By ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
Music has always been the Heartbeat of the Black community. It spoke to them, through them and for them in times of celebration, praise and mourning. African Americans have used music for worship, to send uncoded messages, civil rights and social justice, and as a form of expression of joy, sadness, romance, animus, etc.
Though Africans were stripped of all that they had and forced into slavery, they were able to create traditional instruments using materials that were available to them.
The most common instrument has been the drums, which hold a special meaning for Africans – spiritually, historically and culturally. It has been said that the drums measure the beating of the heart. They were used during song, dance and storytelling. They were used during special occasions: births, rites of passage, weddings, funerals and various other rituals and celebrations.
However, at one point, drums were banned on plantations for fear they would use them to send messages in an attempt to escape or fight for freedom. However, they continued to be a vital part of the culture.
The most common instrument was the most basic, the voice. Singing was a major part of the life of enslaved African Americans. They often sang while working in the fields to mark time and set pace. Over time, the songs and music began to evolve.
Since the 1820s, enslaved Africans generally worshiped with the White community in White churches – though Africans had to sit in the back or someplace out of sight of the White congregants – or a designated area or in churches built for them by the plantation owners. Therefore, slaves generally sang worship songs that were taught to them during church.
Around the 18th century, as African Americans began to form their own churches or places of worship, they began to change the sound of worship and praise music, which evolved into Negro Spirituals.
As Black music continued to evolve, freed slaves found various forms of employment and opportunities to raise money through music.
During the 1840s, there were some who performed minstrel shows. The shows were racists depictions of Negroes as lazy, ignorant buffoons. The performers wore a certain type of makeup, known as blackface. They performed skits and sang songs.
Bill Robinson, born May 25, 1878, in Richmond, Virginia, was known for his role as Bojangles. Performing first in vaudeville circuits during the early 1900s, he went on to star in Black musical comedies and motion pictures from 1935 to 1943. His most notable performances were in Shirley Tempo films. He was the first Black performer to perform on stage alone, without blackface, and – most notably – to dance with a White female.
George W. Johnson, born in Virginia in October 1846, was the first African American to record his own music. He was born into slavery, just before the Civil War began. In 1890, he was recruited by phonograph distributors who invited him to record his music onto a phonograph. He became known as “The Whistling Coon” for his loud ragtime whistling. He went on to record several songs on phonographs.
Ragtime later transformed into jazz.
One of the most notable jazz musicians was Louis Daniel Armstrong, born in New Orleans on Aug. 4, 1901. Known also as Satchmo, he was an iconic trumpeter who was also famous for his raspy singing voice. He was also known for his talented scat singing – a combination of melody and rhythm adopted by jazz artists. Some music historians have said that Armstrong was the first to perform scat.
Ella Jane Fitzgerald, born in Virginia on April 25, 1917, took jazz to new heights. She was known as the First Lady of Song, and some called her the Queen of Jazz because of her strong, pure voice. She was also known for her scat singing but was most famous for songs like Dream a Little Dream of Me and It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). She has won 14 Grammy’s, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first NAACP President’s Award and a National Medal of Arts, among many awards and honors.
Every corner of music was steadily changing and sprouting into various genres throughout the country during that time. Music was changing its artists and artists were changing the music.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born March 20, 1915, made her mark in history as a singer and guitarist. Known as the Godmother of Rock and Roll, she blended blues with folk music, incorporating an upbeat dance tempo to create what later became rock and roll.
She also recorded gospel song throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She was the first artist to mix gospel with rhythm and blues. Her unique style of heavy distortions on her electric guitar ushered in a new era of electric blues – influencing blues nationwide and abroad.
Notable music artists, such as Little Richard and Johnny Cash, have stated their admiration for her.
She recorded 12 albums and four singles between 1947 and 1991. She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was induced into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Music has had numerous influences throughout the last several decades. Though it is impossible to record the complete story of African American music – over the next few weeks – The Dallas Examiner will pay tribute to a small portion of Black music artists that have greatly influence the evolution of the music industry as it salutes African American Music Appreciation Month.
Handbook of Texas Online, Encyclopedia.com, Library of Congress, Britanica.com, Black First: 500 Years of Trailblazing Achievement and Ground-Breaking Events and Icons of Black America: Breaking Barriers and Crossing Boundaries
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