From Ragtime to Rap

For Black History month, I want to lift up a very small and quirky sample of the rich and astonishingly various contributions that African Americans have made to the music of America. As I see it, Black History Month is to give us all an education, an education on facts and figures but also in the way that Black and White cultures have interacted over the years. Most of what I want to present to you this morning is on video clips, so I’m just going to offer a few words of introduction and context and then set up the screen.

In contrast to the ancestors of most of the rest of us, most of the ancestors of African-Americans came here against their will. They weren’t permitted to bring instruments, so what music they brought from Africa they brought in their heads. They could make drums when they got to America, but slaveholders soon realized that drums communicated messages and so banned them. Thus began a long tradition of white oppression and black subterfuge against that oppression. Some of the subterfuge took musical forms. The song “Wade in the Water,” for example, counsels slaves on how to avoid the bloodhounds if they escape.

One characteristic of African music which does carry over to the New World is its rhythmic sophistication. If you watch a West African dancer, you might see feet moving in one rhythm, hips in another and shoulders in another. So at the bidding of plantation masters, slaves might play the English, Irish and Scottish tunes on fiddle and banjo, an African instrument, but the tunes would come out sounding different in rhythm.

When the abolitionists first began to question the morality of slavery, the slave establishment responded by putting forth a caricature of the African American slave, what is called the Sambo stereotype. It became a popular form of entertainment to put on shows where white performers would dress up in blackface and show how stupid, lazy and shiftless African Americans were. This was the minstrel show. It lasted into the early twentieth century, and even attracted some African American performers. Golden Slippers, for example, one of the most popular pieces of sheet music in the nineteenth century, was written by James Bland in 1879. Though Bland was African American, he wrote the lyrics in stereotypical Black dialect because that is the way it would have been performed onstage.

One offshoot of the minstrel show was ragtime, a music which had a syncopated melody played against a straight rhythm, usually on piano.

The origin of the blues is shrouded in mystery, but the southland, as the old song goes, seems to have given it birth. It is a simple musical form, 12 bars long in its classic form, and the stanza typically has a first line which gets repeated and then answered in the third line. Country blues was played on guitar by a solo performer. As more African Americans relocated to northern cities between the world wars, there developed a Chicago style of blues.

Jazz is something else altogether. It started in New Orleans in the 19-teens. Louis Armstrong started as a cornetist with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and soon went off on his own. In the 1930s and 40s, big bands dominated the jazz scene. Later, when bebop came in, small ensembles became more common.

Jazz originated in Black culture, but soon developed a white following. It was in the 1920s, in the Harlem Renaissance, that the Cotton Club thrived, yet it was not free of racist stereotypes, for the decor provided a jungle theme.

Gospel music grew out of the traditions of the black spiritual from slavery days, but flowered in a more urban environment in the twentieth century. There was crossover between gospel and blues, as shown by the career of Thomas Dorsey, who wrote “Precious Lord, t take my hand.” The most popular type of music for the second half of the twentieth century was rock and roll. Rock and roll developed from rhythm and blues, which has its origin in African American innovators such as Little Richard and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It should be noted here that African Americans were also active in classical music in the twentieth century, but they were often kept out of conservatories or orchestras because of racism. Rap, according to one reliable source, 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.” It continued the tradition of Black resistance to the dominant culture, but that resistance dropped any pretense of subterfuge.

The videos

1. Moving Star Hall Singers: You Gotta Move

An example of the “shouting style” spiritual, this group from the Gullah culture of the SC Sea Islands explodes in polyrhythms halfway through the piece.

2. Robert Johnson, Sweet Home ChicagoThe king of the country blues.

3. B.B. King, guitar soloChicago blues great in one of his best solos.

4. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “Dream a Little Dream of Me”

5. Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers, “Jumpin’ Jive” from the film “Stormy Weather”

This song is of course sung by African American performers but the composer was white; the song is included here because the composer was a member of our congregation in the late 1980s.

6. Florence Price, Violin Concerto in D (excerpt)

In November 1943, the composer Florence Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking him to consider performing her scores.

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility,” she said. “Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.”

It was her second letter to Koussevitzky; there is no evidence he ever replied to her.

7. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “This Train”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an early influence on the development of Rock and roll.

8. Queen Latifah, U.N.I.T.Y.

Queen Latifah is one of the preeminent women in rap.

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