Black, White, and Blues: Notes on Music in America

by Bill Benzon

Jon Faddis in Jersey City, 2013

When European colonists and used West African tribesmen and their descendants as slaves, they had no intention of learning anything from them or of adopting their ways.  Their intention was simply to secure a source of cheap and tractable labor. But they were struck by the musicality of their slaves.  And that musicality was to have a profound influence on their descendents and, in time, on peoples around the world. Let’s take a quick look at some moments in this centuries-long process of miscegenation, mutation, and cultural transmogrification.

Ecstatic Religion

Early in the seventeenth century, at about the same time Jamestown was being settled, Richard Jobson, an English sea captain, went to Africa and subsequently wrote that “no people on the earth [are] more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people.” A century and a half later, the Rev. Samuel Davies heard slaves in Virginia and remarked that the “Negroes above all the Human Species that I ever knew have an Ear for Musick, and a kind of extatic Delight in Psalmody.”

Published in 1640, The Bay Psalm Book was the first full-length book published in the English-speaking colonies, thus illustrating the importance that religious song had for the colonists. Singing schools—a 3 or 4 month series of meetings in which people learned to sing hymns—were held throughout the colonies. Meanwhile, as the slaves grew in number, they held festivals grounded in African custom, such as the ‘Lection Day festivals held in New England during which the slaves elected their own governors or kings, and the legendary Congo Square meetings in New Orleans.

During the early nineteenth century the new nation was swept by religious revivals.  Non-denominational camp meetings were the main vehicle of his second Great Awakening (the first was in the mid-eighteenth century), with as many as 400 meetings in a given year.  Thousands of people would gather in rural areas for several days or a week of preaching, dramatic conversion and song.  Many of these meetings had both blacks and whites, often segregated to different parts of the camp, in attendance.  The preaching and the singing were improvised, often on models which seem as much African as European.

This is the first major crossing of African and European musicking and the result was a brand of ecstatic religion that remains with us today among both black and white Americans.   Those meetings were also the start of the abolitionist movement that would culminate in the Civil War.

From Minstrelsey to Broadway

Minstrelsy arose in the North during the second quarter of the nineteenth century and became the most popular form of entertainment in the nation. It was also the first music that American exported to the rest of the world, traveling as far as India and Chile by mid-century. Originally performed by whites in blackface makeup, and often loosely based on the songs and dances of slaves, minstrelsy established (the white representation of) African America as a territory within the white soul.  After the Civil War African-Americans began to black-up and perform as minstrels before white audiences as well as black, thus reclaiming the cultural territory created by white minstrels. At the same time, black choral groups, starting with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, toured America and Europe to widespread acclaim.

About the same time minstrelsy was born, America was swept by the brass-band movement.  Every town had at least one brass band, with most of the performers being part-time amateurs. The bands provided music for dancing, for listening, and marched on civic occasions.  Their repertoire included dances of various kinds, marches, popular songs, and themes from the European high-art classics.  Along with the pianos so prominent in every middle-class parlor, the brass band was the primary medium of secular music making for most Americans.

Late in the century, as minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and to Broadway, ragtime emerged as a national craze that stretched into the twentieth century.  Originating as a black piano style with roots in both European pianism and vernacular boogie-woogie, ragtime took over the musical stage and laid the foundations for jazz.

Jazz: It Don’t Mean a Thing

Hot raggy music was everywhere in America at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Jazz began precipitating out during the second decade of the century, most prominently in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Thus the black/white interaction entered a new phase.

This new phase reflects at least four factors:  1) The maturation and dissemination of primitivism in Western high culture gave the critical and intellectual classes a different way of thinking about black music, one in which they invested it with positive (albeit ambivalent) value.  2) We now have a generation of black adults who grew up after the end of slavery and who thus had to conceive of themselves as free citizens within a nation that still, in many ways, scored them. Thus it is that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (known informally as the black national anthem) was written in February of 1900 by James Weldon and J. Rosamund Johnson, serving as a musical symbol of black civic culture and identity.  3) Radio and recording changed the way music was disseminated. New music could span the nation almost instantly and invisibly.  Whatever their race, people could listen to the music in the comfort and security of their own home. 4) Substantial migrations of blacks out of the South, creating substantial black audiences for live music in urban areas in the North and West.  This last is probably why New Orleans ceased to be important in jazz after the mid-1920s; all the best musicians had left, never to return.

During the 1920s and 1930s jazz/swing became America’s music, though there was considerable opposition.  After World War II, however, instrumental jazz declined in popularity and was replaced by swing-derived vocal music, perhaps best represented by Frank Sinatra.  Polka and country increased in popularity as well.  Jazz became an art music  (and lost much of its audience) while rock and roll moves into prominence in the middle of the 1950s.

Rock and Roll: Roll Over Beethoven

The down-home religion that was created in the early nineteenth century has persisted ever since.  After World War II it served as the Southern crucible, first of rock and roll, and then of soul.  We must now follow these stories in parallel.

Rock and roll has its roots in small-band jazz, the blues, country music, and the ecstatic music of Southern church folk, white as well as black.  Early rock and roll, both performers and audience, embraced both blacks and whites.  But by the middle sixties the performers had become largely white—with many of the most influential performers coming from Britain—and so had the audience.  This music, now called rock, encountered the anti-war movement and LSD and its lyrics moved out from teenage angst and desire to a broad expression of counter-cultural attitudes.

