African American Music

What do the Rap, Hip Hop, Funk, Soul, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues and Gospel all have in common?

They are all popular genres of music considered to be included under the general African American music umbrella having been influenced by the culture of African Americans. Historically, African American genres of music have been very significant in their affect across a broad range of socio-economic groups within the United States and overseas.

From the early influences on mainstream American music in the 19th century to the popularity today of Hip Hop, Rap and RnB, the influence of African Americans on the American music industry continues with a plethora of successful solo artists and groups maintaining a strong presence in the charts.

Although in earlier years of it’s history, not all African American musicians achieved mainstream success. During the 1950’s Little Richard (Rev. Richard Wayne Penniman) who became an important identity in the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll received his first accolade and has continued to achieve extraordinary success and acknowledgement throughout his musical career. In 2007 his original hit “Tutti Frutti” took out first place in Mojo magazine’s poll of “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World.”

Sly and the Family Stone, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, Marvin Gaye, India Arie, Erykah Badu and in particular Destiny’s Child who some years ago became known as the highest selling female vocal group of all time are to name a few of the highly successful African American singers and song-writers. In more recent times Alicia Keys was the first woman to log three weeks at number one with her “As I am” hit and she is the first African American woman to remain at number one for has long as she did since 2002 when Ashanti hit the charts with her debut album.

Expressing themselves and celebrating their culture creatively, spiritually, politically and socially, these and many more talented artists have enhanced the reputation and popularity of the myriad of genres of music that claim their roots in African American music.

Ragtime to Rap, Scott Joplin to Curtis James Jackson 111, aka 50 Cent, the genres of Blues, Jazz, Motown, disco, Funk, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, Techno and Electric Jazz all increased in popularity for their time and during the 1950’s and more so during the 1970’s African American music was appealing to wider more mainstream audiences including crossover audiences.

Along with the evolution of African American music came the evolution of dance and the introduction of dance, block and rave parties where the Mc’s and the DJ’s themselves have become celebrities in their own rights.

Over decades if not centuries the rising popularity of African American music has bought more attention to African American culture including the landmark signing of legislation in 2003 for the creation and development of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What Makes American Music Great?

African Americans, creating a musical language out of their collective experiences of slavery and oppression, are the source that raised American music to greatness in the 20th century. As each new style emerged into the larger culture, it was initially denigrated and criticized, much like society denigrated the black men and women it had forcibly brought into its midst. The loudest critics were not always whites, though. Churchgoing blacks once upheld a dichotomy between gospel (God’s music) and the blues (the devil’s music).

Evidence for the blues dates back to the colonial era. The term “the blue devils,” referring to melancholy, entered the English language during the 17th century, perhaps through the slave trade. There is also a folklore connection in stories of how the devil taught a musician to play his instrument, exemplified by the well-known legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson at the crossroads. The style of the blues, reflecting its rural origins, is simple and easy to grasp with its standard form, basic chord progressions and repetition, which perhaps explains its universal popularity. The sliding tones and microtonal “blue notes” that became standard features of the blues derive from African musical elements.

In contrast to the blues, jazz emerged at the end of the nineteenth century in the sophisticated urban setting of New Orleans. Its style blended African musical traditions (improvisation, certain techniques of playing instruments, and syncopated, complex rhythms) with European traditions (brass military bands and chords derived from European harmonic tradition). The term “jazz” possibly originated from a West African term related to sex. The wild, uninhibited dancing that came to be associated with jazz in the 1920s aroused a lot of antipathy from more tradition-bound society. In 1926, for instance, the Cincinnati Salvation Army obtained a temporary injunction against the construction of a movie theater because jazz music emanating from the theater would implant “jazz emotions” in babies in the neighboring maternity hospital. But jazz grew in popularity, capturing the energy and brashness of the American spirit.

