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Article African American Song

The Black Patti, Mme. M. Sissieretta Jones the greatest singer of her race

The Black Patti, Mme. M. Sissieretta Jones the greatest singer of her race. New York: Metropolitan Printing Co., 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number: LC-USZC4-5164

African Americans make up the single largest racial minority in the United States. [1] From slave era field hollers, spirituals, and gospel, to blues, soul, and hip-hop, American musical culture abounds with the influence of African American song.

Americans of African descent include many cultural and regional groups, including early settlers and immigrants from the Caribbean, immigrants from other parts of the Americas, and recent immigrants from African countries. But most African Americans are descendants of Africans who were forcibly brought to America through the slave trade. Early in the colonial era some were treated as indentured servants and freed after a period of time, resulting in a population of free African Americans even in the colonial era, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay region. There was also a significant population of free Blacks in Florida when it became a territory of the United States in 1822, mainly consisting of settlers from the Bahamas, runaway slaves from the Southern United States, and their descendants (see the related article "Bahamian American Song"). In what is now Louisiana, African Americans were brought as slaves during the French and Spanish colonial period or brought in by settlers after the Louisiana Purchase. In later periods free Blacks also emigrated from French speaking areas of the Caribbean. This mix developed into a group of people identified today as "Louisiana Creoles." For more on this topic see the article "French American Song."

An estimated 645,000 Africans were imported into the United States between 1650 and 1808 as slave labor. They came primarily from sub-Saharan Africa's northwestern and middle-western coastal regions and worked under harsh conditions predominantly in the cash crop economy of the rural South.

Songs During the Era of Slavery

The slaves brought musical traditions from Africa with them. Many of their activities, from work to worship, were steeped in song. African Americans accompanied their labor with work songs that often incorporated field hollers – call and response chants tinged with falsetto whoops called "arwhoolies." (Examples of field hollers are available in the "Traditional Work Songs" article.) They also fashioned instruments similar to those they had known in Africa. For example, the modern banjo is a descendent of African banjos.

Because colonists considered indigenous forms of African worship involving drumming and dancing to be idolatrous, the slaves performed their music-infused religious rites in seclusion. The slaves' informal gatherings in praise houses and brush arbor meetings in the eighteenth century involved songs and chants like the ring shout, a shuffling circular dance to chanting and handclapping. Sometimes the participants would enter ecstatic trances.

In the mid- to late 1700s free African Americans began forming religious groups apart from white congregations, organized by people educated by Methodists, Baptists, or the Society of Friends (Quakers), especially in the North. In some cases these efforts culminated in the development of fully independent African American churches. The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was organized by Richard Allen, a former slave, in 1793. The church that the congregation occupies today was dedicated in 1794. In 1801 Allen published the first hymnal compiled for African American congregations, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns, Selected From Various Authors. [2] Allen published his own hymn lyrics in other places that resemble some of those in his hymnal. So, in addition to compiling texts of popular hymns used in African American congregations from song sheets and, perhaps, oral tradition, he may have composed some of the lyrics in his hymnal as well. The hymnal includes some examples of what are called "wandering" refrains and choruses that can be used for various hymns, which are an identifiable feature of African American hymns. [3]

Forms of religious song among enslaved African Americans were developed in secret meetings called "camp" or "bush" meetings, as most slave holders in the early slavery period feared that Christianizing slaves might lead to rebellion. After the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, many slave owners felt that Christian teachings might actually help to prevent rebellion by inviting ministers to preach to slaves on topics such as obedience. But the slave's secret religious meetings with their distinctive musical forms continued to be practiced even after this Christianization process had begun. In camp meetings African Americans were free to develop their own shared spirituality with elements of both African cultures and the culture of the region where they now lived. "Ring shouts" were a type of song from the southern tidewater region that used African rhythm and chants performed with a shuffling movement, as dance was not allowed. Examples of this type of group religious expression are rare today. In the Chesapeake Bay region, The Singing and Praying Band keeps their tradition of ring shouts alive by bringing together members of several congregations. They performed at the Library of Congress in 2012. The coast of South Carolina and Georgia, where a dialect of African English called Gullah was spoken, is another place where some of these early songs have been preserved. The McIntosh County Shouters is a group that continues to perform Ring Shouts today and gave a concert at the Library of Congress in 2010.

