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GENESIS, EXODUS AND
THE PROMISED LAND


This is Volume One of a two-part tribute to the heroes, both well-known and unsung, who’ve contributed to the evolution of black music in America, from West African oral traditions to Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972.

As an entertainment journalist who has covered black music for 25 years, I’m excited to see the history of soul music receiving this level of recognition in print. It is richly deserved, as the global success of black music is an unparalleled feat, especially considering the plight African Americans faced—and continue to face—in this country. This music is inseparable from the troubles facing so many of its creators, which they so eloquently and powerfully express.

When West Africans were kidnapped from their homeland, forced to travel across the Atlantic Ocean via boat in sub-human living conditions and sold into slavery upon their arrival in the Americas, their music was among the customs that helped them survive. Their songs connected them with family and other captives from their homelands.

In West Africa, music was more than entertainment—it was a vital, hugely important form of communication embraced by all. As a part of the oral tradition, and under the leadership of the village griot, singing, dancing and music supplied by drums, horns and stringed instruments were used to share and preserve historical narratives. These stories were passed down from generation to generation as a way to celebrate births, worship, mourn or even rebel. This West African oral tradition was the direct precursor of black music in America.

Captors immediately noticed the prevalence of music in the West African culture and responded in different ways. Some were wary of slaves singing. In his book, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, Vincent Brown describes a French soldier in 1816 overhearing a group of slaves in Jamaica singing about staging a rebellion. He was alarmed by the words, “Buckra in this country no make we free/What Negro for to do? What Negro for to do?/Take force by force! Take force by force!” He reported his concern, which led to the arrest and hanging of the group’s leader.

Some slave-ship crew members whipped slaves, forcing them to sing and dance for entertainment, while others were more lenient. In New Orleans, overseers were apt to allow slaves more creative freedoms, believing that the outlet would make them happier and reduce the risk of revolt. By 1860, New Orleans was a key port, and the city had a diverse makeup of Africans from various countries, each with their own musical stylings. This dynamic was crucial in fostering the evolution of jazz and blues. In New York in 1831, the popular entertainer Dan Rice began performing in blackface, mimicking the Negro songs that had been rising in popularity, foreshadowing the music’s marketability.

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman used music to help her lead slaves to free states in the North and to Canada during her 13 travels along the Underground Railroad during the mid-19th century. The Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” instructed slaves to get in the water in order to avoid being captured. The influence of the West African culture continued to expand, fueling the development of popular music.


This Black Music History special issue is full of the colorful backstories behind many of America’s greatest songs. “The Roots of Rock & Soul, Song by Song” lists more than 60 seminal recordings from predominantly black artists. While wide-ranging, these entries are far from exhaustive—that would take volumes—but “Roots” definitely hits numerous essential recordings and their creators, ranging from towering icons to lesser-known artists whose contributions to black music have also been instrumental. In the former category is Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary,” a haunting song about seeing his lady’s dead body in a medical facility—the antithesis to his renowned feel-good anthem, “What a Wonderful World.” Another icon, Billie Holiday, is applauded for her courage to sing, in 1939, Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a poem about lynching. 
The inspiration behind Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is explained as well.

Musical trailblazers are acknowledged. Chuck Berry, whose “Johnny B. Goode” is on the list, is credited with creating “the guitar riff on which all succeeding ones are based.” Ike Turner and His Rhythm Kings’ “Rocket 88” is referenced as arguably the first official rock ’n’ roll song. Elsewhere in the issue, we look at the labels that played a pivotal role in nurturing and spreading black music, including Sun, Satellite, Chess, King, Atlantic, Motown and Stax/Volt, and the artists who recorded for each of them. And there’s so much more. Each song description is an urgent call to action to actually listen to the music—and be moved by it. That is the ultimate point of this issue.


Billy Johnson Jr. is a former senior editor for Yahoo Music and has written for Vibe, Entertainment Weekly, The Source, The Hollywood Reporter and Grammy.com. His social-media handle is @BillyJohnsonJr.

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