Thirty-five years ago on June 7, 1979 President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month. During this time the nation recognizes and celebrates the music generated by those of African descent, as the some of the most influential music in the world. Since that time presidents continued to follow the tradition with a special proclamation until June 2, 2009 when President Barack Obama gave the observance a new title, African-American Music Appreciation Month.
In this year’s Presidential Proclamation, Obama stated,
“Our country is home to a proud legacy of African-American musicians whose songs transcend genre. They make us move, make us think, and make us feel the full range of emotion -- from the pain of isolation to the power of human connection. During African-American Music Appreciation Month, we celebrate artists whose works both tell and shape our Nation's story.”
Click here to view the Presidential Proclamation for 2014 in its entirety:
In celebration of African American Music Month, readers can partake of a sampling of five popular Black musical genres from a smorgasbord of delectable sounds spread for the world to enjoy. This sumptuous feast is presented with a list with brief introductions to spirituals and gospel music, ragtime, jazz and the blues.
The accompanying slide show spotlights a number of musical artists from these varied African American musical categories.
Fisk Jubilee Singers: Pioneers of the spiritual
Emerging from the souls of slaves in the Deep South, spirituals as a musical genre grew in popularity following the Civil War. Although hundreds of spirituals were composed and sung, for the most part, their actual composers were not known by name. James Weldon Johnson, described such song writers as “. . . those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed.”
In the days following the Civil War, an ensemble of young college students toured the country singing spirituals in concert settings to raise funds for their struggling institution, Fisk University. Among the first places the group performed was Columbus, Ohio, where the group adopted the name of the Fisk Jubilee Singers after an all-night prayer vigil in Columbus in 1871.
Marian Anderson: Consummate interpreter of spirituals
With “a voice heard once in a hundred years,” Marian Anderson was one of the most renowned interpreters of spirituals and among the most celebrated singers of the 20th Century. As as a singer of international renown, she was the first Africa American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, a pioneer on the concert stage and elsewhere. After being refused to perform in the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall in 1939, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to 75,000 people in a concert heard around the world. She was among the most admired and respected women of her times. Click here to read about that legendary concert.
Mahalia Jackson--Queen of Gospel Music
Spirituals eventually contributed to the development of gospel music, a form of religious expression derived from the term “gospel” or “good news.” This popular musical expression is also derived from the 18th century hymns that were popular in Protestant churches at the time, making gospel music an amalgam that included hymns, folk melodies, spirituals, and would later incorporate blues elements.
“The father of gospel music” is said to be Thomas Dorsey, whom pbs.org described the man who “married secular blues to a sacred text.” Dorsey, who left Atlanta by way of the Great Migration, moved to Chicago at an early age. The former pianist for the legendary blues singer, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, composed over 400 songs, his most popular being “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Composed in 1932, the song was written following the personal crisis of losing both his wife and son in childbirth. Dorsey co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses in 1933. Six years later, he teamed with Mahalia Jackson, the renowned Gospel singer who helped to usher in what was known as the “Golden Age of Gospel Music.”
Click here to read more about this influential gospel singer of the 20th Century.
Ma Rainey--Mother of the Blues
Among the most celebrated musical genres in the world is the blues, which famed poet James Weldon Johnson described in this manner: “It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives it most distinctive characteristics.” Willie Dixon, “Poet Laureate of the Blues,” goes on to speak of the seminal qualities of this distinctively American musical genre: "Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits."
Ralph Ellison offers this penetrating definition of this evocative musical form that expresses sorrow, pain, or loss:
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger the jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolations of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
The list of famous female blues singers is lengthy indeed and includes such notables as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey and other singers leading up to Billie Holiday (Lady Day), including Dinah Washington, ”Little Esther,” Etta James, Nina Simone, Sippie Wallace, and Koko Taylor.
Ragtime: Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers Band
According to aboutjazz.com, “ragtime,” a highly syncopated form of music similar to a march but more lively and energetic is said to be “the first completely American music.” Ragtime takes its name from a contraction of the term “ragged time,” referring to its rhythmically irregular melodies This popular musical form which preceded jazz was popular as dance music towards the end of the 19th century and into the first part of the 20th century, from 1893 to about 1917.
Aboutjazz.com speaks of the origins of this popular musical form:
Ragtime developed in African American communities throughout the southern parts of the Midwest, particularly Missouri. Bands would combine the structure of marches with black songs and dances such as the cakewalk. The music, which predated the explosion of sound recordings, became widespread through the sale of published sheet music and piano rolls. In this way it contrasts sharply from early jazz, which was spread by recordings and live performances.
Three of the most recognized ragtime composers include:
Scott Joplin wrote many ragtime melodies, such as “Maple Leaf Rag,” along with two ragtime operas. His 1902 composition, “The Entertainer,” was used as background for the 1973 movie, The Sting.
With his flamboyant personality and distinctive piano styling, Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, better known as “Jelly Roll” Morton, made numerous recording of his music which served as a bridge between ragtime and early jazz. He is pictured here with his celebrated Red Hot Peppers Band.
Eubie Blake started out playing ragtime piano in vaudeville and eventually worked his way into Broadway when he co-composed the first Broadway hit composed by African Americans, “Shuffle Along,” a musical revue that opened in 1921.
Ella Fitzgerald: Queen of Jazz
Known as the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” and “Lady Ella, the legendary jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), was one of the most popular jazz singers of the 20th Century.” The New York Times described the extraordinary singer’s “vocal range spanning three octaves” and the “purity of her tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a ‘horn-like’ improvisational ability. . . .” A 1964 Profile in Time Magazine describes the matchless jazz singer’s improvisational styling:
“She is the chair professor of the art of scat singing, wherein a singer abandons comprehensible lyrics in the middle of a song, and she can scoodee-oo-da for 800 bars without running out of fresh gibberish.”