College Prof Ponders the `Black Music' Question
Green, Tony, The Florida Times Union
Some questions are easy to answer. Others aren't so easy.
Try this one on for size: What is black music?
That's a tough one, said professor Lenard Bowie, the man behind
the University of North Florida's long-running "African American
Musical Heritage" course. After all, you can't talk about
American music without talking about black music, and vice
versa. Hank Williams Sr. learned guitar from a black blues
player, while Howlin' Wolf got his moniker from his attempts to
yodel like Jimmie Rogers.
And, Czech classical composer Antonin Dvorak once said that the
music of black Americans was the best possible starting point
for a truly American musical tradition.
That's why, said Bowie, a lot of the definition of "black"
music, is largely semantic. He hopes that by demonstrating how
central African and African-American music is integral to the
American music tradition, he can encourage folks to stop
breaking music into cubbyholes as they do now.
"No other country looks at their music the way we do," said
Bowie, former chair of the music department at UNF. "In Europe,
for example, if someone of gypsy descent writes a symphony, they
don't call it "a gypsy symphony." They just call it a symphony.
The solution to this dilemma is education, Bowie said, which
is where his three-times a week, 16-week course enters the
discussion. Bowie, who has been at UNF for 17 years, started the
course in 1990. And like most things of this sort, the course
evolved, rather than appeared.
Bowie had been teaching a jazz appreciation course, called "All
That Jazz" since 1983. After stepping down as department chair
(that position is currently filled by Gerson Yessin) he decided
to initiate the African-American music course.
"I felt it was important," he said. "Since African-American
music is the embodiment of American music, I felt that it was
important that we have a course that taught African-American
The current popular music landscape bears out the importance of
the course. The modern rock crowd has been enamored of ska --
essentially Caribbean R&B -- for the past several years. Then
there are the heavy-metal hip-hoppers like Jacksonville's own
Limp Bizkit, retro jazzers like Squirrel Nut Zippers and slacker
rappers like Beck. Electronica? Try Detroit techno and
No one needs to reiterate the roots of rock and roll, at least
not with a movie called The Blues Brothers in theaters, or the
centrality of funk, after the in-print endorsements given by
early '90s rockers like Pearl Jam, Primus and Red Hot Chili
And those are just the black-influenced forms. Once you start
adding people like Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, the Fugees,
Whitney Houston, Master P and Babyface to the equation, you see
what Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson means when he calls
America "essentially an African nation," where even avowed
racists listen to the blues and walk around in Timberland boots
and baggy jeans. …