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«From the Blues to Hip Hop: How African American Music Changed U.S. Cul- ture and Moved the World By Ethan Goffman Jes Grew spreads through America ...»

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From the Blues to Hip Hop: How African American Music Changed U.S. Cul-

ture and Moved the World

By Ethan Goffman

Jes Grew spreads through America

following a strange course. Pine

Bluff and Magnolia Arkansas are hit;

Natchez, Meridian and Greenwood

Mississippi report cases. Sporadic

outbreaks occur in Nashville and

Knoxville Tennessee as well as St.

Louis where the bumping and

grinding cause the Gov to call up the

Guard. A mighty influence, Jes Grew

infects all that it touches.

The Old Plantation, unknown artist, 1700s Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slave_dance_to_banjo,_1780s.j pg Satirist Ishmael Reed captures the infectious nature of African American music, which has ap- peared in a bewildering variety of styles since at least the 1890s. These have spread through the American public in seemingly inexplicable waves, entities that, without an understanding of their cultural context, seemingly “just grew” from out of nowhere. The major styles can be classified as blues, ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, and rap. While each is unique, they have certain elements in common. Each blends African and European musical ideas, always with a strong rhythmic element. Often, outside the culture that creates these styles, they are at first looked down upon as strange, ugly, not really music. Yet repeatedly, they break through the boundaries in which they originated, moving into mainstream America and, ultimately, dispersing around the globe.

Beginning in the 16th Century, Africans were enslaved and brought to the new world. Separated from their languages and history, African Americans somehow managed to preserve something of their culture through the only medium available to them: music, originally limited to voice and rhythm (with an assist from the banjo, derived from African instruments), and closely associated with dance. The history of this blending and changing of the various cultures of Africa in an ut- terly new context is obscured by time and alack of records.

For European Americans, the music of the slaves, and later of the freed slaves, was seen as primitive, as nonmusical. Explain two scholars, “Equating slave practices with ‘uncivilized’ African

–  –  –

rituals, Europeans most typically interpreted the music-making of Blacks with such pejorative terms as ‘barbaric,’ ‘wild,’ and ‘nonsensical’” (Burnim & Maultsby 8). Yet many European Americans found this unfamiliar music compelling, and over the centuries and decades it began to be accepted, not only as entertainment but even, little by little, as serious music. In 1867, one scholar of African American music wrote that “A ‘white tune,’ so to speak, adopted by them ‘in their own way’ becomes a different thing. The words may be simply mangled, but the music is changed under an inspiration; it becomes a vital force” (qtd in Maultsby & Burnim 8). Later scholarship would echo and augment this understanding. Through the spoken voice, through drums, and later on guitars and an increasing variety of instruments, African American music evolved and spread.

The Early Blues

The blues came, at least partly, out of the songs slaves sung, out of field hollers and what W.E.B.

DuBois termed the “Sorrow Songs.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these coalesced into the quintessential African American music: “blues songs seem to turn up everywhere in the Deep South more or less simultaneously—in rural areas, small towns, and cities such as New Orleans and Memphis” (Evans 79). Often the blues were sung by a single individual, accompanying himself on a guitar. Love, sex, betrayal, poverty, drinking, bad luck, and an itinerant lifestyle are its themes.

–  –  –

orchestras, were popularizing the style on records.

Meanwhile the folk blues, primarily employing guitar and vocals (as well as harmonica), remained alive in the Mississippi Delta. Scarcely noticed by the outside world, delta blues and country blues were recorded on “race records” and sold to an African American audience. In the 1940s, the folklorist Alan Lomax travelled the Delta collecting and recording the music, bringing such undiscovered artists as McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, to a wider audience.

Alongside the early blues, African American spirituals filled churches and held communities together. In the 20th century these would evolve into gospel, with Thomas Dorsey the most recognized composer and conductor and Mahalia Jackson the paradigmatic singer. Black church music, however, has not penetrated mainstream American society like other forms and is not a focus of this article. Nevertheless, the church and its music have been influential in every form of African American music. The relationship with the blues is particularly close: “The struggle between the ‘calling’ of the blues and the calling of gospel is frequently understood as the struggle for the souls of individuals; gospel artists get filled with the Holy Spirit in church, while blues artists make deals with the devil at desolate crossroads” (Asma). Indeed, legendary early bluesman Robert Johnson was said to have derived his skill from the devil.





Ragtime, New Orleans Jazz and Big Band

–  –  –

While ragtime had numerous composers, both black and white, the most famous of these is Scott Joplin, whose “Maple Leaf Rag” became the standard for this style of music. (His piece “The Entertainer” would later become the theme music for the movie “The Sting.”) Ragtime may be seen as an antecedent to jazz, although the genres developed in parallel. Jazz appeared in the 1910s in New Orleans, a city that Charles Joyner describes “at the dawn of the twentieth century” as “a crossroads of musical traditions.... into its streets flowed black and white migrants from the countryside who encountered for the first time the city's cosmopolitan mix of European and African musical traditions” (7). While this turbulent blend of cultures served as a breeding ground for the new, jazz itself emerged as a meeting of blues music, often considered “lower class,” with the more classically trained tradition of New Orleans’ mixed race population. Blues singers such as Bessie Smith are often considered early jazz innovators, as the distinction between blues and jazz was still blurry.

But what is jazz? A simplistic way to look at it is as a syncopated version of the Blues. One element often considered essential to jazz is swing, a propulsive, danceable beat; as Duke Ellington said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Another crucial jazz element is improvisation—jazz musicians strive not to play the same piece in exactly the same way twice. Still another is the use of complex chord progressions. As the music has evolved over the years, the balance of these elements has changed.