World War II established the U.S. as a superpower, and it began to dominate the world culturally and economically. While jazz artists were pushing the boundaries of their art into new levels of complexity with bebop, another African American musical style arose, a return to the simplicity of blues, but faster. That style came to be known as rock and roll – once again with a sexual connotation. So of course the music was criticized as degenerate, which perhaps only added to its allure. Initially this “race music” was banned from radio and television, a situation that John Waters comically critiques in “Hairspray.” Once it was reinterpreted by white musicians like Elvis Presley, however, it spread like wildfire. During that conformist decade, it was unfortunately more comfortable for many white kids to listen to black music performed by white musicians.

British musicians, influenced by recordings of classic American blues (which ironically had long since waned in popularity in the U.S.), brought their version of rock and roll to the U.S. in the early 1960s in a cross-pollenization that developed into rock. That style, with its myriad genres, held sway for 25 years before being edged out by yet another new African American style, rap.

Rap arose in New York City in the early 1970s, brought to the city by Jamaican immigrant Kool Herc. The rhythmic patter of words over a beat harkened back to African oral traditions and the itinerant griot musician who had to have the ability to extemporize on current events and chance incidents happening in the midst of his song. By 1998, rap was outselling every other music genre in the U.S.

So each of these styles, originating in the African American community and eventually emulated by the larger culture despite hostility from some camps, has been enormously influential, along with less pervasive African American styles like soul, funk and disco. The fact that the music was transgressive and forbidden, and often associated with sexuality, also added to the music’s power. (The only other 20th century musical culture of equally rich stature, though not as influential, is that of Brazil – the result of another heterogeneous racial mixture.) Displaced African Americans used the musical elements from their heritage to create something new that, because of its expressive power and its embodiment of the American spirit in a century dominated by America, became some of the most influential music in the history of the world. Stop to think how impoverished your life would be if none of this music had ever happened.

Alternative American Music

One of the biggest imports from the U.S. is American music which goes over big time all around the globe and has been that way for most of the last hundred years or so. Jazz was invented in the U.S. and is a distinctly American art form, though it has travelled well all over the planet and has influenced almost every type of music conceivable. Louis Armstrong travelled the globe promoting American music and jazz in particular and it continues to this day with the great alternative American music acts that are dominating worldwide.

Green Day originated in Berkeley, California and over the span of their almost thirty year career they have sold tens of millions of CDs and had multiple international hits. Their brand of purely American music inspired by punk and alternative rock is a unique invention that has been embraced by audiences of all ages. They are truly one of the few bands in history that have crossed over successfully and transcended artificial labels and media imposed boundaries. Their latest album was “21st Century Breakdown” and it was number one on the Billboard charts from the moment it came out and featured the number one hit single “21 Guns”.

Another great band playing American music is also coincidentally from Berkeley, California, the same hometown as Green Day, and this band is the great Counting Crows. Although there popularity has diminished a bit over the years, they have a tremendous international following and can pack them in all over the world. Their first big hit was “Mr. Jones” which was very derivative of the great Van Morrison, but more modern. They went on to score many huge hits including “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Long December”, among others.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have gradually risen in the ranks to become perhaps the number one rock band in the world, if such a thing can be measured. The group is from Los Angeles and they have scored some huge hits with their blend of American music and contemporary modern rock and rap. Songs like “Californication”, “Dani California”, “My Friends”, “Aeroplane”, “Otherside”, “Scar Tissue”, and many, many more have won them fans across many continents. Led by singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea, the group is stronger than ever and every music fan awaits their next big album.

Van Halen has sold millions and millions of albums all over the world, even though they changed singers in mid-stream, substituting the brilliant energy of David Lee Roth for the piercing vocal gymnastics of Sammy Hagar. Whoever the singer is, Van Halen can fill up stadiums wherever they play their rock tinged American music, no matter what country they happen to be in. When they are not playing you can find them relaxing in Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico.

A Brief History of American Music I: Folk and Americana

American Music, like American Everything-Else, is a mixture of traditions brought here by immigrants (you know, Americans). The first immigrants to New England (go get a map; you may need it later) were mostly from the British Isles so our story starts with the Folk music of England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. One important thing to keep in mind is that Folk music is music of the people, played mostly by amateurs for community enjoyment and entertainment. This first development took place a bit west of where you generally think of colonists being, in the Appalachian Mountains. Evolution occurs more quickly in small, isolated populations and the Appalachian Mountain range fostered that way of life.

