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In order to understand how African Americans have shaped the face of American Music, one must look back to the origins of African music. The "Ivory Coast" as it was named, on the western border of Africa, was the primary source for slaves the white man captured in Africa. This stretch of land spread from Ghana to Nigeria (Cook, page 46). This area is known in the musical world intrinsically for it's percussional influence.
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During the American Civil War, the emergence of gospel music into African Slave culture took root into the hearts and lives of many and quickly became an important aspect of daily life. Inspired by oppression and singing to The God they desperately needed, their music had soul; their music had meaning. Common themes of this new form of music included loneliness, anger and despair; but most importantly, deliverance. The "Spirituals" they created were often times related to the Bible Stories of Moses and the Red Sea, Samson and Delihla, and David and Goliath. One "Spiritual", "Follow the Drinking Gourd" spoke of the freedom in the north; the "Gourd" is referred to as the North Star, so the song in essence, was a map (Whitcomb, page 90). As these prayers were sent out to their creator, they were blessed with an innate ability to release anguish through their music.
Through these gospel songs and working
chants, the Blues were born. By using the "Call and
Response" (Randel, page 124) technique of field slaves (and
cadence) and a variation of the major scale found in church
hymns, the Blues sprang forth from Gospels womb. The term
"Blues" is labeled very logically. In the major scale, if
you drop the "3rd", "5th", and "7th" scale degrees from
major to minor, the results are "blue notes", which sound
sad. That is what the Blues are all about: sadness,
despondency, combined with the hardships and toil and
equivocal pleasures of drinking and sex. "Color psychology
designates blue as the color of melancholy" (Cook, page
As Muddy Waters reached his stardom in the 1950's, the blues again evolved into what is known as Rock 'n' Roll. The metamorphosis of blues into Rock lasted around 20 years. This time period stretched from around 1950-1970 and is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Rock". In the early 50's, artists such as Fats Domino and Elvis Presley began mixing the distinct sound of both blues and country music into the art form known as Rock. Borrowing heavily from the Chicago Blues riffs and chord progressions and also from the Delta Blues, Presley became famous.
Rock & Roll,
50's & 60's
When Rock and Roll originated in the early 1950's, America was in the wake of World War Two and thus was a very conservative society. The classic television series "Leave it to Beaver" epitomizes the white American family of the time. This consisted of a two parent family with two kids and a house in the suburbs of white America. This is how the Baby Boomer generation is often perceived. This contrasts reality as the founders of Rock and Roll were primarily black. However, music is color blind. Youths in the 1950's and 1960's could not deny the soul shaking sounds put forth by Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll "appealed out across racial and ethnic barriers. Audiences at performances of Rock 'n' Roll were similarly mixed racially and economically" (Randel, page 711). The 1960's were a time of revolution and change for America. Teenagers were rebelling against their parents and the United States government more so than ever before. On a much more grandiose scale, the Civil Rights movement was underway. Along with the Vietnam War and the Women's Rights Movement, America was arguably in it's biggest social challenge of the Century. The music portraying the time period revealed the troubles America was undergoing. As turmoil and hate swept the nation, white artists such as The Beatles, Crosby-Stills-Nash and Young and others sang of love peace and the Blues.
With America in shambles racially, the U.S. stood behind it's new music with pride as a source of power and hope in it's many rebellions. Traditionally, parents disapprove of the music their children listen to and Rock and Roll was by no means an exception. "Rock music, which was at the root of the new youth culture, provided a background for it's new found face" (Foner, page 86). With youths using Rock as a means to unify in rebellion, it is easy to see why so many people nationwide despise(d) what Rock and Roll stands for. The heart and soul of Rock is the blues, but the feelings put forth by Rock go much deeper than that. Rock like the Blues is based upon vocals and lyrics more so than the instrumental aspect of the music in comparison with other forms of music.
As artists sang of love and peace, they searched for a way to experience it artificially. This often times led to massive drug and alcohol abuse by popular performers. With the legalization of the drug LSD (acid), and the use of marijuana on the rise, drugs began to play a huge part in the ever changing world of Rock and Roll. A new form of revolutionary dubbed the "Hippie" had now spread across the United States. Preaching love and more notably peace, hippies epitomized what "folk" or "hippie" music stood for. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others combined blues, drugs and plenty of support from fans to impress their point upon people.
In 1965, drugs were not the biggest problem for African Americans. Most white Americans were happy to listen to African Americans music, and let them entertain, but still did not view them as equals. The racial tension escalated until a string of riots broke out over the next 10 years; the first in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California. This racially motivated riot left 35 dead, 1,032 injured and $250 million in damages. Reaching the upper portion of the pop charts that year were the Supremes with their song "Stop in the Name of Love", highly contrasting the struggle of the time period. This riot was followed by riots in Detroit in 1967 (43 dead, 2,000 injured and 5,000 homes burnt down) and Kent State University in 1970 (four dead and 9 injured) (Hendler, pgs. 81,102,133). In 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was halted when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Through persistence and perseverance, African Americans gained the natural God given rights they deserved.
Bushnar, Gene. "It's Rock and Roll." NY:Jullian Messner Publishing. 1979. Intro
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