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2023 Black Music Month: Watch an overview of the initial roots of Black Music in the United States

By ONME Newswire

Host Julia Dudley Najieb reviews the roots of Black music in the United States and how its initial influences revolutionized the American experience for everyone.


From Negro spirituals, to ragtime, blues and jazz, Dudley Najieb reviews the historical references and people responsible for creating or influencing the different genres of music birthed out of pain and ingenuity, dating back from slavery in America.


June is African American Music Appreciation Month. Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, this month celebrates the African American musical influences that comprise an essential part of our nation’s treasured cultural heritage.

Formerly called National Black Music Month, this celebration of African American musical contributions is re-established annually by presidential proclamation. Here is what President Joe Biden Proclaimed on May 31, 2023:


During Black Music Month, we pay homage to legends of American music, who have composed the soundtrack of American life. Their creativity has given rise to distinctly American art forms that influence contemporary music worldwide and sing to the soul of the American experience.

Much of Black music is rooted in African rhythms, coupled with the experience of slavery and struggle in America. Barred from expressing themselves in their native tongues, enslaved people developed a language to articulate their hopes, dreams, sense of loss, and tenacity to overcome the harrowing nature of their lives. They used music to strategically and creatively voice their most deeply held feelings. Today, the creative ways that Black music tells stories of trial and triumph in American life continue to move us all to understand the common struggles of humanity. Spirituals, gospel, the blues, R&B, rock and roll, jazz, pop, rap, hip-hop, and more have molded American culture and given rise to new American art forms emulated around the globe.


Since taking office, my Administration has supported American creators and communities — uplifting more voices, inspiring new generations, and showing the full power of our example as a great Nation. We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in strengthening the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities while securing over a billion more to help concert halls, theaters, museums, libraries, and other venues recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. I have also had the honor of celebrating legendary Black musicians at the White House who, along with thousands more across the country, have made a lifetime of contributions to this Nation.

This month, we celebrate the songs and artists that challenge us to think critically, stand up to injustice, and believe in ourselves. We recommit to expanding the promise of dignity and opportunity for all Americans. And we revel in the sounds, spirit, and soul of some of the very best music ever created.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH R. BIDEN JR., President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2023 as Black Music Month. I call upon public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to observe this month by honoring Black musicians and raising awareness and appreciation of Black music.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-seventh.


Compliments of the Smithsonian:


African American music cannot be separated from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the forced transportation of millions of African people across the Atlantic who were then enslaved. The cultures from which they were torn and the conditions into which they were forced both contributed to the sounds of African American music. Many of the instruments historically used in African American music, including the banjo and the drum, have antecedents in African musical instruments, and many features common to African American music likewise have roots in African musical traditions, such as the call and response song form and an immersive approach to singing.


Slaves' lives were restricted in innumerable ways, but among them included limits on literacy and property ownership. Music was therefore passed down orally, and early records of African American music indicate that songs changed frequently, not just from singer to singer, but also from day to day when sung by the same musician. Music was a solace, a community-builder, and voice for hope during enslavement and afterward, in the days of Reconstruction and then Jim Crow.


The Negro Spiritual

One of the most widespread of early musical forms among southern blacks was the spiritual. Neither black versions of white hymns nor transformations of songs from Africa, spirituals were a distinctly African American response to American conditions. They expressed the longing of slaves for spiritual and bodily freedom, for safety from harm and evil, and for relief from the hardships of slavery.


Many of the songs offered coded messages. Some, like "Follow the Drinking Gourd,“ "Steal Away," and "Wade in the Water," contained coded instructions for escape to the North. Others, like "(Sometimes I Feel like) A Motherless Child" and "I'm Troubled in Mind," conveyed the feelings of despair that black slaves felt. The spirituals also served as critiques of slavery, using biblical metaphors to protest the enslavement of black people. Such protest can be found in the lyrics of "Go Down, Moses":


Go down, Moses

Way down to Egypt land

Tell ol' Pharaoh

Let my people go.


