the music was a simple rhythm, beaten out on rudimentary drums and percussion instruments fashioned from materials gathered by slaves. Back in Africa, rhythm was part of daily life and was incorporated into labor, rituals and celebrations within the community.

One of the most widespread early forms of music for African Americans living in the South was the spiritual, the predecessor to the gospel music. The spiritual (also called the Negro spiritual and folk spiritual) was a response to slave conditions that expressed the slaves' longing for spiritual and physical freedom. Many songs encapsulated the despair felt by the slaves; some, such as the well-known "Wade in the Water," were coded messages said to contain instructions for escaping to the North. The spirituals began in the 18th century among Southern slaves and enjoyed a revival during the 1960s civil rights movement.

In the 1870s a new type of music emerged from marches and social dances. It was called ragtime and was to capture the imagination of the nation. Scott Joplin's (1868-1917) "Maple Leaf Rag" was a phenomenal success, with more than one million sheet-music copies sold. Ragtime marked a departure from the sentimentality of the spirituals and other musical styles. It was at its height from approximately 1890 to 1920, by which time its popularity had waned. However it was to lead to another form of music: jazz.

Before jazz comes the blues, although it is difficult to pinpoint when this style was developed. It is closely linked with the spirituals and certain musical and lyrical elements can be traced back to West Africa. It began in the South during the slavery era and took hold of America, spreading by means of bluesmen who wandered the country. The blues is the most versatile yet basic of all the American musical forms. Over the years it has evolved; types include classical, country and Chicago blues. Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is widely regarded as the father of what we term "classical blues." Other notable blues singers are Huddie Ledbetter (nicknamed "Leadbelly"), Eddie Floyd and Ike Turner. In the 1960s, Chicago blues gave way to other musical forms such as Motown, rhythm and blues, soul and funk.

Jazz has been fondly called "America's classical music." It is unsure when exactly it emerged but the term "jazz" was widely in use by 1918. There are various forms of jazz, such as New Orleans-style, avant-garde, soul and fusion and new jazz swing. There is also bebop, a revolutionary style performed by a smaller ensemble than the classic "big band" setup. Trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) is arguably the most famous jazz musician and was the first to achieve international recognition with West End Blues in the 1920s. Another famous jazz artist was trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie (1917-1993,) a performer in the style of bebop.

In the 1930s came gospel music, a religious music. It is linked to the spirituals due to its lyrical qualities. Its emphasis is on vocal embellishment and dramatic power. Famous singers with a background in gospel include Sam Cooke (1935-1964), Aretha Franklin (1942-) and Whitney Houston (1963-).

In keeping with its predecessors, rap is a style of music named for the style in which it is delivered. Incorporating lyrical flair over samples and beats, it can be set to many different styles of music including blues, jazz, and soul with Caribbean calypso, dub, and dance-hall reggae. It exploded into the mainstream in the 1980s and developed into numerous styles. Often political, some of its biggest stars have come from street gangs. Its combination of gritty urban storytelling and beat-driven, technologically sophisticated music has gained popularity worldwide. Famous rappers include Run D.M.C, Snoop Dogg and Queen Latifah.

African American music has influenced many modern musical styles. For example Chuck Berry (1926-) and Little Richard (1932-) transformed urban blues into what we know as rock ‘n' roll; rock guitarist, singer and songwriter Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) began his career in a rhythm and blues band; and Stevie Wonder (1951-) and Marvin Gaye (1940-1984), transformed the sound of Motown into soul music.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States
Samuel A. Floyd Jr.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop
Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.
University of California Press, 2003
Message in the Music: Political Commentary in Black Popular Music from Rhythm and Blues to Early Hip Hop
Stewart, James B.
The Journal of African American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, Summer 2005
Dvořák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America's Music and Its African American Roots
Maurice Peress.
Oxford University Press, 2004
It Didn't Jes Grew: The Social and Aesthetic Significance of African American Music
Salaam, Kalamu ya.
African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1995
Black Music and Musicians in the Nineteenth Century
Taylor, Fredrick J.
The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall 2005
Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age
Jerma A. Jackson.
University of North Carolina Press, 2004
Questions of Genre in Black Popular Music
Brackett, David.
Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1-2, Spring-Fall 2005
"Detroit Was Heavy": Modern Jazz, Bebop, and African American Expressive Culture
Macias, Anthony.
The Journal of African American History, Vol. 95, No. 1, Winter 2010
Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars
Joel Dinerstein.
University of Massachusetts Press, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Includes multiple chapters on music
Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations
Brian Ward.
UCL Press, 1998
Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895
Lynn Abbott; Doug Seroff.
University Press of Mississippi, 2002
Black Music on Radio during the Jazz Age
Barlow, William.
African American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer 1995
Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation
Jon Cruz.
Princeton University Press, 1999
What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists
Eric Porter.
University of California Press, 2002
Jazz in Black and White: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Jazz Community
Charley Gerard.
Praeger, 1998
Afrofuturism and Post-Soul Possibility in Black Popular Music
David, Marlo.
African American Review, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter 2007
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