The History of African-American Music

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 3,959 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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From the lyrical cries of black street vendors in 18th-century Philadelphia to the infectious dance rhythms of the Motown sound, African-American music has been heard at all times and in every corner of America. African-American involvement in the nation's music making has influenced every genre of American music, helping to create a sound now recognized as distinctly American. Reflecting both the hardships and triumphs black Americans have experienced in the United States, their music has also served to shape the national identity, profoundly influencing the lives of all Americans.


The first Africans transported to this country came from a variety of ethnic groups with a long history of distinct and cultivated musical traditions. Some were able to bring musical instruments with them or build new ones in this country. The "banja" or "banshaw," now known as the banjo, was one of the African instruments that continued to be built and played in America. Africans in America also fashioned numerous types of drums and percussion instruments from whatever materials they could gather. Slaveholders eventually discovered that African slaves were using drums to communicate among themselves, however, and by the 1700s drums had been banned on many plantations.

African-American slaves on southern plantations cultivated their own musical styles, which later evolved into gospel, blues, and what is now known as bluegrass and country music. Slave fiddlers often provided dance music for the southern white gentry, and the sound we recognize today as country fiddling is partially the product of the slave fiddler. Most slaves were not allowed to own instruments or could not afford to purchase them. However, using makeshift instruments and their own bodies, they created unique musical ensembles. One of the most pervasive holdovers from African music was an emphasis on rhythm and the use of complex polyrhythms still found in African music.

Over time, many distinct practices and traditions of African music were either forgotten or blended with other musical traditions. Nevertheless, African music continued to flow into the New World as a result of the slave trade, which continued illegally well into the 19th century despite its official abolition in 1808.


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. Beginning in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the United States and Europe performing Negro spirituals for white audiences. Until they brought these songs to national and international attention, Negro spirituals were widely considered crude and embarrassing holdovers from slavery. The success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers spawned a number of similar black jubilee singing groups and contributed a sense of pride to many newly emancipated blacks.

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, particular 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. Today, black concert singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle continue to perform the composers' arrangements.


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. Blackface minstrelsy, a popular entertainment throughout most of the 19th 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. African-American composers such as Ernest Hogan (?-1090), Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), and the musical team of Bob Cole (1868-1911) and Billy Johnson popularized this style of music and brought it to the Broadway and off-Broadway stages in the late 1800s.

The standard ragtime piece consists of several different musical ideas, or strains, held together by a main opening theme. The strains, which are often sixteen bars in length, are highly syncopated and alternate with the main theme throughout the piece. The standard left-hand technique of piano rag evolved from the martial rhythms of marching bands, and later, during the early 1900s, it became the basis for the jazz piano style called "stride." Although the rags we hear today are played at very fast tempos, the traditional ragtime performances were more stately and unrushed.


The blues is perhaps the simplest American musical form and yet also the most versatile. Along with jazz, blues takes its shape and style in the process of performance, and for this reason it possesses a high degree of flexibility. Although certain musical and lyrical elements of the blues can be traced back to West Africa, the blues, like the spiritual, is a product of slavery. When and where did the blues originate? No one can say for sure. We know only that it began in the South during slavery and, in the years following slavery, spread throughout the region as early bluesmen wandered from place to place. One of them, Bunk Johnson (1879-1949), claimed to have played nothing but blues as a child during the 1880s.

The musical structure of the blues is very simple, built upon three main chords. In the standard blues, called the twelve-bar blues, a certain idea is expressed twice in a repeated lyric and then responded to or completed in a third line. As a way of putting his or her own "signature" on a song, a blues singer will at certain points use vocal scoops, swoops, and slurs, imitate sounds of the accompanying instrument (usually a guitar), or add percussive elements to the rendition.

The songwriter W.C. Handy (1873-1958) popularized the blues when he published his "Memphis Blues" in 1912 and the "St. Louis Blues" in 1914. These two songs created an unprecedented vogue for the blues, and their popularity, and the success of those who sang them, carried the blues all over the world. The 1920s are considered the era of classic blues, a style popularized by black women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter (1895-1984), and Ethel Waters (1900-1979). The soulful sophistication and haunting beauty of their blues performances were altogether new to American audiences. Bessie Smith, perhaps the most famous of the classic blues singers, epitomized the form's emotional power, while Ma Rainey's singing captured its racy, theatrical side.

