Black History Month & Music: Part 12 of 12

At the beginning of this month I set out to bring focused attention to the musical side of Black history. I can undoubtedly tell you that during these last four weeks, my outlook has been changed.

I’ve always had an appreciation of how the world of music was changed by African-Americans, but now I really get it. And personally, I’ve only just begun to learn. I challenge you to dig, and dig some more. Continue to unearth knowledge that blows apart everything you thought you knew about the music and artists you love.

Our collective history is a rich one, replete with plenty of sex, drugs, rock, roll, pain, murder, lies, soul, mystery, inspiration, heart, darkness, evil, good and general heartache. It’s no wonder that so much of the resultant art is incredibly inspiring and timeless.

And I leave you with one of the most timeless and talented artists to come out of the past 30-40 years: Jay-Z. The first video was the intro to this year’s Super Bowl, a very cool version of “Run This Town.” The second video is a remarkable “Young Forever,” by Jay-Z and Mr. Hudson (original “Forever Young” by Alphaville).

Enjoy, and don’t stop here…


Black History Month & Music: Part 11 of 12

“In Elvis Presley, the complex issues of race, class, age, region and commerce intersected. The collision that transpired ostensibly suggested (strongly) that the popular music establishment discriminated against African American performers. Sam Phillips’s famous search for a white man who could perform with the same feeling as the black vocalists he recorded merely exposed the racial intolerance and segregated circumstances inherent in the music industry after World War II. The Sun Records producer realized that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success.”

-From Michael T. Bertrand’s Race, Rock and Elvis

This is not a post to bring further attention to a white guy during black history month. Not even close. The point here is to fully consider the reality of how Rock and Roll got started in the middle of some of the most ridiculous racial prejudice in history.

Elvis Presley played an important role in the progression of Rock and Roll (and popular music in general).

Bertrand continues in his book:

“In discussing the circumscribed environment from which rock ‘n’ roll emerged during the 1950s, Carl Perkins suggested that popular music may have challenged the South’s racial institutions. As he recalled:

‘There was an integration problem in this part of America, a pretty severe problem back then. But there was no [segregation] in music. When you walked up to an old ’54 or ’55 model Wurlitzer jukebox, it [didn’t say] “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins, white, “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino, black. No. There was no difference. Kids danced to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis…Chuck Berry said to me one time, he said, “You know Carl, we might be doing as much with our music as our leaders are in Washington to bring down the barriers.” He was right.’

Perkins and Berry presented an intriguing appraisal of race relations in the South after World War II. The two musicians, one white, the other black, suggested that popular music may have helped alter the age-old conventions and customs associated with regional racial intolerance. They also equated the undertakings of rock ‘n’ roll artists and audiences to the deeds of politicians and statesmen. Popular culture and music, they implied, are as relevant and reliable in gauging past social tendencies and trends as legislation, executive orders, or judicial decisions.”

Have many white artists profited from the influences and works of many black artists? Absolutely. Is it right? No. But during the middle of the twentieth century, in a country where racial tensions were extremely high, the fact that anything positive came out as a result of the mess is some sort of miracle.

The following is a 10-minute video on Elvis’s impact, from the 2001 PBS documentary “American Roots Music.”

Black History Month & Music: Part 8 of 12


There is an amazing, four-part music documentary released in 2001 by PBS called “American Roots Music.” The coverage it contains is absolutely splendid. To further show the rich and vital music history of African-Americans, please budget in some time to watch the following clips.

Blues and Jazz


Race Records

Bukka White and Son House

Muddy Waters

Chicago Blues

Chess Records, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry

Black History Month & Music: Part 7 of 12

Can you imagine using a label such as “race records” to differentiate music? In the 1920, ’30s and part of the ’40s, that was commonplace, and really not even meant as negative in most cases.