As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spirituals, a type of religious song typically sung in a call and response form with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus of singers providing a solid refrain in unison, served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes. Some spirituals served as codified messages of secret meetings, of protest, or even of an intent to escape. Songs often used Old Testament sources to express the suffering of slavery. For example, the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center archives include recordings of "Samson," a nineteenth century spiritual that uses a biblical story to express anger about bondage. John Avery Lomax and Ruby Terrill Lomax recorded a performance of the song sung by Deacon Sylvester Johnson of Louisiana in 1939.

Another type of spiritual, often called the "camp meeting song," also developed during this period. These expressed the joy of salvation and called people to worship. Some of these were preserved and passed on in later African American Churches and African American college singing groups. An example of a camp meeting style song preserved in oral tradition is "In That Great Getting Up Morning." This song was collected from a student at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, an African American college, and first published in 1887. [4] The student said that he had learned it from an uncle who remembered it being used in camp meetings. It is found in this presentation under an alternative title, "Fare Ye Well," performed by the Metropolitan Community Church Choir.

After emancipation, many educated African Americans felt that spirituals should be left behind with slavery, while others sought to preserve them. In the 1870s, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a cappella African American men's and women's chorus founded at Fisk University, Tennessee, in 1871, by John Wesley Work, Jr., helped to introduce spirituals to a wider audience. Work was the first African American collector of African American folksongs.[5] The ensemble toured extensively throughout the country, beginning with a tour along the routes associated with the Underground Railroad. Their efforts to preserve and present spirituals was initially controversial among some African Americans, but the Fisk singers won critics over to the idea of preserving these songs. Their performances inspired the creation of similar singing groups and inspired existing groups at African American colleges to sing spirituals. In the first decades of the twentieth century, composers like Henry T. Burleigh (1866 – 1949) would go on to further popularize spirituals through their beloved arrangements of the tunes for choir and orchestra.

The Library of Congress's National Jukebox features digitized Victor recordings of a number of spirituals and hymns performed by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, an all-male vocal quartet, also founded at Fisk by John Wesley Work, Jr. In this example of the quartet's performance of the old spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," John Wesley Work, Jr. sings the lead tenor part. For more on sprituals as an American musical style, see the article, "Spirituals."

Minstrel Shows After Emancipation

On the popular stage, discrimination against African Americans in the nineteenth century manifested itself in the minstrel show, a form of live revue featuring songs, dances and comic skits that poked fun at the Black people as naïve and was performed by white male actors in black face or, more commonly in the post-Civil War period, Black male actors in black face (for an overview, see the article "Minstrel Songs.") The Library of Congress's National Jukebox features digitized recordings of a number of minstrel songs, such as "Good Bye Sis" performed by the Olden Time Minstrels.

In spite of the debased portrayal of African Americans in the minstrel show genre, it did provide opportunities for African American performers and songwriters to perform or have their work put before white audiences. Some were creative in attempting to show African Americans in a better light while working within this restrictive form. For example, in the 1870s African American performers began including spirituals in the performances, creating a place for authentic African American songs to be presented to white audiences.

New York performer and composer James Bland made his mark during this period. Perhaps his most famous composition, "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," is available in this presentation as a recording and as sheet music. Another of his famous works, "Dem Golden Slippers," is available as sheet music.

The multi-talented Sam Lucas also published his compositions and performed them or saw them performed on the minstrel stage. In some cases he set his lyrics to his arrangements of African American folk songs. Several examples of his published sheet music are available in this presentation, including, "Carve dat possum." He also was able to appear in non-minstrel shows as early as 1875, in a musical about a freed slave titled Out of Bondage.

Songs about emancipation allowed African American artists to express positive views about African Americans on the minstrel show stage. While often using language that would be considered unacceptable today, these songs nevertheless allowed African American performers to stand before white audiences and sing of the joy of freedom. Some of these songs were written by European American abolitionists, such as "Kingdom Coming," by Henry Clay Work. Examples of emancipation songs composed by African Americans for the minstrel stage include: "The Day I was Sot Free," by Sam Lucas, published in 1878 (available as sheet music) and "On Emancipation Day," by Will Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar, published in 1902. Select this link to view the sheet music for "On Emancipation Day," and select this link to hear a recording of this song.

For more on this topic, see the article "Minstrel Songs."

Creating Places for African American Song

In the later 1890s, vaudeville provided a place for African American performers and composers to continue the blackface style of the minstrel show within the music and comedy of the popular stage. But some talented people found various ways to challenge the limits of this format and the stereotypes of African Americans either by pushing the boundaries of the minstrel show, or by creating their own performing companies.