During the 1920s, interest shifted from classic blues sung by women to country blues performed most often by men. This "down-home" blues was sometimes performed with banjo, string, or jug band accompaniment, although the favored accompaniment was the guitar. In country blues, the vocal quality was gritty, strained, and nasal, and the voice was "played" in a variety of ways. Singers used falsetto, hummed, and achieved percussive effects using both voice and instrument. Among the best-known country blues singers were Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson (?-1938), Blind Boy Fuller (1908-1941), Gus Cannon, and Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly") (1885-1949), who also performed a variety of nonblues folk music.

With the migration of black Southerners to northern urban centers, urban blues came into being. It flourished in the period following World War II, especially in Chicago, where the music of migrants from the Mississippi Delta produced a form known as "Chicago blues." The distinctive features of urban blues include amplified guitar and harmonica and a band accompaniment of drums, bass guitar, and piano. The most famous urban blues performers included Muddy Waters (b. 1918), Howlin' Wolf (1910-1975), B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker.


Jazz, which has been called "America's classical music," is perhaps the most creative and complex music the nation has produced. Although no one can say for sure where the origins of jazz lie, it combines the musical traditions of black New Orleans with the creative flexibility of the blues. By 1918, the term "jazz" was already in wide use. Early jazz performers included the cornetist Sydney Bechet (1897-1959), the pianists Jelly Roll Morton (1885-1941) and Eubie Blake (1883-1893), and the bandleader James Reese Europe (1881-1919). Among the earliest ensembles were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

The trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) became the first jazz musician to achieve national and international recognition with the success of his "West End Blues" in the 1920s. Armstrong achieved stardom as a cornetist in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and went on to form his own ensembles, the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens, in the 1920s. Armstrong's lyricism and his technical and improvisational finesse pointed the way for many future jazz artists.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the most popular form of jazz was the big-band sound. Ensembles such as Count Basie's Big Band set the standard for what was known as "swing," a hard-driving, fast-paced sound in which instruments played in close harmony. The Duke Ellington Band, which spanned over half a century, was among the most innovative of the big bands. Its unique sound was characterized by collective improvisation, innovative harmonies, exceptional arrangements, and wide expressive timbres.

The most revolutionary of jazz styles, bebop, was performed by an ensemble significantly smaller than the big band: a rhythm section consisting of piano, string bass, drums, and sometimes guitar, which backed up soloists on trumpet or alto or tenor saxophone. Bebop evolved in the 1940s out of jam sessions held at Harlem clubs such as Minton's Playhouse. Among those who jammed at Minton's were the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie(1917-1993), the tenor saxophonist Charlie Parker (1970-1955), the pianist Thelonious Monk (b. 1917), the guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942), and the drummer Kenny Clarke. Other bebop musicians included the bass player Jimmy Blanton, the pianist Bud Powell (1924-1966), the tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959), and the drummer Max Roach (b. 1925). These performers and other contributed their own characteristic techniques and styles to the sound of bebop. While bebop took up many of the swing standards of the big-band era, its emphasis on improvisation, as well as its new harmonies, changed both the character and color of the old songs.

Bebop set the standard for every style that followed: cool jazz with its modal sound—developed by Lester Young and popularized by the trumpeter Miles Davis (b. 1926), also a bebop musician—as well as the experimental and introspective transformations of the alto saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967). In "hard bop," certain bebop trademarks were combined with other musical styles, such as gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues, to produce a "funkier" and more danceable sound. Hardboppers included Max Roach, the pianist Horace Silver (b. 1928), the saxophonists Dexter Gordon (b. 1923), Julian "Cannonball" Adderly (1928-1975), Jackie McLean (b. 1932), Hank Mobley (b. 1930), and Sonny Rollins (b. 1939), and the trumpeters Fats Navarro (1923-1950), Nat Adderley (b. 1931), Clifford Brown (1930-1956), Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan (b. 1938), and Jimmy Smith.

During the 1960s and 1970s, jazz artists began to experiment with standard chord and scale structures and the rhythms of traditional jazz. The result, often called "free jazz," was an attempt to expand upon the improvisational and experimental aspects of bebop. Among free-jazz artists were Sun-Ra and his Arkestra, the saxophonists Ornette Coleman (b. 1930), Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane, the bassist Charlie Mingus (1922-1979), and the bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy (1928-1964).