According to the Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Media Industry and Society,

“The introduction of the term ‘Race music’ for blues and related African-American musical forms is usually credited to Harry H. Pace of OKeh. An isue of the Chicago Defender published in March 1922 carried an invitation to its readers to ‘ask your neighborhood dealer for a complete list of OKeh race records.’ Such segregated lists were to be known as ‘Race catalogs,’ and some of these became much sought after. They included the Paramount catalog of 1924 and the Victor catalog of 1930; the former was illustrated with line drawings, and the latter (which listed ‘Vocal Blues, Religious, Spirituals, Red Hot Dance Tunes, Sermons, Novelties’) had vignette photographs of singers and preachers. Portrait photographs were used on the art deco-style covers of the 1938 and 1940 Decca Race records catalogs….After World War II, the segregated ‘Race’ or ‘sepia’ catalog all but disappeared – for example, the newly formed Capitol Records had a single roster containing both black and white acts.”

The following are examples of images, mostly from OKeh and Paramount, that show “Race” being used as a selling point for music.

Black History Month & Music: Part 6 of 12

The recently begun “Hallowed Ground” feature on Clore Chronicles continues within the Black History Month & Music series by highlighting a few, key locations in Black Music history.

Faubourg Treme, New Orleans. The oldest Black neighborhood in America. It’s the home of Jazz and where the Civil Rights Movement started. Check out this trailer for a 2007-documentary entitled Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.

Harlem, New York City. The Apollo.

Detroit. Hitsville U.S.A, Motown’s original headquarters.

Memphis. Beale Street.

Clarksdale, Mississippi. Where Robert Johnson allegedly made a deal with the Devil.

Steps of The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. Among other events, in 1939, Marian Anderson performed an Easter day concert here (photo below) after being denied access to Constitution Hall due to her race.

Black History Month & Music: Part 5 of 12

The founding of higher education institutions for African-Americans played a significant role in the development and advancement of the Black population. Founded mostly in the 1800s, some pre-Civil War, most post, what is now referred to as an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) has produced a number of individuals that have had a significant impact on culture. For example: Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State), Reverend Jesse Jackson (North Carolina A&T), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse), Justice Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University), Toni Morrison (Howard University), Ed Bradley (Cheyney University), Spike Lee (Morehouse), and Andrew Young (Howard University).

As of today (February 2010), 105 HBCUs are in operation. Their current perceptions are mixed, at best, and the state of America’s universities is not necessarily the point herein.

Either way, HBCUs are important, and filled a large and important education gap at their foundings.

From a book entitled Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 1976-1994, here’s a brief history:

“The story of HBCUs began prior to the Civil War. The earliest of these colleges was formed during the 1830s (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) to counter the prevailing practice of limiting or prohibiting altogether the education of blacks, most of whom were still slaves. Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce College in Ohio were the only two black schools established in the 1850s by blacks in their effort toward self-education. However, it was not until after the Civil War that the federal government (through the Freedmen’s Bureau), the black community, and various philanthropic organizations began intensive, organized efforts to educate the former slaves. Many of the schools founded during this period were primarily religious schools such as Edward Waters College in Florida, Fisk University in Tennessee, and Talladega College in Alabama.”

Which brings us to arguably one of the most important schools (not only from HBCUs, but all colleges and universities) to the progression of music: Fisk University.

Founded in 1866 in Nashville, Fisk University (still) gives us the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers. According to Fisk’s website,

“Fisk’s world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville in 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school. The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillip, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria. The Jubilee Singers introduced much of the world to the spiritual as a musical genre – and in the process raised funds that preserved their University…The contemporary Jubilee Singers perform in a University convocation – and conclude the day’s ceremonies with a pilgrimage to the grave sites of the original singers, where once again, the old songs are sung at the burial places of their first performers.”

Listen to the early-1900s version of The Fisk Jubilee Singers (and Quartette) on Document Records’ The Earliest Negro Vocal Groups Vol. 5 (1911-1926) on According to Arwulf Arwulf on, the first  five tracks were “recorded onto Edison blue Ambersol phonograph cylinders on December 27, 1911 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartette.”

Black History Month & Music: Part 4 of 12

When you’re digging deeper into Rock ‘N’ Roll, you’re on a freight train headed straight for The Blues.