The spirituals also provided African Americans with a means of transcending their enslaved condition, of imagining a life of freedom, as in the lyric, "Ride on, King Jesus, ride on, / No man can hinder thee.“


With the rise of jubilee singers in the 1870s, the spirituals began to be seen as music that revealed the beauty and depth of African American culture.


The Reconstruction Period

Although many of them are less well known than their later counterparts, there were plenty of professional African American musicians and singers during Reconstruction, including a group of African American university students, led by their music instructor, and billed as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They sang African American folk music and religious music, including slave songs, to white audiences, and raised enough money through their ventures to fund a building on campus named, appropriately, Jubilee Hall.


In the early part of the 1900s, as a result of the work of black composers, the performance of Negro spirituals became a tradition among black singers, particularly singers of classical music. Composers like Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), and Hall Johnson (1888-1970) set the spirituals to piano accompaniment as a means of preserving and perpetuating the beauty of this traditional black music.


Ragtime Music

Ragtime became the first nationally popular form of American music in 1899, when Scott Joplin's (1868-1917) "Maple Leaf Rag" enjoyed unprecedented success, selling over a million sheet-music copies. But ragtime was not new in 1899. Documents reveal that it was being played as early as the 1870s. Black musicians spoke of "ragging a tune" when describing the use of syncopated rhythms, whether in classical compositions, popular songs, or genteel dance tunes. While black musicians could rag tunes on any instrument, the music we call ragtime developed when the piano replaced the violin as the favorite instrument for dance accompaniment.


Ragtime also evolved out of two other musical styles: the "coon song" and the "cakewalk. "Coon song was a racist term used to describe the music of white minstrels performing in blackface, in acts that were supposed to be humorous imitations of black slaves. Black-face minstrelsy, a popular entertainment throughout most of the nineteenth century, was at first performed only by whites, though blacks eventually formed their own minstrel troupes. The great blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886-1939) began her career in a black minstrel troupe known as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where she was later joined by Bessie Smith (1898-1937). An early form of popular American music, coon songs were written by both black and white composers.


The cakewalk was a stately ring dance performed by blacks during and after slavery. It was accompanied by music that was similar to ragtime and composed by such African Americans as Ernest Hogan (d. 1990), Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), and the musical team of Bob Cole (1868-1911) and Billy Johnson. These artists popularized this style of music and brought it to the Broadway and off-Broadway stages in the late 1800s.


About the Blues

The blues formed the foundation of contemporary American music. As did sacred and folk music, the blues also greatly influenced the cultural and social lives of African Americans. Geographically diverse incarnations of the blues arose in various regions, including the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, Southern Texas. Each regional manifestation of the blues features a uniquely identifiable sound and message. For example, Mississippi Delta blues illustrated the poverty of the region while celebrating its natural and cultural richness.


Singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters were the most popular women blues singers. Ma Rainey, referred to as the "Mother of the Blues", became popular in the early 1900s. Rainey was the first popular black female stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song selection.


The Evolution of Jazz Music

Jazz evolved from ragtime, an American style of syncopated instrumental music. Jazz first materialized in New Orleans and is often distinguished by African American musical innovation.


Multiple forms of the genre exist today, from the dance-oriented music of the 1920s big-band era to the experimental flair of modern avant-garde jazz.


Leading up to the 1920s, African American music came to the attention of the white music industry and white music audiences. In 1912 W. C. Handy became the "Father of the Blues" with his composition, Memphis Blues. His inspiration for the style came from an African American musical practice of singing away one's sorrows to move on and up away from them. W. C. Handy and "Ma" Rainey both recalled having heard the blues being sung by amateur singers in this tradition, but their ability to translate this country form into a performance style is what brought it to the attention of white audiences and the music industry.


Jazz was likewise rooted in Southern African American music, yet it was a band of white musicians, billing themselves as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who first recorded jazz music. By the 1920s, "jazz" was being played around the country by both African American and white bands and eventually became the sound we associate with the Roaring Twenties. The '30s ushered in the Swing Era with Duke Ellington, his Orchestra, and other Big Bands.





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