An early success was "The Creole Show," performed by an African American troupe in 1890. This show used the comic form of the minstrel shows, but broke many of the audiences expectations. The performers not only appeared without blackface, but also elegantly dressed. While the minstrel shows at the time were limited to male performers, this show prominently featured women. It introduced an African American dance, the cake walk, to white audiences and it became a sensation. It had a successful run in New York, proving that audiences were ready for something different.

Sissieretta Jones, who became a famous opera singer during the 1890s, worked towards change for African American performers. She was nicknamed "the Black Patti" as a favorable comparison to singer Adelina Patti. In 1892 she performed at Madison Square Gardens, at the White House, and for the Prince of Wales. She also performed at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. But her dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera could not be realized as that opera house did not permit African American performers on the stage. In 1896 she formed a troupe of African American performers and composers, the Black Patti Troubadours, to tour the United States with shows that combined vaudeville and opera that continued until 1916. The show contained many elements of the minstrel shows to make it acceptable to white audiences, but Jones used her troupe to educate young artists. In her performances with the troupe she strove to present African American song to wider audiences and to show what African Americans could do given the training and opportunity. In her performances she sang spirituals as well as opera arias. [6]

Impresario and singer Theodore Drury (1867 – 1943) gave African American singers opportunities to perform in grand operas on the opera stage before Black and white audiences under the auspices of his Theodore Drury Opera Company from 1900 to 1910.

Bob Cole and Billy Johnson were a songwriting team that made their start with African American performing companies that formed during this period, including the Black Patti Troubadors. In 1898, Cole and Johnson wrote and produced A Trip to Coontown, the first full-length New York musical comedy written, directed and performed exclusively by African Americans. [7] Among the performers was Sam Lucas, who continued to seek performing venues other than the minstrel shows. After A Trip to Coontown, Cole broke with Billy Johnson and collaborated with J. Rosamond Johnson and his brother, James Weldon Johnson. "Under the Bamboo Tree," is an example of a song by Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson that became a hit among Black and white audiences in its day, and is still recognized as an American standard.

Photo: portrait of Hall Johnson by Carl Van Vechten

Composer Hall Johnson, who arranged traditional songs and scripted the sucessful Broadway show, Run Little Chillun, in 1939. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, 1947. Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number: LC-USZ62-108272

On the vaudeville stage, African American performers continued to be required to wear blackface into the beginning of the twentieth century. But in 1919, the performing and composing duo of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake refused to wear blackface during their vaudeville performances. They managed to make an exception for themselves, as the other African American performers still blacked up, but their statement can be seen as the beginning of the end of blackface. As African Americans began to win victories against racism and assert political power in the early twentieth century, the minstrel show style went out of fashion. Listen to Vaughn de Leath singing one of the more famous compositions of Sissle and Blake, "I'm Just Wild about Harry."

The team of Sissle and Blake partnered with another team of African American songwriters, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, to produce the musical review Shuffle Along, which premiered on Broadway in 1921. It was the first major Broadway hit produced, performed, and composed by African Americans.

In the first half of the twentieth century, complex segregation rules continued to restrict performances and venues. Some stages were limited to either white or Black performers, in some venues the stage was not segregated but the audience was, and many venues were entirely for Blacks or whites only. Sheet music publishers and recording companies also designed their products for Black or white audiences, however, music and songs are difficult to segregate. While composers writing songs for the minstrel stage before the turn of the twentieth century usually had no choice but to identify themselves as African Americans, composers producing popular songs in the 1920s could sometimes choose whether to identify themselves as African American composers, or to allow their sheet music or sound recordings to stand on their own, and perhaps gain wider circulation by not advertising the issue of the composer's origins. Sometimes photographs of the composers were included on the sheet music were used, and sometimes not. If a song written by African Americans could be performed by popular white singers, a song might gain a wide audience. Vaughn de Leath's recording of the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry," mentioned above, is an example of this. Marion Harris was another white singer sought out by African American composers because she was both popular among white audiences and could sing blues convincingly. For example, she made the first recording of "I Ain't Got Nobody Much and Nobody Cares for Me," by Spencer Williams, in 1916. In his publications, lyricist Henry Creamer chose to identify himself as African American or not, depending upon the market for his songs. For example, the cover of the sheet music for the love song, "After You've Gone" with music by Taylor Layton depicts a white woman and it was Marion Harris who popularized the song. An example of sheet music that was produced with African American consumers in mind is "Maori," a love song by Creamer and composer William Tyers about a Samoan girl. It shows a non-white dancer on the cover – an exotic fantasy in its day. The piece was popular with African American bands and their audiences.

