Based on the paper titled “African American Musical Contributions: by Misty Hamilton Smith. Originally published on Nov. 26, 2017, for IDS 400 at Southern New Hampshire University College of Online and Continuing Education.
The modern American music culture owes its start to pioneering African American musicians. Before Elvis, the so-called King of Rock n’ Roll, hit the stage, before The Beatles packed stadiums, there were African American pioneers of music who are now responsible for most of the sounds we enjoy today.
African American Musical Contributions
The modern American music culture owes its start to pioneering African American musicians. Before Elvis, the so-called King of Rock n’ Roll, hit the stage, before The Beatles packed stadiums, there were African American pioneers of music who are now responsible for most of the sounds we enjoy today. During the early to mid-1900s, musical greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, the Nicolas Brothers, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis exploded upon the music scene breaking the racial barriers of the time and being enjoyed by all.
African Americans brought their traditional sounds with them from Africa on the slave ships that carried them to North America. Many of the songs became poetry and told of the woes of enslavement, and were often used to bring light upon civil injustice (Ramey, 2010). Those songs and prose often stayed within the African American societies, not to be heard but by a few outside of their circles. However, times were to change rapidly in the early 1900s, when the American populace was introduced to sounds by now-legends like Duke Ellington. “Before Duke Ellington’s rise to fame in the late 1920s and early 1930s, no African American had ever been so widely hailed around the world as a serious artistic figure, without the stereotypes usually affixed to African American entertainers” (Cohen, 2004).
Other entertainers of the time such as Cab Calloway and the Nicolas Brothers brought their musical inspirations to the big screen with theatrical performance. For example, Cab Calloway’s music was being used in cartoons, such as Betty Boob, and he himself appeared as an actor/singer in the movies The Big Broadcast (1933), The Singing Kid (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943) (Hosiasson, 2001). These types of approaches during the Jim Crow era was monumental in helping the early civil rights movement, as they introduced African American culture to areas of the population that may not have experienced it beforehand.
Although they were great musicians, their skin color still kept them from being everything they could. It was not until Elvis, stealing stamina from African American musical influence, threw the musical world upon its head that African American music would truly be brought into the world arena. In 1953, Elvis went into a Memphis, Tennessee, recording studio to record a birthday record for his mother. It was there that Marion Keisker found what he has been so long searching for, a white man who could play “negro” music (Birnbaum, 2013). From there on out, the King of Rock n’ Roll rode the bandwagon on the backs of the African American musical pioneers of his childhood.
In summary, the modern day American musical landscape has evolved far beyond jazz, the blues, and rock n’ roll; we also now enjoy R&B, Soul, Rap, and numerous other genres all thanks to those brave musicians of the past. Groups around the world have given thanks to early American music, for example, “the Beatles and the Rolling Stones often crediting early 20th-century American music such as blues for their inspiration” (Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2014). Each of these genres would not have been what we know them to be without the influences of the past, especially that of the early-to-mid 1900s.
Birnbaum, L. (2013). Before Elvis: The Prehistory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
Cohen, H. G. (2004). THE MARKETING OF DUKE ELLINGTON: SETTING THE STRATEGY FOR AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MAESTRO. The Journal of African American History, 89(4), 291-315. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/docview/194471805?accountid=3783
Hosiasson, J. (2001). Calloway, Cab. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.04611
Oregon Public Broadcasting. (2014). 20th Century Music. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/20th-century-music/
Ramey, L. (2010). Slave songs and the birth of African American poetry. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu