The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

Got a tip? Have something you need to tell us? Contact us

Loading Recent Classifieds...

Music’s historical African-American background

Today’s popular music would not exist without the musical, social and religious influences of Africans and African-Americans.

Compartmentalizing the musical influences of African-Americans can be done succinctly through a historical perspective. Artists challenged social norms and laid the path for musical and social progression. Their music transcended social racism and earned them respect for their musical messages of hope and change. One of the first black musicians to have a well-documented influence on music was Scott Joplin.

Joplin’s ragtime music was influenced by the classical and folk music his German piano teacher exposed to him in his youth.

By the time Joplin turned 32, he had already sold more than six compositions. This was a tremendous accomplishment for an African-American in 1898.

The Jim Crow laws which began to be passed in 1877 prevented the mixed racial formation of bands and accompaniment of music, as well as its scathing social implications separating African-Americans from society.

The series of Jim Crow laws forced black musicians to abandon possible collaborations with white musicians and forced them to develop their own sounds.

Joplin’s ragtime melodies were limited to bars, clubs, brothels and other accepted areas. His music, composed before the advent of recorded music, made its way to sheet music composition, and Joplin became one of the best-selling composers of ragtime scores.

Approaching the end of his life, Joplin was commissioned to record some of his compositions utilizing the newly developed technology: wax records. Joplin’s influence is heard in Benny Goodman and other big-band type composers.

Ragtime, blues, and gospel music made use of the African roots of rhythm and syncopation. The common call and response style of vocal interaction was an adaptation of common African musical traditions.

At the same time Joplin was producing his melodious tunes in Texas, further southeast in Mississippi a raw sound was being churned out with sparse sound and gut-wrenching honesty.

These were the blues. The blues brought tales of personal heartache and societal difficulties to people in their homes.

In Chicago, Kokomo Arnold’s slide guitar and vocals inspired listeners. In Mississippi, Robert Johnson paved the way with an a sound that became core influences for Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and Keith Richards. Clapton often referred to Johnson as the greatest blues musician who ever lived.

Further west, but still a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, Leadbelly was in and out of jail for murder and other crimes. He was singing his own style of blues, reflecting the pain in his life. He developed a song book of adapted blues renditions that were later recorded for the Library of Congress.

Because of the self-taught nature of many blues musicians and the difficulties of segregated life, many musicians played to small audiences of other musicians. The idea of extemporaneous improvisation in fused blues and ragtime music developed. Musicians took a pre-written melody in a song, traditionally considered the structure, and made it the simple introduction. The melody was then adapted and played to mimic the lyrical call and response with musical notes and tones.

Musical ideas continued to develop from the stylings of ragtime, blues, and big-band music. Music began to be written with specific time for improvised solos built into the structure of the songs.

“Jazz is something Negroes invented, and it said the most profound things,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winning musician Wynton Marsalis, “-not only about us and the way we look at things, but about what modern democratic life is really about. It is the nobility of the race put into sound … jazz has all the elements, from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping. It is the hardest music to play that I know of, and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music.”

Louis Armstrong was a personable pioneer of jazz music. His influence changed jazz from an obscure styling of music tailored for musicians and late night jam sessions into a popular culture phenomenon. His trumpet work was interlaced with a positive and joyous sound not as familiar to the blues roots of the music. This sound brought Armstrong to a level of fame seldom seen among jazz musicians.

Charlie Parker was arguably one of the greatest saxophonists of all time. His style and innovations developed the bebop sound for of jazz music. His historic improvisations inspired musicians around the globe. His ability with the saxophone to play a brain-numbing number of cohesive musical phrases in short amount of time revolutionized ideas of what jazz could be.

At the same time jazz was developing in the changing 1940s, big band music reached a peak in its popularity. A revolution in sound began in Chicago.

This new music fused rhythm and blues backgrounds, incorporated a soul edge, and a funk bass line to the traditional call and response methods. The irresistibly catchy melodies of Motown sounds brought African-American music into the everyday life of Americans around the country.

Popular music was continually cultivated and developed, borrowing from all of these roots to give us disco, rock and roll, rockabilly, modern jazz, hip-hop, and the pop music heard on the radio.

Without the roots of African-American musicians and culture, music would not be what it is today. The years of inspiration, statements of purpose and dissident voices cannot be deemed as anything less than monumental to music.

More to Discover