-Jack White, from the documentary It Might Get Loud

Don’t ever stop digging. Just when you think you’re getting close, I assure you there’s more. The stories are endless, and endlessly fascinating. If you want to fully begin to understand where we are today, you must spend copious amounts of time absorbing everything about The Blues.

From Paul Oliver’s book, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning In The Blues,

“With some speculation on the origins of the blues, which are admittedly obscure, it has been possible to trace its process of evolution and change in a sequence which becomes progressively more clear after the turn of the century [1900]. Buried deep in the fertile ground of Revival hymns, spirituals, minstrel songs, banjo and guitar rags, mountain ‘ballits’, folk ballads, work songs and field hollers, improvised by the field hands of a thousand southern plantations influenced the growth of this extempore song. They were sung by men at work but the blues evolved as a song primarily created by men at leisure, with the time and opportunity to play an instrumental accompaniment to their verses.”

The Blues were the magical next step in the musical evolution of the late 1800s to early 1900s United States. Its primary inspiration should always be kept in mind: the resultant hardships from slavery.

From Francis Davis’s The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People,

“In Elvis’s early interviews, when the subject of his influences came up, he inevitably praised black performers, admitting that he wasn’t doing anything they hadn’t been doing for years….If he hadn’t been a Southerner, he wouldn’t have been Elvis and probably wouldn’t have sung the blues with such natural feeling. And if he hadn’t sold all those records, American popular music might be quite different now. So might the patterns of contemporary American life.”

Make sure to make it to a Blues club (or twelve) in Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans or similar mecca, sometime in your lifetime.

Experiencing it is tantamount to understanding it.

The following five videos (around 7 min. each) comprise Martin Scorsese’s Nothing But The Blues. The video is a great way to begin to learn more about this most special of musical styles/genres.

Black History Month & Music: Part 3 of 12

“…As the legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker once told Down Beat magazine, ‘You take spirituals and the blues. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I’m right – the blues come from spirituals. They are the background of all music.’

The spirituals and gospel music endure because they matter, because their appeal, their power, cut across the generations, across racial and religious lines, across the ages, across the oceans.”

-From Robert Darden’s book People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music

A pivotal phase in not only Black History, but American History, was taking place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Fugitive Slave Act. Dred Scott. The Civil War. Emancipation. The founding of the Black University.

Truth was slowly getting harder to ignore; Black people were beginning to be heard.

And the church was very much the center.

“Above all, religion is, as Durkheim has made clear, a social phenomenon, a shared group experience that has shaped and influenced the cultural screens of human communication and interpretation….

…The Black Church has no challenger as the cultural womb of the black community. Not only did it give birth to new institutions such as schools, banks, insurance companies, and low income housing, it also provided an academy and an arena for political activities, and it nurtured young talent for musical, dramatic, and artistic development.”

-From Charles Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya’s The Black Church in the African-American Experience

The church is not perfect, that’s not even remotely the point here. The point is the importance of the spiritual, the unexplainable, that has tied so many together for so many years.

During the deepest, darkest days of U.S. slavery, work songs, call and responses, spirituals, were the motivator for so many that had to count on something beyond what could physically be seen.

The church didn’t (or doesn’t) necessarily always represent a building, or a higher power, or a group of people, but a common ground in the midst of a broken and weary world. During this most formulative time in American History, the church took on arguably more importance, especially among African-Americans.

The church has been the incubator for numerous, legendary talent in the American musical repertoire, from Aretha to Beyonce.

In the vast topic being studied herein, the spiritual side laid, and continues to lay, the foundation.

Black History Month & Music: Part 2 of 12

“The musical capacity of the negro race has been recognized for so many years, that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has hitherto been made to collect and preserve their melodies.”

-First paragraph in a book called Slave Songs of the United States, published 1867

The dark side of America’s history is not hard to find. The horrendous, forced importation of fellow human beings from the continent of Africa, which began in the 1600s, is one of the darkest.

Slavery in America.