Meanwhile soul music emerged in African America as the Civil Rights movement gained real political power.  Soul music took the ecstatic style of the black church and made it secular by the simple device of adopting secular lyrics.  Soul gained a white audience, but few white performers.

The 1970s saw a proliferation of musical styles, both white and black. With Michael Jackson’s emergence as the King of Pop, “crossover” became the Holy Grail (as it had been during the late 1950s and early 1960s). That set for the stage for the emergence of rap music and hip hop culture as movements once again asserting a specifically black identity in popular culture.

Hip Hop: Fight the Power

As rock eased in to its middle age, rap emerged as the musical style of hip hop culture—which includes dance styles, graphic arts (graffiti and tagging), clothing, and video. The fundamental point is that rap does not derive from rock or soul in the way that they derived preceding styles.  It is a radical departure, both in terms of its musical devices and its expressive ends. Like some forms of free jazz and some forms of rock, rap trades in expressing anger, but it’s musical devices are quite different from those of jazz or rock.

New though it is, rap does have cultural precedent in black traditions of verbal virtuosity and contest.  With melody and harmony stripped away, we are left with rhythmic and often angry words.  During the 80s, as the gap between rich and poor got wider, rap drew on the nationalist impulses of the Black Power politics of the late 60s and became self-consciously Black.  Significantly, while rap does have a large white audience, like the other forms of black music we have been considering, it hasn’t developed as many white performers as jazz and rock did.  This suggests that the cultural interaction between European and African America is beginning to change.  This chapter looks at that change and, in so doing, lays the foundation for the final chapter, which looks to the future.

Cultural Politics

Let’s look beyond music at the more the general social and cultural context in which black and white music have co-evolved by considering the arguments of Philip A. Klinkner and Rogers M. Smith, The Unsteady March (1999) and Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening (2000).

Klinkner and Smith demonstrate the blacks have made the most social progress during periods large-scale war requiring extensive social, political and economic mobilization.  This happened during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II and the subsequent Cold War.  During these periods ideals of equality and justice were invoked to  justify and inspire war efforts, thus bringing about global changes in the national psyche. These changes were favorable to blacks and thus affected the emergence of African American political identity, and the timing of musical styles, particularly the eclipse of jazz and the emergence of rock.

Fogol focuses on the waves of religious revivalism that have been a feature of American culture, including the Second Awakening mentioned above, which saw the consolidation of ecstatic worship in both black and white communities.  Though Fogel says nothing about the music which is at the heart of revival services, his general argument implies that that music is central to the American socio-political process.  While that music is only one of the many styles examined in Hymns to Hip Hop, it is one of the older styles, it is pervasive, and has been very fruitful.

When I first published on this subject (Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues) I pointed out a connection between the rise of rock and the counterculture, on the one hand,  and on the other the computer culture that has surrounded the personal computer and now the internet, something I explored at greated length last month in 3QD, Mind Hacks R Us: The Psychedelic Computer. In this connection it is worth pointing out a rough stylistic similarity between football, the symphony orchestra, and the old-line industrial corporation, on the one hand, and basketball, the small jazz band, and the newer style of high tech corporation. The former is highly hierarchical and rigid while the latter is less structured and more fluid.  While the notion of a jazz organizational style has now become commonplace in the management literature, it exists there as a metaphor.

In raising this issue I am not suggesting a strict causal relationship.  Culture doesn’t work like that.  Rather, I am thinking in terms of and indirect but widespread bias operating on children’s brains and minds from an early age.  But that does not mean it isn’t real. Evolutionary biologists have shown that, over time, small bias can have major effects.  Culture evolves much more rapidly than organisms do, and the mass media of the twentieth century provide a means for rapidly amplifying even relatively weak cultural patterns.

This cultural interaction has hardly been confined to the United States—recall that threads of minstrelsy had spread around the world by 1950.  Jazz, rock and hip hop are heard and performed on every continent, suggesting that, as European science has provided an international medium for rational discourse, so African-American music may be developing into an international medium for expressive interchange.  It is certainly the best chance we’ve got for creating an arena in which the diversity of the world’s cultures can fruitfully interact as economic and political relations between nations around the world become more and more interwoven.

Let’s Wrap it Up

Several features of this story are worth noting:

  1. Almost all of these musical forms are hybrids of elements from Europe and elements from Africa.
  2. That notwithstanding, it is almost always possible to make meaningful distinctions between music performed by blacks and music performed by whites. The distinction between black and white repeatedly recreates itself in new musical terms.
  3. The profusion of styles thus created cannot, however, be properly analyzed as the unfolding of a single aesthetic tradition, as is the case for Western Classical music. Rather, these styles are discontinuous. They share elements—sometimes more, sometimes less—but operate on different founding principles.

The process is thus not at all like the mixing of black and white paint to produce a uniform grey. Rather, mixing is always answered by differentiation.  A black-white difference keeps recreating itself in new ways, long after the African/European cultural distinction has become impossible to parse among either blacks or whites. This tension thus constitutes a cultural engine that keeps driving American culture society to create new social and cultural forms, often extending beyond music into more general forms of social organization.