The history of African American music is one of the greatest legacies of American culture to the world. Its history dates back to the African heritage of the slaves and encompasses the music developed from slavery to the present. The colonists brought their European tradition in music with them. But the most original American music was developed by African Americans. From work songs to rap and the hip-hop urban culture, the history of music created by Blacks has had a great impact on the world.
Music of Slavery
Music was a natural part of the life of the Africans who were brought to North America as slaves. The enslaved Africans never forgot the importance of music and dance in their lives. The arrival of new slaves kept the tradition alive. The music of African Americans has been recognized as one of the greatest contributions of African Americans to American and world cultures.
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The Northern colonies held slave festivals. One of the best known was the Pinskter Festivals held in cities around the state of New York. African Americans performed traditional dances and music in front of large crowds of whites. There were also annual fairs in Philadelphia. And at the Place Congo in New Orleans, slaves performed traditional dances on Sunday afternoons.
African Americans adapted to the music traditions of the white colonists. They learned to play the violin, the flute, the French horn and the trumpet. These players performed at dances and were musicians for dancing schools. Drummers and fife players accompanied military units and some African Americans performed in white society dance orchestras. While attending the churches of the white colonists, African Americans learned their psalms and later their hymns.
By the end of the 1820s, slavery had been abolished in the North. African Americans were able to study with music teachers.
Distinction as the first African American music teacher is given to Newport Gardner. He taught African American and white students in New England. Pioneer concert artists were Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the “Black Swan,” and Thomas Bowers, the “Colored Mario.”
In the 1830s, African Americans organized a symphony orchestra in New Orleans and founded brass bands throughout the North, Midwest and the South. Established music publishers printed the music of African American composers such as Francis Johnson, William Brady, A. J. R. Connor, Edmund Dede, Henry F. Williams and Justin Holland. The separation of worship by African Americans gained momentum after the American Revolution. Richard Allen founded the first independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, in 1794. He published the first hymnal exclusively for African Americans, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Sources by Richard Allen African Minister, in 1801. By the middle 1800s, the AME church had expanded and their musical activities included trained choirs, musical accompaniment and concerts. Other denominations were formed and they engaged in similar practices.
African Americans became more involved in music as the history of the century progressed. Antislavery songs were developed. More bands, orchestras and choral groups were formed. During the Civil War, the Union Army organized African American musicians into regimental bands. The Confederate Army pressed slaves into service as drummers and fifers.
The Music Historical Legacy Begins
The history of the African American musical legacy is comprised of spirituals, ragtime, blues, jazz, boogie woogie, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Each is uniquely African American. Each has been copied or mimicked by other ethnic groups.
Prior to the nineteenth century, the most distinct culture in the United States was that of Native Americans. The colonists who settled the United States brought their European traditions with them.
When the colonists embarked on slavery as a means of cheap labor, they imported a proud people with distinct native cultural traditions. Music was an integral part of their lives. The colonists had no idea that these proud people would meld their traditions and their life experiences. These experiences became the instruments of cultural change in the United States. One of America’s major cultural contributions to the world has been the musical legacy of African Americans.
Spirituals are songs borne out of the anguish of slavery. They were outpourings to God for deliverance from their ordeal. During slavery African Americans attended the church services of their masters. They learned the psalms and the hymns, but the spirituals have a style that is uniquely African American.
Two musical forms developed in the late nineteenth century were ragtime and the blues. Ragtime was the first African American music to appeal to an international audience. It is often associated with music composed by Scott Joplin. Its origins are unknown but its roots are in the music of early African American piano players.
The blues is an individual expression. Its origins are in the African American work songs and the life experiences of African Americans from slavery to the present day. The blues have always been popular with African Americans. The musical form began in the Southern states. As African Americans migrated to the North, so did the blues. The blues has influenced jazz, gospel, and rock and roll music.
More African American music forms were developed in the twentieth century: boogie woogie, jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues.
Boogie woogie is thought to have originated in the Southwest region of the United States. It was being played in jook joints from Texas to Tennessee. W. C. Handy reported hearing it in Memphis, Tennessee. Jimmy Yancey is considered the father of boogie woogie. This musical form was an influence on both the Kansas City big band sound and rock and roll.
Work songs, spirituals, and the blues make up the elements of jazz. Jazz ensembles are based on the brass bands and society orchestras of the nineteenth century. Improvisation is a key element of jazz, as is using instruments for vocalization.
Gospel music is urban. Where spirituals are exhortations to God for deliverance from adverse conditions, gospel songs are joyful. Gospel songs are composed. Charles Tindley published New Songs of Paradise (1916), the first collection of composed gospel music. Thomas A. Dorsey popularized gospel music.
Popular African American music is known as rhythm and blues (R&B;). It is a blend of blues, boogie woogie, jazz and gospel. This musical genre became very popular with white artists who recorded the songs written and sung by African Americans. This musical blend can be found in the boogie woogie style of piano playing by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and the gospel style of Ray Charles. African Americans continue to create new music styles, including Hip-Hop and Rap, which are copied by others.
Many white artists, including Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, have cited the legacy of African American music as influences on their own.
AACM – The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians
AACM, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, is a non-profit organization based in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1965 the association is a collective of African American musicians and composers. The members are dedicated to creating serious, original music. When the organization was founded, there were not many outlets for showcasing their work. They decided to create their own outlets. The association also established a school of music which offers free music training for city youth. The members, some of whom learned their craft at the school, teach there.
The association’s founders included pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and composer Phil Cohran. Widely recognized as being in the forefront of experimental jazz, the work of each musician member stands on its own. As a collective, the members continue to pursue the goals of the organization.