I realize it may be easy for me to live in 2010 and see the unquestionable evil that pervaded(s) such a system; either way it’s amazing to me that someone, anyone, thought this was a remotely proper way of life. Amazing that someone thought the economic benefit outweighed the rights of a fellow man. Amazing that someone thought the black race needed to be kept away from the white race, or any related vice versa.

Anyway, we are here to talk about the music that came as a result of this reality. Not to praise the situation of whence it was born, but to begin to peer into the life of African-Americans that did live this life and the songs that emanated from them.

The day-to-day life of a slave in the U.S. between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was not pleasant. They had little, if any, control over much of anything. Communication became extremely important from slave to slave. However, due to the strict nature (of everything) enforced by the slave master, slaves had to get creative in how they communicated with each other, mostly to avoid raising suspicions of those keeping an eye on them.

Enter music. Enter work songs. Enter call and response songs. Enter art that literally changed the course of history.

“…Slaves had to depend on ingenuity, imagination, and the creative use of information. They also used whites’ racial stereotypes to their advantage whenever possible. Since slaveholders generally assumed that slaves’ singing connoted contentment and passivity, the slaves used music to pass along messages, to control the pace of work, to placate a suspicious master, or to subtly comment on a person or a situation for the benefit or amusement of fellow slaves.”

-From James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s Slavery and the Making of America

Music allowed some sense of normalcy to be maintained. Amidst chaos, the tender hum of a melody could simultaneously calm fears while bringing encouragement of a better life to come.

“Steal Away” is a beautiful and poignant example. The following video contains the amazing Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole singing the piece on Cole’s NBC television show in 1957.

In their book Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic share more about these types of songs, along with an explanation of “Steal Away.”

“The African-American spiritual Steal Away is located within the tradition of escape songs, a series of codes embedded in music and sung by slaves to alert each other to the time for escape from bondage to freedom. Slaves sang these songs under the very noses of their captors, who were unable to hear in the music any force that might subvert their own authority.

Escape songs present a dialectic of power, deceit, and identity. By appearing to live out the identity of beasts of burden, loyal and unintelligent, lowing to each other in soothing, unpolitical tones, slaves were able to carve out time and space for resistance and could formulate their escape plans in the very presence of their captors. The marginality of slaves made it possible for them to effect their escape from a destructive culture and to construct their own identities.

Steal Away is especially powerful in its use of theft imagery as a means of redemption. The song calls upon slaves to ‘steal,’ that is, to break the law in order to reclaim themselves. By stealing away, slaves took it upon themselves to subvert, by means of deceit, theft, and disruption, the oppressive institutions of the prevailing social order. Theft, disorder, and deceit, images we are trained to accept as incompatible with the law, nevertheless provided slaves and their descendants with a positive alternative to oppression. One hundred thirty years after emancipation, ‘stealing away’ continues to describe African-American culture and, by extension, all communities of color that construct cultural identities as outlaws in a radical and positive alternative to oppression and exclusion.”

“Steal Away” was (likely) written by freedman Wallace Willis, who is also credited with writing another important negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

The documentation of this time-period is unsurprisingly sketchy, but information does exist for those who desire to dig. The opening quote contained in this post is taken from arguably the first, official collection of these amazing, remarkable and timeless songs. In the following 18-minute video, from PBS’s program “History Detectives,” which explores historical mysteries, Wes Cowan explores the origination of the book.

Black History Month & Music: Part 1 of 12

The origins of our music are rarely what we assume. The true influences have been so spun and falsified that if you only pay attention to the surface you will miss some of the deepest and most meaningful knowledge about the soundtrack to our lives.

February is Black History Month. Throughout these next 28 days, we will begin to explore the true origins of today’s popular music via a 12-part series. In it we will delve into who really inspired who, who gave us recorded music and who really started this never-ending category of music we refer to as rock and roll.

Princeton University professor, Dr. Cornel West, is one of the most knowledgeable historians in the area of Black history; but it’s his delivery that matters. What follows is a 5-minute video, culled from the documentary Call + Response, which contains Dr. West sharing about the overall importance of not only music, but how its history would be an entirely different one if not for the indelible influence of many of our African-American friends.

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