In contrast to recordings that concealed the African American origins of composers, the recording of Marion Harris singing the Turner and Creamer World War I song "Goodbye Alexander, Goodbye Honey Boy" is a bold statement about the patriotism and service of African Americans in the war. In the middle of the song Creamer inserts a form of African American poetry called a "toast," spoken in dialect in the voice of the soldier's sweetheart. The verse includes declarations such as, "There never was a colored traitor born on this here Earth." It also describes the soldier as "fast black" (as in color fast dye), "…and fast black will not run." Few white singers other than Marion Harris could have carried this off. Her performance did not obscure the origins of the composers, but, rather, may have made it more likely that an overtly African American message would be heard by white as well as Black audiences.

During the 1920s a group of African American artists, writers, and musicians in New York created a movement that formed the basis of what is called the "Harlem renaissance." The movement sought to provide a new image for African American artists, one that highlighted education and affluence. Although the movement was centered in Harlem, it had a national impact. The influence on music initially involved the use of new instruments, particularly the piano. The piano was seen as an instrument of the middle and upper classes, as well as the instrument of composers, and so became a symbol. The use of pianos, brass, and other instruments then had an impact on an emerging new sounds in African American music. The ragtime of Scott Joplin emerged as new piano style. Jazz evolved out of the complex and varied musical styles of New Orleans paired with the introduction of new instruments. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, James P. Johnson, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong were among the early composers and performers of jazz. For more on this topic see the article "Jazz."

During this period African American composers also began collaborating with white composers and artists in defiance of the segregated music industry. Because of their history of persecution in Europe which had parallels to segregation in the United States, some Jewish composers took an interest in African American musical artists and styles. An example is "Jubilee Blues," a song that resulted from a collaboration between lyricist Henry Creamer, composer Maurice Abrahams, and singer Belle Baker, who recorded the song in 1922. Abrahams was an immigrant from Russia and Baker was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants.

It wasn't until the late 1920s and early 1930s that a wider range of African American vocal performers, perhaps most notably Paul Robeson (1898 – 1972) and the opera star Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993), began to gain visibility on the broader theatrical, concert, and film scene.

Showboat (1927) by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, which included a role written specially for Paul Robeson; Porgy and Bess (1935) by George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gerswin; and Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) by Virgil Thomson provided star roles for African American performers. Meanwhile, the first major movie musical with an African American cast was Hallelujah (1929) directed by King Vidor.

Programs created during the Great Depression helped progress towards more stage performance venues for African American artists. At the same time, more talented African American artists were making their way from the South to Northern cities. The ongoing desperation of Blacks in the South under Jim Crow laws sparked an exodus to the northern States that came to be known as The Great Migrations (1916-1930 and 1940-1970). The first wave of migration reached its peak as African Americans moved north to find jobs during World War I, followed by a lull during the Great Depression. In addition, a growing civil rights movement that was sparked during World War I grew significantly after the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President in 1933, and reached an apotheosis in the mid- twentieth century. For example, Hall Johnson, a composer from Athens, Georgia, made his way to New York to study music. In 1933, in collaboration with other African American artists, he wrote the script and arranged traditional spirituals for the Broadway show, Run Little Chillun. In 1939 this show was presented again in San Francisco as part of the New Deal Federal Theater Project.

Zora Neale Hurston

Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston. Portrait ca. 1935 -1943. Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number: LC-USZ62-62394

New Deal projects also created opportunities for African American scholars interested in the documentation of African American music, folklore, and oral history, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist John Wesley Work, III, sociologist Lewis Wade Jones, and musician and educator Willis Laurence James were among those who participated in these projects. Recordings made by them are housed at the Library of Congress and many examples are available online.

In 1940, Horace Mann Bond and Willis Laurence James founded the first African American folk music festival, the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival held in Athens, Georgia, which convened annually until 1955. The event brought together performers of both sacred and secular music. Choirs singing spirituals, Gospel, and "camp meeting" style songs attended. The inclusion of blues was of some concern at first, as blues musicians often used crude language unacceptable to the religious performers and audiences at the festival. African Americans were also conscious of how they might be seen by whites, and blues was considered "gutter music" by many. But blues artists, such as Buster Brown, Buster Ezell, The Smith Band, and Sidney Stripling did perform at the festival, sometimes with minor modifications to their lyrics. Performances documented by John Wesley Work, III, Willis Laurence James, and Lewis Wade Jones are available in this presentation.