The lyrics were first Old World ballads, generally, but New World ballads soon mixed in. The music was based on Old World dance and vocal music but because it was never notated, it is difficult to say exactly how the Appalachian style was formed. One way to get an idea, though, is to track what instruments were used where and when. Of the typical instruments used in what’s now Bluegrass, the fiddle was probably the first to be used and was likely the only instrumental accompaniment for vocal and dance pieces. The banjo was introduced by slaves sometime in the 18th century and guitar and mandolin didn’t become widely used until the late 19th century. The Appalachian dulcimer didn’t come into being until the late 19th century but similar instruments like the Norwegian langeleik and German Scheitholt may have been used previously in America.

It’s hard to say what of this style was preserved and how but what left the isolated mountain communities is now called Bluegrass which includes elements of other musical traditions but retains most of the qualities one would find in Appalachian music. Modern Bluegrass contains a strong Jazz influence in its structure and harmony but the aesthetic comes mostly from Appalachian music of the late 19th century.

Oh, and don’t think I’ve forgotten about Appalachian vocal music; we’ll get to that.

Now we get to another hotbed of American Folk music, the Mississippi Delta. The Delta region can be traced from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Helena, Arkansas in the west to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south and a natural border, the Yazoo River, in the east. It’s here that some of the first Blues music was played. The presence of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers is important because for a long time waterways were primary routes of transportation and cities on their banks were commerce centers which led to them being cultural centers.

The delta Blues style is important for a few reasons. The use of “1,” “4,” and “5” chords in eight, twelve, or sixteen measure forms is pervasive in large part because of this style and the songs from this region are typically written in the first person. There’s more but it takes a keen ear to trace the musical lineage back this far.

Not to glaze over the delta (this will all come together, I promise) but we’re moving on.

In Chicago, the Blues took on a different sound. The guitars were electric and backed by bands, sometimes with horn sections (a foreshadowing of soul music). The electric guitars encouraged energetic and exciting performances and this was exemplified by the Chicago Bluesmen. Two particularly important performers were Muddy Waters who was a major influence in the British Blues boom and subsequent invasion and Buddy Guy, aka Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughn (everyone copies Buddy).

So: We’ve got bluegrass and Blues that’s closer to rock and roll than Folk. But, now it starts to come together. Because of the way populations shift in America, these styles blended. If you take delta Blues, clean up the language, and add an even rhythm you can dance to, for instance, you’ve got Country music. Blues, being pervasive, influences again, indirectly through Jazz. See where I was going with this? There are still a few loose ends to tie up, though.

First, prisons. These were the great libraries and melting pots of American Folk music because prisoners from various regions brought their music with them. Many important recordings were made at prisons in the south. Second, traveling musicians were crucial in helping cross pollinate these styles and developed hybrid styles themselves. Last, gospel. Each region had its own style, of course. Small Appalachian communities would have small choirs with melodies and harmonies resembling European traditions but a larger, southern community would have a larger choir with melodies and harmonies influenced by the black population. This is where the Folk and Country vocal harmonies come from.

Let’s fast forward a bit. In the north, there was a Folk boom and in the south there was Country. A guy named Chuck Berry did this thing called Rock and Roll but that’s not too important right now. The Folk boom was helped along by recording technology that sped up the music’s development by letting anyone hear it. Country music was in a lot of respects a white interpretation of earlier black music with electric guitars but had a lot going for it. In Tennessee, you had people like Johnny Cash and groups like the Statler Brothers (great Country-gospel singers) and west, in California, there was “cowboy music” played by Buck Owens and the like. There was this kid who loved Folk music, traveling great distances to hone his craft, and had experimented in Tennessee with his own version of the Country sound. Finally, he decided to try to take the new sound on the road so Bob Dylan hired The Band to back him up on tour.

