Freegal: Black Music in America Playlists

For Black History Month in February 2022, we called upon our friend, Bellingham poet and writer, Robert Lashley to help us create a series of playlists on Freegal, the library’s free streaming music platform. We called the series: Black Music in America and covered the years from 1899 to the present, exploring the roots and branches, the influences and innovations that are all a part of the journey of Black music in America.

Picture of singer Bessie Smith. Text: Black Music in America Part 1: 1899-1929
1899 – 1929: Black Music in America Part 1
16 Songs 52 min 47 sec
About 1899 - 1929
Today, we present 1899 to 1929, the era of World War I, The Great Depression, Prohibition, The Harlem Renaissance, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, the first radio stations and the influenza pandemic. It was also a time when white-owned record companies realized that recording Black artists was profitable and so these great voices have been preserved for us to enjoy today.

This first playlist includes gospel, ragtime, jazz and the blues. Many songs in this list have stood the test of time and have been recorded by singers in every decade.

Picture of singer Billie Holiday. Text: Black Music in America Part 2: 1930-1949
1930 – 1949: Black Music in America Part 2
29 Songs 01 hr 26 min 09 sec

About 1930 - 1949
The Great Depression and World War II captured the headlines during this era,but Jim Crow laws and systemic racism created hardships for Black Americans. As you listen to these songs, you may hear joy and sadness in the same voice. We start with two works written by Florence Price, the first Black American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Along with popular jazz, swing and gospel music, we hear Marian Andersen, respected contralto opera singer, singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee live in front of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied her the opportunity to sing in Constitution Hall. We hear jazz and blues legend Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit,a mournful song that addresses lynchings in a frank way. This era ends with singer and guitarist Big Mama Thornton singing her original Hound Dog,which was later a huge hit for a young white singer named Elvis Presley.
Picture of singer Ray Charles. Text: Black Music in America Part 3: 1950-1959
1950 – 1959: Black Music in America Part 3
24 Songs 01 hr 26 min 08 sec
About 1950 - 1959
Our 1950s Freegal playlist begins with Eartha Kitt, whose polished and distinctive voice belied her South Carolina cotton plantation origins, and Nat King Cole, whose signature smooth style led to his becoming the first Black person to host a nationally broadcast variety show in 1956.

Muddy Waters sings a bluesy rebuke to the racist term “Boy,” while B.B. King wails out his own blues. Fats Domino and Chuck Berry turn the corner from Rhythm and Blues into Rock & Roll while Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis keep jazz alive. Ballads, Gospel, Calypso and Folk are heard on the radio everywhere, while Sam Cooke creates a soulful sound of his own. The decade ends with two party tunes which clearly came straight out of the church.
Something is forming during these years that will come to a head very soon.

Picture of singer Nina Simone. Text: Black Music in America Part 4: 1960-1969
1960 – 1969 Black Music in America Part 4
31 Songs 02 hr 00 min 45 sec
About 1960 - 1969
Folk singers, Odetta and Harry Belafonte open our ‘60s playlist with a simple and familiar song that foreshadows the fun that comes with girl groups (the Marvelettes) and doo-wop groups (Sam Cooke) whose chops were honed in the schoolyards of America. Etta James displays her range from the dirty blues to elegant ballads, while Ella Fitzgerald, by now an American institution, shows how a pro can scat her way out of a potential disaster as “Ella and her fellas” improvises lyrics in a live performance in Amsterdam.

John Lee Hooker and B. B. King dig deep into their roots to bring the Delta blues to audiences while Ray Charles crosses over to country and western music with two best-selling albums. Louis Armstrong dives into show tunes with his distinctive trumpet and voice, creating his iconic “Hello Dolly.”

Meanwhile, Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry take separate paths to musical success. Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll, both changing the world of music as radio stations picked up their 45s.

But on small town streets all over America, Cooke knows a change is gonna come. His anthemic song of that name pulls the power of gospel music into pop radio, as so many Black artists before and after him have done. Back to back in the top 40 playlists are love songs and spiritual songs, feel good tunes and anti-racist anthems, Ike and Tina Turner followed by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Everyday People” and “Dancin’ in the Streets”…

And then on April 4, 1968, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The King of Love” as Nina Simone crowned him, is killed in Memphis. And the dream is deferred. The music continued, both spiritual and pop, but this atomic bomb, dropped on the causes of freedom and equality, may have caused a rift between those who stayed the musical course and those too haunted by the moment. The ‘70s are on the horizon.

Picture of singer Donna Summer. Text: Black Music in America Part 5: 1970-1979
1970-1979 Black Music in America Part 5
23 Songs 01 hr 43 min 09 sec
About 1970 - 1979
The 1970s were as tumultuous musically as they were politically and socially, but the threads of gospel, blues, ragtime, big band, folk and ballads that have woven through all the previous decades were still present in this new musical tapestry. New artists like Bill Withers and Earth Wind & Fire found their audience while artists from the 1960s like the Temptations and Ike & Tina Turner found new stories to tell. While Andrae Crouch’s gospel music became more commercially successful under the new moniker “Contemporary Christian” music, you could still hear the more oblique gospel threads in songs like “Lean On Me” and “Love Train.”