From the start, the European musical establishment has considered jazz, like other African American forms, either a lesser form of music or not music at all. In 1928, Sigmund Spaeth argued that “music is the organization of sound toward beauty, and thus far jazz has merely distorted the organizing factors of rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.” With time, of course, the elements of jazz came to seem normal to many listeners, yet later styles came along, themselves to be greeted as abominations. However, jazz came to be embraced by several 20th century composers, notably Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky.

Early New Orleans Jazz was relatively simple compared to what would come later. Group improvisation predominated, as did individual style. Because the amount of musical education varied greatly, and was often limited, early jazz took advantage of the strengths of the individual musicians.

Buddy Bolden is often considered the leader of the first jazz band, with Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton the first important jazz composer. Yet New Orleans jazz really took off with Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter (who sidelined as a singer and the inventor of scat singing).

Starting off in the King Oliver band, Armstrong had an overpowering tone and originality, which led to his becoming the first great jazz soloist. Indeed, after Armstrong, simultaneous group improvisation faded, with the soloist predominant in jazz ever since. Armstrong would soon make a

–  –  –

In a 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom, Benny Goodman brought the Big Band style to a larger, more respectable audience. Big Band became America’s music, a single dominant style.

Yet white jazz leaders, such as Goodman, Paul Whiteman and Glenn Miller, received most of the financial rewards. The pattern of white musicians reaping money and glory performing black styles is a recurring one; nevertheless, Goodman did his best to help the careers of black composers and musicians, such as Fletcher Henderson and Lionel Hampton.

Also propelling the popularity of the big bands were the singers. Love songs predominated, often from Broadway. While the music and lyrics could be simple, the singers’ individual stylings added sophistication. Probably the two most important were Ella Fitzgerald, who mastered both a surprisingly cool yet nuanced style for love songs and a fast-tempo scatting approach, and the gutsier, bluesier Billie Holiday.

The arrival of World War II made continuation of the big bands difficult, as many of the musicians were drafted, and money was scarce to pay a large orchestra. By the war’s end the peak days of the big band were over; America would never again have such a quintessential style of music popular with both blacks and whites.

Jump Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Electric Blues

–  –  –

master of jump blues was Louis Jordan, who wrote humorous songs about, among other things, chickens, parties gone bad, and that old blues standard – failed love affairs.

Jump blues was the first style to be called “Rhythm and Blues,” which, Portia Maultsby explains, originated in 1949 as “a catch-all term first use by the music industry to market all styles of Black music recorded by Blacks for Black consumers” (246-7). The term has evolved over time;

today’s “R&B” sounds quite different from Rhythm and Blues of the 1950s.

–  –  –

Bebop and Modern Jazz Beginning in the late 1940s, such innovators as saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie began the movement known as bebop, marked by increased speed and rhythmic and melodic complexity. Bebop moved jazz away from a popular, danceable style to a small group form dominated by soloists. In the process, jazz became an art music with a shrinking number of listeners. As the old big bands died, many of the band leaders derided bebop, questioning its musicality and relevance. Still, jazz remained culturally powerful, influencing the movement known as the Beats, which rebelled from the materialism of mainstream America.

–  –  –

of solos, modern jazz went rapidly through a number of phases. Pianist Thelonious Monk took a unique approach to bebop, experimenting with minimalism and time changes. Beginning in the late 1950s, Miles Davis was a prime mover in the “cool” school, which emphasized melody and “leaned toward an aesthetic that less is more” (Monson 158). Davis’ style soon evolved into modal jazz, which deemphasized traditional chord changes, a style notable on the seminal album “Kind of Blue.” During the same period, hard bop took a faster, noisier approach, with loud and complex rhythms. In the early 1960s, Davis’ acolyte John Coltrane took the innovations of both hard bop and cool jazz in a fast and furious direction emphasizing long solos. Late in his career, Coltrane became a proponent of avant-garde jazz, which threw out traditional structure and is closely associated with free jazz, whose most famous exponent is Ornette Coleman.

–  –  –

Soul and Funk While modern jazz had a relatively small audience in the African American community, soul, which blends gospel with rhythm and blues, became the predominant popular form. Early soul can almost be seen as a secular form of gospel, in which worship of a human love object replaces worship of Jesus. Indeed Sam Cooke, the first great figure in soul, started out as a gospel singer and continued to perform gospel throughout his career. Cooke’s music was beginning to move into social and political issues, in such songs as “A Change is Gonna Come,” when he was shot dead in 1964 at the age of 33. Otis Redding, another crucial early soul artist, developed a rougher style, and died young in a plane crash.

–  –  –

Despite such individual talents, Motown functioned as an ensemble, employing a stable of writers and musicians, the latter known as the Funk Brothers, tightly controlled by the label. Originally noted for fluffy love songs, by the late 1960s Motown joined the spirit of the times, putting out a number of socially oriented songs.

Other giants of soul include Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Charles began his career as a jazz artist in the 1950s and achieved crossover success in the 1960s with such hits as “Georgia on My Mind.” Considered the queen of soul, Franklin experimented with jazz early and also sang gospel throughout her career. She had her greatest success was in the late 1960s with such hits as “Respect,” but her career is long and varied. She is adept at taking material from a variety of sources, re-envisioning it, and making it her own, as with her version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Through the late 1960s and 1970s, soul moved to songs of political awareness and protest. Oddly, particularly considering its positioning at the height of the Civil Rights era, soul did not cross over to white artists as much as many other African American musical styles. Perhaps this is because many of the rock and roll artists in the late 1960s remained heavily influenced by blues.

–  –  –



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