One very important thing to know is that The Band invented Americana music. The Band was formed over a period of years as a group of backing musicians for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins toured them on a circuit between Helena and Toronto for years before they got sick of him and decided to try their luck making their own music. Bob Dylan picked them up when he needed a band for his first electric tour. They moved to Woodstock after Dylan’s accident and invented Americana in the basement of a house they had rented called Big Pink.

Their first two albums, Music from Big Pink, and The Brown Album further defined the genre and are must haves.

Now, we’re near the end so just hang in a little longer. I’ll make this quick.

The last chapter of this story is Folk music and The San Francisco Sound. In the early sixties, San Francisco was a big part of the Folk boom and this proved to be a lasting influence on San Francisco bands. The Jam Bands mostly started as Bluegrass and Blues bands. Over time, they went electric and became more and more experimental in their performances but they were playing traditional American music, they just happened to be very intoxicated at the time.Once the sixties were over, though, they got around to picking up their original traditional music influences and ambitions.

During the eighties, this music went deep underground and development became hard to track but it’s still around. Take a careful listen.

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The goal of my writing is to celebrate good music and provide a resource for those who are passionate about it. I started writing because I was disappointed by how little online music content was written by musicians. I’m a jazz musician by training but I care about quality, not genre. Colcifer is a nickname a drummer gave me; it means, roughly, “smart music” in Bobby-speak. I can also be found on Alltop. Follow me on Twitter for blog updates, interesting retweets, and occasional jokes of varying quality. I’ve curated a list of music accounts that you can follow as well.


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Today’s Most Popular Native American Music and Artist

When you think of Native American music, do you only think of the old Westerns that depicted drums and dancers around a campfire? Not only is that extremely stereotypical, it is just wrong.

Native American music today is still rooted in the music of the flute, and yes, the drums, but it is so much more than that! It is given through emotions. Native American music still showcases these as the key instruments that carry the tune; however, often you will find that many other instruments are also giving the piece more depth and power.

There are many, more traditional recording artists still working on the songs of their and their forefathers youth, gently evolving them with time. There are also many new groups that have taken the traditional music and built upon it to create new, equally as beautiful and meaningful pieces of music that is a delight to hear.

Native American flute music has stayed extremely popular over the years, defying the trend to move toward a more worldly style. It is often accompanied by vocals but generally little else as the flute creates music that is transcendent all by itself

Drums, and other percussion instruments, are still as important today as they ever were. They carry the tempo with their varying beats.

The most important part of Native American music, though, is the vocals. With its elastic nature you will find yourself following the complexities that create some of the most emotional music you will ever hear. It will take you on a journey through your own soul to find who you are. When paired with the flute, it creates timeless peace and tranquility. As the forefront of a group, or band, it is the vocals that catch and hold your attention, whether it is in a Native tongue or not.

Powwow music seems to be the most popular second to the flute. It surrounds itself with the beating of the drum and the voices chanting in rhythm. It is the base music for dancing, often accompanied by the beat of the bells or jingles on the dancers garments.

Voted the Best Native American Music Album at the 2008 Grammy Awards was an album by Johnny Whitehorse called Totemic Flute Chants. This album gives you a way to work with your animal guides with twelve songs such as Bear, Wolf, Earth Mother and nine more.

Robert Mirabel is another popular Native American artist producing many stunning works in both the traditional sound with his native tongues, Tiwa, and also in English. He is an accomplished flutist, vocalist, and percussionist who is showcase in his works.

Dave Wolfs Robe is not only extremely talented, but he is also well known for many of his projects aimed to bring flute history and share the culture with many people. He is bringing the issues of the Native American people to the forefront such as the environment and how it is affecting indigenous peoples. His has produced three CD’s and is bringing the fourth to culmination. He has had his music included in the Devil’s Tower National Park CD and is hoping to broaden knowledge and peace, compassion and healing through the music of his flute.