Despite the intermingling of musical styles across racial boundaries over many decades, the Black and white performing arts remained segregated well into the twentieth century. Songs sung or composed by African Americans were classed as "race music," and in the 1940s there were separate charts for the music of Black and white recording artists. This separation similarly existed in the worlds of the concert hall and of theatrical and film music. However, there were gradual breakthroughs.

Both Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson used their celebrity status to campaign for racial equality. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Marian Anderson to perform to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. in 1929, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and assisted the effort to find another place for Anderson to sing. The landmark concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. before an audience of about 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions is considered today to be a turning point in the history of civil rights in the United States. She performed opera selections for the first half of the concert, and, for the second half, spirituals arranged for orchestra and voice by African American composers. Listen to her recording of the spiritual she sang as an encore at this event, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," arranged by Lawrence Brown.

In 1941, William Grant Still's (1895 – 1978) opera Troubled Island (1949) became the first grand opera by an African-American composer to be produced by a major opera company (The New York City Opera) in the United States. And in 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. But it was not until the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that legal grounds for the end of segregated entertainment for performers and audiences in public places was created.

The Emergence of Blues

Blues is an extremely influential vocal music form that arose in the southern states out of Black work songs, chants, and spirituals. It is characterized by "blue notes," notes that are sung or played flattened in relation to a major scale. It uses specific chord progressions (most commonly the "twelve bar blues") and simple repeated lines whose lyrics often spoke of the trials of life.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, African Americans created preserved many older work songs, but new styles of singing them began to emerge, and blues was one of these. Agricultural work songs were adapted working on the railroads and industrial work, and this was one setting where the blues emerged. Laws in the South that sentenced prisoners to hard labor were used to create free labor for the state, and this was another setting for the use of old work songs and the creation of new ones sung in a style that gave rise to the blues. Some of the old work songs were also still in use among African Americans working in agricultural settings. Ethnographers interested in both the preservation of older forms of African American song and the roots of the blues, such as John Avery Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, went to prisons and rural areas in the South in order to record songs. [8] "Rock Island Line," sung by Joe Battle and a group of convicts is an example of a song for coordinating the work of several people. "Driving Levee," performed by an unidentified convict, is an example of different sort of work song, called a "field holler" that was often used in agricultural work by someone working alone, but might be heard and returned by someone in a neighboring field. Both these work songs have elements of the blues. "Desert Blues," composed and sung by Hattie Ellis provides an example of how the sounds of the blues were organized by artists into a song for entertainment, in this case accompanied by guitar.

Bessie Smith by Carl Van Vechten

Portrait of Bessie Smith holding feathers. Carl Van Vechten, Photographer, 1936. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-09571

W.C. Handy, sometimes called "the father of the blues," was an African American composer and musician. In his early career as a musician he studied many forms of African American music in his travels around the country. As a composer he was influenced by different styles of blues, popular music, and ragtime, which were emerging in Louisiana and Mississippi. In 1909 Handy composed a campaign song for Edward Crump, who was running for mayor of Memphis, combining the sounds of ragtime with features of blues. He published the music in 1912 with the title "Memphis Blues." It became Handy's first hit. Initially Handy called this a "Southern rag," but it was the basis for popular blues that followed. The "Memphis blues" sound that Handy developed appealed to white as well as Black audiences, and has had far-reaching influence of many forms of American music.

One of the seminal figures of early blues was Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (1888-1949). In 1933 John and Alan Lomax first recorded songs of Leadbelly in a Louisiana prison. After his release from prison in 1935, both John and Alan Lomax helped Leadbelly to make commercial recordings and perform before northern audiences. Leadbelly integrated spiritual tunes, blues, folk, and country music. The Library of Congress's Performing Arts Encyclopedia houses a recording made by folklorist John Lomax of Lead Belly singing "Midnight Special," a segment of which is available in this presentation.

Vera Hall was another singer introduced to a wider audience through recordings by several folklorists. She sang both sacred songs and blues. She did not make a profit from her singing as Leadbelly did, however her recordings circulated widely and remain in publication today. The song "Carrie" is an example of her blues style.