The sound of today's gospel music also has a long history in African-American music, having been influenced by everything from the ensemble performances of the jubilee singers during the late 1800s and early 1900s to the predominantly male gospel quartets and choirs of the 1930s and 1940s.

By the 1930s, Roberta Martin (1912-1969), Sallie Morton, and Thomas Dorsey (a former bluesman who went by the name "Georgia Tom" Dorsey) (b. 1899) had established a religious music whose sound became known as gospel. In the late 1920s, Dorsey began writing religious songs that combined the sustained lyrical quality of the spirituals with the more modern sound of the blues. His signature song, "Precious Lord," set the standard of early gospel music, known for its slow, expressive, almost unmeasured pace. "Precious Lord" was popularized by the singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), the best known of the early gospel singers, who was famed for her expressiveness and musical interpretation.

Out of the early jubilee ensembles grew the gospel quartets and choirs of the 1930s and 1940s, groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Clara Ward Singers. Their close harmonies and a cappella singing gave black church music a unique, soulful sound.

Later gospel singers like Shirley Caesar (b. 1938) and James Cleveland won fame among gospel enthusiasts for their inspirational and creative solos before choirs. Both Caesar and Cleveland excelled in a technique attributed to Willie Mae Ford Smith called "sermonizing." Sermonizing involved the soloist's spoken narration of a story (usually of spiritual redemption) either before or during the choir's singing. The soloist joined the choir in singing a refrain either during or after the spoken narration, and the song ended climactically with soloist and choir singing together.

Although today's gospel music often sounds similar to what is heard on the radio, it still retains its earlier emphasis on vocal embellishment, dramatic power, and a lengthening of the song for the purposes of creating musical tension. In fact, gospel has had a greater historical influence on popular black music than the reverse. Many soul and rhythm-and-blues singers, like Sam Cooke (1935-1964), Aretha Franklin (b. 1942), and Whitney Houston (b. 1963), began singing in black churches and in gospel choirs.


While a number of black female concert singers have achieved great popularity during the last fifty years, their success is not altogether new. Their way was paved by earlier classical singers like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1876). The first of the widely known black vocalists, Greenfield made her debut in 1853 in Philadelphia in a recital that was well reviewed in the white press. Other early African-American singers, all sopranos, were Nellie Mitchell Brown, Marie Selika Williams, Rachel Walker, and Flora Batson Bergen. Like Taylor, these women were praised for their wide vocal range and the brilliance of their singing.

Their careers were brief, however, and when the vogue for black sopranos ended in the 1890s, most retired from the concert stage. Black concert singers continued to perform before black audiences into the 20th century, although a few gained wider popularity, among them the contralto Marian Anderson, the soprano Dorothy Maynor (b. 1910), the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), and the baritones Jules Bledsoe (1848-1943) and Paul Robeson (1889-1976).

These performers broke racial barriers for African Americans, perhaps none so powerfully as Marian Anderson, who was described by the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini as possessing "a voice which one hears once in a hundred years." In 1955, when a white group tried to prevent her from performing with the Metropolitan Opera, Anderson protested, becoming the first African American to sing at the Met. After the 1950s, many other African-American classical musicians came to the concert stage: the singers Robert McFerrin (b. 1921) and Leontyne Price (b. 1927), the pianist Andre Watts, and the conductor Michael Morgan.

African Americans have also had a tradition as composers of classical music. The most well known black composers from the early part of the 20th century are Florence Price, R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), and William Grant Still (1895-1978) (who has been called the dean of Afro-American composers). The number of African Americans writing classical music has continued to grow with composers like Ulysses Kay (b. 1917), George Walker (b. 1922), Hale Smith (b. 1925), and Olly Wilson (b. 1937). Many have incorporated jazz and black folk music, such as spirituals, in their compositions.


Rap is the most complex and influential form of hip-hop culture, combining elements of the African-American musical tradition (blues, jazz, and soul) with Caribbean calypso, dub, and dance-hall reggae. Two of its earliest innovators were West Indians, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash.

The Jamaican DJ Kool Herc was known for using massive speaker systems and multiple turntables to create "break beats," an endless groove of dance beats. Like all of the early disc jockeys, Kool Herc used beats from all types of music from rock to soul, thus breaking down the artificial barriers between different musical categories. Sometimes he would recite or talk over the beats. This was one of the earliest forms of rapping. To sound-system technology and break beats, the Barbadian Grandmaster Flash added "scratching," a technique of turning two records back and forth on their turntables and scratching the needles both with and against the records' grooves.

The addition of "sampling" to Kool Herc's and Grandmaster Flash's original innovations catapulted rap into the major leagues. Samplers are computers that can digitally duplicate sounds in any key, pitch, or sequence. With samplers, rap producers like Hank Schocklee can reproduce anything from a television sitcom theme to a Beethoven symphony. The resulting "samples" can then be woven into rap music to create a multilayered background for rap lyrics.

Rapping is related to the African-American tradition of "toasting," a boastful or bragging form of storytelling that is usually political in content and aggressive in style. Early rappers worked with disc jockeys to heighten an audience's excitement while it listened to the disc jockeys' scratch and mix. They often competed against one another, using their verbal skill and poetic dexterity to out-rap each other.

Rap's subject matter varies. Rappers tell tragic tales of decaying neighborhoods, vicious murders, and police brutality. They celebrate black history, black families, and black communities, and they brag of their own successes in the bedroom, on the streets, and in the record studio. Women rappers like Queen Latifah and Yo-Yo complicate these subjects by celebrating female empowerment. In telling their ghetto-centric tales, male and female rappers make use of both American and black popular culture, drawing on characters from blaxploitation films like Superfly, gangster films like Scarface, and television series like "The Cosby Show." Above all, rap lyrics consistently attack economic and political inequalities, waging a full-scale assault on the institutions that keep most African Americans in poverty. The combination of gritty urban storytelling and beat-driven, technologically sophisticated music keeps hip-hop on the cutting edge of musical innovation.

Since rap exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1980s, it has generated many different schools and styles. Local crews have become regional posses: the West Coast rap style of Ice T, Ice Cube, and Snoop Doggy Dog has battled for ascendancy over the original East Coast style of Run D.M.C., KRS-One, and Gangstarr. Public Enemy, the original "prophets of rage," has been upstaged by the "gangsta rappers," whose violent tales of gang murders and the gun trade are set against a backdrop of inner-city decay.

More than ever before, women rappers are challenging male rappers' sexist lyrics and using rap lyrics to define an independent black female identity. For example, Queen Latifah, Salt 'N' Pepa, and MC Lyte criticize men who abuse and manipulate women. At the same time, they redefine the terms on which black women establish relationships with black men. Music video stations like Music Television (MTV) and Black Entertainment Television (BET) have also helped to propel female rappers into the spotlight, bringing their less aggressive style to a mainstream audience interested in tales of love rather than terror.


From the early slave fiddlers to the black minstrel troupes and beyond, African Americans have always been involved in America's popular music. The first known American musical group to travel abroad was a Philadelphia band led by a black man, Francis "Frank" Johnson (1792-1844). From the early to the mid-1800s, the Frank Johnson band performed military and dance music for white and black Philadelphians and toured the United States and England as well. In the early 20th century, blues and jazz musicians provided entertainment and dance music for much of America.

Each innovation in African-American popular music has been influenced by what came before. The rise of rhythm and blues in the 1950s was directly influenced by early gospel music and urban blues, particularly a style of music popularized by Louis Jordan (1908-1979) called "jump blues." The singers Chuck Berry and Little Richard transformed urban blues and into what became known as rock 'n' roll, perhaps the most popular musical style ever invented. In the 1950s and 1960s, record companies like Motown and Stax recorded numerous groups and soloists whose work left a lasting mark on American musical taste. Rooted in the Motown sound, artists such as Stevie Wonder (b. 1951) and Marvin Gaye (1940-1984) transformed it into a music called "soul."

Even those black artists whose music has been experimental and innovative have their roots in traditional black music. The rock guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) began his career in a rhythm and blues band, transforming the blues with a "psychedelic," highly amplified, and improvisational guitar sound. Despite its emphasis on improvisation and experimentation, however, Hendrix's music retained a blues sound.

Tracy Chapman's folk sound reminds its listeners of Nina Simone's (b. 1933) rich tones and smoky vocals. Bobby McFerrin's unique instrumental use of his voice harkens back to the a cappella gospel quartets, to jazz instrumentalists and vocalists like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday (1915-1959), and to scat vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald (b. 1918), and it draws as well upon West African and Caribbean rhythms.

Thus, while black musicians always seem to be creating something new, their work remains firmly rooted in the long tradition of African-American music.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2152000681