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.
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.
Artists: The Fisk Jubilee Singers
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.
Artists: Eartha Kitt
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.
A Hole In The Bucket
Artists: Harry Belafonte & Odetta
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.
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.
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.
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
Thanks to Bellingham poet and writer, Robert Lashley for his help curating these songs.