Many blues singers made a living by touring with traveling entertainment groups, vaudeville troupes and medicine shows. Later, with the spread of country and western music, blues players began adapting their sound to a more country-oriented blues style. "Blues" quickly became a term in popular music that would sell records, so many popular songs of the early twentieth century with the word "blues" in the title are not what we would call blues today.

Blues singers like Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937) and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886 – 1939) helped to popularize the blues across racial divides. Later, performers such as Muddy Waters (1913 – 1983), Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938), David "Honeyboy" Edwards ( 1915-2011), Billie Holiday (1915-1959), and B. B. King (1925 –) pushed the blues even further in the directions of jazz and rock. Listen to a recording of the late Honeyboy Edwards performing "Sweet Home Chicago," a song thought to have been composed by Robert Johnson. For more on blues, see the article "Blues" and "Blues as Protest."

African American Gospel

The blues also had an impact on the rise of Gospel music, one of the most powerful musical influences on American culture as a whole. Gospel is a form of euphoric, rhythmic, religious song rooted in the spirituals tradition of the African American south. Group singing of Gospel is characterized by a strong and creative use of harmony. Many spirituals were translated into Gospel form, helping to keep these older songs alive, even as popular styles changed. Gospel rose to wide popularity through the work of vocalists such as Mahalia Jackson (1912 – 1972) whose recordings crossed over to become popular among white audiences in the 1940s.

This presentation includes video examples of various forms of Gospel performed at the Library of Congress, including The Birmingham Sunlights, who present traditional a capella Gospel from Alabama; The Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, who perform in a "jubilee" style; and Aubrey Ghent. For more on this topic, see the article "African American Gospel."

African American Song in the Mid- to Late Twentieth Century

The merging of African American musical traditions such as ring shouts, work songs, spirituals, gospel and blues together with forms from other parts of the world such as European waltzes and polkas and the polyrhythmic dance music of South America and the Caribbean, led to an explosion of musical styles in the twentieth century. Some of the most enduring of these genres include boogie woogie, ragtime, doo-wop, jazz, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, rock and roll (an outgrowth of the blues and country music with a driving beat and prominent guitars), soul (a secularized form of gospel music), funk (a blend of soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues), disco (an outgrowth of funk, Latin, and soul music) and hip-hop (a blend of rap, sampling, blues and other influences).

Rhythm and blues (often abbreviated as R&B) is a form of African American music with a strong rocking beat that emerged in the 1940s and was a precursor to rock and roll. For a time "rhythm and blues" replaced the term "race music" that had been used in the music industry for all of African American Music. Doo-wop, an a capella form of rhythm and blues, emerged among singers on city street corners in the 1940s before it became more widely popular in the 1950s (for more on this topic, see the article "Rhythm and Blues").The concert by The Birmingham Sunlights at the Library of Congress in 2005 provides an example of doo-wop as it influenced Gospel songs in "If you missed me from singing" (at time code 5:00), and, "We're going to move in the room of the Lord" (at time code 00:20:50).Barbara Lynn performed at the Library of Congress in 2009, providing a Texas version of electric rhythm and blues. View the video of the concert Barbara Lynn and Friends.

In 1959 Hank Ballard and the Midnighters released a song for a new dance style, "The Twist," made even more famous by Chubby Checker's rendition of the song released later the same year. This was the first dance where couples could break apart and dance separately, a style that dominated the 1960s and 70s among the younger generation.

During the African American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and its aftermath, African American songs and song styles were put to use to create unifying songs for the movement. African American vocal artists and ensembles, including Odetta (1930 – 2008), [9] Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mahalia Jackson (1911 – 1972), and Nina Simone (1983 – 2003), sang spiritual, soul and Gospel songs as a way to voice their feelings about race relations. Spirituals and hymns were often put to use as they were, or had verses added to convey concepts of the protesters. Some religious songs related to the abolition of slavery, such as "Amazing Grace," were also used as written or modified for the movement. The performing group Reverb can be seen singing several examples of Civil Rights songs in the video of the concert that they presented at the Library of Congress in 2007. Among the songs Reverb sings is "Woke up this morning with my mind on freedom," which was based on the spiritual "Woke up this morning with my mind on Jesus." "Lift every voice and sing," (also sung by Reverb) was composed as a poem by James Weldon Johnson 1899 and set to music by his brother John Rosemond Johnson in 1900. It has a long history as an anthem of freedom for African Americans. "This Little Light of Mine," is another religious song put to use as a Civil Rights song, here sung by Doris McMurray in 1939. [10]

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women. As the political climate began to change during the second half of the twentieth century, more and more African American artists successfully crossed over into mainstream culture, such as Aretha Franklin (1942 -), James Brown (1933 – 2006) and Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996) in the pop and jazz worlds, and Leontyne Price (1927 -) and Kathleen Battle (1948 -) in the classical realm.

Motown Records was founded in 1959 in Detroit Michigan and became the first record label to focus on African American artists. It helped to firmly establish the presence of many great, Black singers on the United States cultural scene and fostered its own style of soul music, which combined elements of Gospel and rhythm and blues. Its roster included The Miracles, Marvin Gaye (1939 – 1984), The Temptations and The Supremes. In 1961, Stevland Hardaway Morris made his first recording on Motown's Tamla label at the age of 11 under his stage name, Stevie Wonder, eventually becoming one of Motown's most famous artists. A video of Stevie Wonder's performance at the Library of Congress in 2009 is available as part of this presentation. Wonder performs his instrumental composition, "Sketches of a Life," for the first time, followed by his hit songs "Overjoyed" (1986) and "My Cherie Amour" (1969) performed as encores. "My Cherie Amour," provides an example of the soul music sound that brought fame to Motown in the 1960s.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, replacing a quota system of immigration that favored white Western Europeans with a system based on immigrant's skills or family relationships with citizens in the United States. This new system made it possible for more immigrants to enter the country from countries in Africa, as well as people of African descent from many parts of the world. These immigrants are bringing exciting new musical genres to America. For example, see the video of Balla Kouyaté and World Vision performing at the Library of Congress in 2010. A master of the balaphone, Kouyaté is a griot, or djeli, who was raised and educated in his musical tradition in Mali.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of hip-hop in the African American communities of cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles, took longstanding African American musical traditions in new directions. Hip-hop groups like NWA, Public Enemy and Run DMC drew on the legacy of old African American musical forms like field hollers and the blues to create a distinctive art form grounded in social protest which used spoken word poetry, sampling, scratching and drumming as the main agents of change. For more on this topic see the article "Hip Hop/Rap."

Today, African American song is so deeply intertwined with United States culture at large that it has become virtually indistinguishable from it. While the vestiges of racism continue to create social rifts in certain corners of contemporary American society, the barriers no longer exist in the musical realm.

From rappers like André 3000 (1975–) and pop stars like Michael Jackson (1958–2009), to opera singers like Denyce Graves (1964–) and gospel artists like Yolanda Adams (1961–), African American vocal artists continue to shake up and shape the musical culture of the United States in profound ways.


  1. According to the United States Census Bureau, the African-American population totaled 38.9 million and represented 13 percent of the total population in 2010. [back to article]
  2. Richard Allen, 1801 (compiler). A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Author. John Ormond (publisher). The 1801 edition was published in a facsimile edition by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, c. 1987. A digital version of the 1817 edition is available online from various sources. [back to article]
  3. For more on the early development of African American hymnals see: Eileen Southern, "Hymnals of the Black Church," in Black Perspectives in Music Voume 17 no. 1-2, 1989, pp. 153-170 and In Spirit and in Truth: The Music of African American Worship, by Melva Wilson Costen, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, pp. 43-73. [back to article]
  4. Religious Folk-Songs Of The Negro: As Sung At Hampton Institute. Edited by R. Nathaniel Dett, 1927, pp. 154-156. [back to article]
  5. John Wesley Work, Jr. published New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1901 and Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1915. He was the father of folklorist John Wesley Work, III, who continued with his father's work documenting African American songs. [back to article]
  6. For a complete biography see: Sissieretta Jones: The Greatest Singer of Her Race, 1868-1933, by Maureen Lee, 2012. [back to article]
  7. A manuscript of this musical, formerly thought to have been lost, was recently rediscovered at the Library of Congress. See: Krystyn R. Moon, "Finding A Trip to Coontown," African American Review, Volume 44, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 2011. [back to article]
  8. For more about African American prison songs, see the article "Blues as Protest."[back to article]
  9. See the video: "The Legendary Odetta," interview with Peggy Bulger. November 3, 2003.[back to article]
  10. The earliest field documentation of "This little light of mine" is thought to be the recording of Jim Boyd singing the song made by John A. and Alan Lomax in Huntsville, Texas, in 1934. [back to article]


About this Item


  • African American Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
  • -  Articles

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