Mary Youngblood has been playing music for more than twenty-five years and was the first Native American woman to record an album of music from the sacred flute. She has won numerous awards including a Grammy in 2003 for Beneath the Raven Moon. Mary has been classically trained on several instruments but she well known as the Premiere Native American female Flutist.

This is a short collection of the more traditional compositions in Native American music today with a few of the more prominent artists. Please keep in mind there are ever so many more and the list is rapidly growing daily in every genre from traditional to heavy metal and rap. Professional Native American musicians have had years since traditional music has been the only form they’ve played and enjoyed.

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Native American Musical Styles

Music is an important part of Native American culture. Many researchers feel that Native American music is some of the most complex music ever performed, due to its tensing and releasing of the vocals and the varying drum beats.

Their traditional music is essentially religious and is their main means of communicating with supernatural powers. In general, it is passionate, and mostly vocal. This passion has greatly influenced modern folk music. Their music is entirely melodic with no harmony, and has unusual, irregular rhythms. The main instruments they use are drums and rattles, and flutes and whistles. Men and women typically sing separate songs and have their own dances to reflect the eternal balance and harmony.

The music of each of the hundreds of Native American tribes is distinct but their musical traditions do have some common elements. The tribal groups can be grouped into six zones (the Eastern Woodlands, South West, Great Basin, Plains, Northwest Coast, and Artic) based on their musical traditions.

The Eastern Woodlands region includes tribes such as the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Iroquois, and Shawnee. Their music is antiphonal (answering responsively), and includes frequent metric changes, rhythmic complexities, a close relation with ritual dance, and the use of flutes, drums, rattles etc.

The Great Basin is a sparsely populated region that includes tribes such as the Shoshoni, Ute, Modoc, and Klamath. Their music is extremely simple, discrete, and ornate. It has short melodies with a less than an octave range, relaxed and open vocals, paired-phrase structure, and moderately blended monophony (has a single vocal part).

The Great Plains includes tribes such as the Blackfoot, Crow, Comanche, and Cheyenne. Their music has nasal tone, high pitches, and frequent falsettos. It uses instruments such as the bass drum and solo end blown flutes.

The South West region includes tribes such as the Pueblo (including Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo tribes among others) and Athabaskan (including the Navaho and Apache). Athabaskan music has swift, plain style nasal vocals and unblended monophony, and uses instruments like drums or rattles and the Apache fiddle. Pueblo music is quite complex, and includes slow tempo, a variety of forms, the use of several percussion instruments, and a low range and highly blended monophony.

The Northwest Coast includes tribes such as the Nootka, Tsimshian, and Salish. Their music is one of the most complex in North America. It has open vocals with monophony, complex and declamatory (dramatic or rhetorical) rhythms, and long melodies accompanied by chromatic intervals. It uses a wide variety of whistles, flutes, horns, and percussion instruments.

The Artic region includes the Inuit, who are known for their throat singing. Their music is simple and has narrow ranged melodies, declamatory effects, and the use of box drums.

Like other musical styles, Native American music is evolving. In addition to pan tribal (synergic adoption of music from foreign communities) styles of music such as powwows, and peyote songs, Native musicians have developed distinct rock, blues, hip- hop and reggae styles. Martha Redbone, the leading Native American Indian musician of this century, successfully combined traditional music with soul, funk, rock, and jazz.

Tribal music is very popular today, especially recordings of the haunting Native American flute. R. Carlos Nakai, who is the perhaps most prominent native flute player of our generation, in the early 1990’s, influenced countless people to start playing the flute. Native American drums are also popular instruments now, even among non-Native Americans.

Unfortunately, attempts to assimilate Native Americans into our culture started in the early 1900’s and forbid many cultural traditions, including music. It was only in the late 1940’s that assimilation rules began to disappear. It is lucky for us that Native American music resurfaced so that we can enjoy it today.

Tracy Crowe is interested both in music and in indigenous cultures, especially Native American. If you are interested in making Native American music, visit [] for Native American flutes and drums. We also have a variety of other instruments, both indigenous and European.