While the counter-culture still existed in the form of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” “covered here by Patti LaBelle’s group, LaBelle), an alternative movement that embraced fashion, sexual liberation, dance and drugs was rising fast and by the end of the ‘70s, the four-on-the-floor beat of disco was popular across the US and around the world. While the fast-growing, all encompassing growth of disco was due, in great part, to the state of the business of music and radio, the talent of musicians such as singers Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer and producer Nile Rogers (Chic) should not be underestimated. As the ‘80s approach, we were embracing the “Last Dance,” the last chance for romance tonight.

Picture of singer Prince. Text: Black Music in America Part 6: 1980-1989
1980-1989 Black Music in America Part 6
21 Songs 01 hr 38 min 52 sec
About 1980 - 1989
In the 1980s, Disco gave way to Pop as Black artists struggled for airplay in the new MTV video channel. The Black artists who mastered videos, like Michael Jackson and Prince, quickly captured the imagination of the country and were hailed as superstars. Rap and Hip-hop were also pushing their way into the mainstream, confronting the status quo with innovative musical techniques and socially conscious lyrics. Acceptance came much more slowly for these artists as radio stations and MTV resisted promoting Rap and Hip-hop, some thinking it was going to be a short-lived fad, some thinking it was an acceptable style for their audiences. In other words, it was “Tricky.”

But there WAS an audience for Rap and Hip-hop, and music industry leaders soon found out that this genre was profitable. Suddenly, artists like Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and Salt’n’Pepa were getting airplay across the country. Meanwhile R&B artists like Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin were still going strong. The Pointer Sisters, who had struggled for recognition throughout the 1970s, were suddenly all over the airwaves and a young pop singer named Whitney Houston hit the ground running with a debut album that spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Houston had seven No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 in her first two years.

As the eighties ended, other musical movements were on the rise. The “Seattle Sound” of Grunge was bringing its distortion pedals and raspy white male voices to the front of the room while female singer-songwriters were getting attention again. Among the folky singer-songwriters was Tracy Chapman, a socially conscious Black artist whose hit song, “Fast Car,” spoke to her generation and carried a timeless sadness that recalls previous generations of Black female singers.

Black Music In America Part 7: 1990-1999
1990 – 1999 Black Music in America Part 7
14 Songs 01 hr 06 min 16 sec
About 1990 - 1999
C+C Music Factory started the 1990s out dancing but soon the decade turned violent as the nation was forced to face systemic violence in the L.A. Police Department and the riots that followed the savage beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the four police officers involved. The rap and hip-hop that hit the charts during this period reflected the rioters’ anger and rage. Chuck D. raps “…cause I’m a man” in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” a clear shout out to “Mannish Boy,” Muddy Waters’ 1955 blues song.

Meanwhile Black female artists described an arc of heartbreak in song. But as the ‘90s wore on, the songs that rose to the top were about empowerment. “Let’s love ourselves and we can’t fail,” sings Lauryn Hill, “after winter must come spring.”

As we close out that difficult decade, we do see spring on the horizon and we know that a rose is still a rose and Aretha is still Aretha.

Black Music In America Part 8: 2000-2022
2000-2022 Black Music in America Part 8
24 Songs 01 hr 32 min 59 sec
About 2000- 2022
In 2000, as we reach the new millennium, some Black American singers are still wailing torch songs about lost love. But while Macy Gray’s world crumbles and Jill Scott doesn’t want nothing if it ain’t you, baby, Destiny’s Child, a new “girl group” rises to the top of the charts with an anthem of female empowerment. Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike speaks truth to power in his hard-hitting rap while Anthony Hamilton hits the same hard truths backed with music reminiscent of the 1970s soul music and a chorus of “no more, no more, no more”, a hat tip to Ray Charles. Meanwhile, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings bring their moody funk sound to shine a harsh light on Woody Guthrie’s venerated song, This Land is Your Land.

While Usher and Miguel are raking it in with singing smooth love songs, Jazmine Sullivan is busting windows and Beyonce, having outgrown both her old band and immature lovers, is dealing out another anthem for all the single ladies.

Solange describes beautifully how man-made progress and construction cranes disrupt the peace she seeks in physical distractions, while Leon Bridges pulls out an acoustic guitar and an answer in a simple gospel song that reminds us of the roots of American Black music. Meanwhile Jidenna tries one more time to summon a macho front in Chief Don’t Run, but is he speaking to his enemy or himself when he says “welcome to your burial?”

As we come closer to the culmination of our review of Black music in America, Childish Gambino pulls it all together in an amazing history of the Black experience in America using symbolism, both aurally and in the powerful accompanying video, a must see if you want to feel his full message. Following This Is America, we look to Queen Bey to bring us some hope. “I’mma keep running, cause a winner don’t quit on herself,” she tells us in Freedom. Sounds of Blackness brings us to current day with a stirring choral rendition of Black Lives Matter which confronts us with contemporary words and phrases pulled from recent headlines and a lesson in Black American history.

It seems only fitting to bring Beyonce back for a benediction, singing a hymn first performed in 1900, and here, performed live at her 2019 “Homecoming” concert, a message for everyone, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

– James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson