African-American influence on American music goes back in time when early non-indigenous migrants were settling to form what is now known as the United States. The African slaves that were brought to America carried with them their knowledge and experience of West African music, which also became a foundation of the present-day American music culture. Tribal musical instruments like drums, and banjo, and tribal song styles like “shout” and “echo” were introduced (Robinson, 2015). The African American songs ranged from slave era field hollers to spirituals to blues, jazz, and hip-hop.
Classical And Spiritual Music
The enslaved African Americans sang songs and created music, both while working and worshipping. Numerous forms of spiritual songs came into being during the secret meetings of the slaves (The Library of Congress, n.d.), that were sung in a call and response form. Accompanied by a leader, the chorus would sing songs of the new faith, and songs to express their hopes for a better future. The African slaves had embraced Christianity, and used music to calm themselves in hard times, and also to send secret messages (The Library of Congress, n.d.). The spiritual songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Steal Away,” and “Wade in the Water” encoded message instructions for an escape to North, and songs like “A Motherless Child” and “I’m Troubled in Mind” were sung to express feelings of misery and despair (“The History of African American Music,” 2020).
These spirituals and gospels are still a crucial part of the African-American community and are one of the most significant forms of American folksong (The Library of Congress, 2015).
Marian Anderson was one such renowned classical and spiritual singer. Born in Philadelphia in 1897 (or 1902, birth date unconfirmed) and racial discrimination was still at its peak in America. Her grandfather was a slave, so she understood the slavery life of African-Americans. Marian used her music as a voice to raise African American concerns and also as a way to create awareness about African-American talent (Hall, 2018). Anderson started singing spirituals at her home and later became a member of the church choir at a very young age of six years. She took voice lessons at her high school and was soon introduced to opera. Marian was the first African American to sing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera (History.com Editors, 2019). Despite her demand as a solo concert and opera performer, Anderson made sure to include traditional spirituals into her performances (Hall, 2018).
The Rise of the Blues
The American Civil war that ended in 1865 led to the freedom of the slaves, but it did leave the freed slaves of the south extremely poor. A concerning condition of poverty and depression (blues) spread throughout the country, giving rise to a new genre of music, The Blues. People started migrating from the south to the northern part of the country for better opportunities (Steinfeld, 2017). The Great Migration took with it the Blues music from the countryside and spreading it throughout the urban areas. Numerous avenues for this new genre opened up with access to more people and regions, and technological developments that were happening in the recording industry. Blues even became a code word for music that is made for black listeners (Steinfeld, 2017). The First Blue show was performed in 1916 by Ma Rainey (Robinson, 2015). Bessie Smith along with Ma Rainey were notable forerunners of the Blues music.
Also known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith started singing at a very young age. She released her first single “Downhearted Blues” in 1923, which landed her a contract with the Columbia records (Mahon, 2019). Within ten months of signing with Columbia label, Smith had sold two million records. She continued to create music through the 1920s and became one of the leading stars of classic blues, and also the highest-paid African-American artist in music(Thompkins, 2018). Towards 1929 the blues had started to lose popularity, which had a direct impact on Smith’s career. She was dropped out of Columbia in 1931, but she continued to create and perform (Biography.com Editors, 2020). The musical preferences also started to change around the same time. People preferred jazz and swing over the blues now. Smith died in an unfortunate car accident, but her music continued to influence many female vocalists including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin, and Janis Joplin (Biography.com Editors, 2020).
At the time when the blues were dying, new styles of music, jazz, and swing started to rise. Although both genres have their roots in the blues and the Southern African American music style, this kind of music was played around by both African-American and white bands alike (Smithsonian, 2010). Jazz became popular in Europe too, as American soldiers traveled overseas.
Numerous variations and themes were added to Jazz over time in different places. While Charlie Parker in Kanas city introduced the use of saxophones and trumpets and swing rhythms in jazz, in New York jazz got popular in orchestras (Robinson, 2015).
Many African Americans moved to urban cities in the North during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, which also brought together music styles of different African-American settlements and regions. The combination of faster beats, more bass, and fewer instruments with the traditional swing, jazz, and blues, gave rise to a new music genre, “Rhythm and Blues” or R&B (The Library of Congress, 2015).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, poverty and crime had started to rise in the urban cities. It led to the birth of a new music culture of Hip-hop. Hip-hop first originated as a response to urban poverty in the South Bronx section of New York City (Light & Tate, 2019). Hip-hop and rapping had their roots in the African-American tradition of capping (in which men compete in their language), combined with rhymes and beat of the music (Errey, 2013). Although primarily connected to African-American musicians, hip-hop became quite popular and the best-selling genre of music in the United States in the late 1990s (Light & Tate, 2019).
African-American music has evolved so much over time, and it remains deeply rooted in American music history, as well as the present.
Biography.com Editors. (2020, March 2). Bessie Smith Biography. Retrieved from Biography website: https://www.biography.com/musician/bessie-smith
Errey, M. (2013). History of Hip Hop Music | Vocabulary | EnglishClub. Retrieved from Englishclub.com website: https://www.englishclub.com/vocabulary/music-hip-hop.htm
Hall, S. (2018, April 9). Marian Anderson's Spirituals | Folklife Today. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from blogs.loc.gov website: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/04/marian-anderson-spirituals/
History.com Editors. (2019, September 18). Marian Anderson becomes first African American to perform at the Met Opera. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from HISTORY website: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/marian-anderson-first-african-american-performance-met-opera
Light, A., & Tate, G. (2019). hip-hop | Definition, History, Culture, & Facts. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/art/hip-hop
Mahon, M. (2019, August 5). How Bessie Smith Influenced A Century Of Popular Music. Retrieved August 31, 2020, from WAMU website: https://wamu.org/story/19/08/05/how-bessie-smith-influenced-a-century-of-popular-music/
Robinson, J. (2015). The Evolution of African-American Music. Retrieved from https://www.unf.edu/uploadedFiles/committee/AAFSA/The%20Evolution%20of%20African-American%20Music.pdf
Smithsonian. (2010). African American Music - Jazz and Blues. Retrieved from Smithsonian Music website: https://music.si.edu/spotlight/african-american-music/jazz-blues
Steinfeld, S. (2017). The Social Significance of Blues Music. In 11–12. Retrieved from https://tesi.eprints.luiss.it/17909/1/072752_STEINFELD_SUSANNA.pdf
The History of African American Music. (2020, September 4). Retrieved from Encyclopedia.com website: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/history-african-american-music
The Library of Congress. (2015). Rhythm and Blues | Popular Songs of the Day | Musical Styles | Articles and Essays | The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America | Digital Collections | Library of Congress. Retrieved from The Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/popular-songs-of-the-day/rhythm-and-blues/
The Library of Congress. (2015). Spirituals | Ritual and Worship | Musical Styles | Articles and Essays | The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America | Digital Collections | Library of Congress. Retrieved from The Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/ritual-and-worship/spirituals
The Library of Congress. (n.d.). African American Song. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200197451
Thompkins, G. (2018, January 5). NPR Choice page. Retrieved from Npr.org website: https://www.npr.org/2018/01/05/575422226/forebears-bessie-smith-the-empress-of-the-blues
A must listen to playlist to get yourself acquainted with the Evolution of African-American Music
1) Early Spiritual Song: Follow the Drinking Gourd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNyhfQ7argU
2) Another Spiritual Song: I'm Troubled In Mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oohyOYjHZBw
3) Marian Anderson's performance at Lincoln Memorial, after she was denied to perform at the Constitution Hall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAONYTMf2pk
4) Ma Rainey's Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJm3YGAwPUM
5) Bessie Smith's first single, Downhearted Blues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=go6TiLIeVZA
6) Charlie Parker's use of saxophone in his music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTORd2Y_X6U
7) Ella Fitzgerald R&B music, Cry Me A River: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Gn9A-kdsRo
8) Rap that talks about social issues by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PobrSpMwKk4
This article made into the top 3 finalist for The Collector's September Writing Challenge.