Black History Month
February 3, 2024
Last month I wrote about three instruments, the kazoo, armonica and banjo. The banjo was brought to America by slaves and had a strong influence on American music over the years. Given that February is Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting to continue the music theme focusing on African slave music and how it laid the foundation for most American music, especially blues, gospel and jazz.
By 1860, there were roughly four million slaves in America. They brought with them a rich African heritage that included music – African American spirituals are the best known form of slave music. As slaves were Christianized, they blended their African culture with Christian practices to make the religious experience more meaningful. Spirituals, also called Slave Shout Songs, spoke of the hardship of slavery and the hope of freedom. Often these songs were coded messages about escape on the Underground Railroad. A common feature of spirituals was the call-and-response format where one person would sing a verse and the rest would respond with the chorus. Two famous spirituals in this format are "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Nobody Knows De Trouble I've Seen." "Go Down, Moses" was a spiritual used by Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame to identify herself to slaves who might want to escape.
The "Slave Songbook" published in 1867, containing 136 songs, was the first book ever published of spirituals. With this book, the spiritual became a national musical form, not just something local to Southern plantations.
In 1866, Fisk University opened in Nashville, Tennessee to offer education to "young men and women irrespective of color." Quite a shocking concept at the time. Five years later, the university was in dire financial straits. Music professor George White created the Fisk Jubilee Singers®, a choral ensemble of nine students, and took them on tour to earn money for the university. In 1872 they performed at the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant, and in 1973 they toured Europe. The Black musicians were breaking racial barriers and introducing the world to traditional spirituals.
As I mentioned last month, the banjo (which was brought to the U.S. by slaves) grew in popularity in the second half of the 19th century. Appalachian musicians began to adapt European folk songs and fiddle tunes to the banjo, and it quickly became the instrument associated with Appalachian bluegrass music.
Ragtime music was created in New Orleans in the late 1800s by Black piano players who drew upon spirituals and minstrel songs. Ragtime is noted for a syncopated or "ragged" rhythm, which means that beats are displaced making normally strong ones weak and vice versa. Scott Joplin (1868-1917), considered the Father of ragtime, became famous through his tune "Maple Leaf Rag," published in 1899. However, Joplin's most recognizable tune is "The Entertainer," which was the theme for the 1973 movie "The Sting."
Ragtime was an early influence on jazz, which also originated in New Orleans. Jazz became wildly popular in the 1920s with performers such as Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet.
The great Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) barely needs an introduction. Who hasn't heard his version of"It's a Wonderful World," which became the biggest-selling song of his career? For some classic Armstrong vocals and trumpeting take a listen to his version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" or "Hello Dolly."
Another trumpeter is Buddy Bolden (1877-1931) who infused ragtime with blues and Black church music. He organized ensembles of brass instruments and clarinets, changing the way jazz composers orchestrated their music. Take a listen to his "Dixieland."
Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) is considered the first great jazz saxophonist. Take a listen to his version of "Summertime" and "Wild Cat Blues."
While blues originated in the Deep South following the Civil War, it became crazy popular during the 1920s when a Black singer named Mamie Smith (1891-1946) released "Crazy Blues" the first blues recording by a Black woman. This opened the door for many future Black female artists.
With her powerful voice and combination of field holler spiritual music with Jazz Age sophistication, Bessie Smith (1894-1937), dominated the 1930s blues. She is remembered as the "Empress of the Blues." Take a listen to her "Down Hearted Blues" from 1923, which sold 780,000 copies in the first six months.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) is perhaps most known for his big band musical orchestras, which consisted of saxophones, trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section (guitar, piano, double bass and drums). Ellington often led from the keyboard and rarely used a baton. Ivie Anderson was hired in 1931, and became famous for her 1932 version of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Interesting, while Ivie became famous for singing the song, it was Ella Fitzgerald, the "Queen of Jazz" who made the song famous.
The 1940s brought us the term rhythm and blues (R&B) as a term for all African American music. As such it includes swing, jazz, blues and soul. R&B powerhouse Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) is remembered as the "Queen of Soul." She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Take a listen to her songs "Respect" and "I Say a Little Prayer".
By the 1950s, American music was exploding in so many different directions that it is hard to lump musicians into particular genres. More importantly, the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam and music played a critical role. In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther Jr. delivered the opening address to the Berlin Jazz Festival.
"Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life's difficulties - and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music."