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The Music Historical Legacy Begins

The history of the African American musical legacy is comprised of spirituals, ragtime, blues, jazz, boogie woogie, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Each is uniquely African American. Each has been copied or mimicked by other ethnic groups.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the most distinct culture in the United States was that of Native Americans. The colonists who settled the United States brought their European traditions with them.

When the colonists embarked on slavery as a means of cheap labor, they imported a proud people with distinct native cultural traditions. Music was an integral part of their lives. The colonists had no idea that these proud people would meld their traditions and their life experiences. These experiences became the instruments of cultural change in the United States. One of America’s major cultural contributions to the world has been the musical legacy of African Americans.

Spirituals are songs borne out of the anguish of slavery. They were outpourings to God for deliverance from their ordeal. During slavery African Americans attended the church services of their masters. They learned the psalms and the hymns, but the spirituals have a style that is uniquely African American.

Two musical forms developed in the late nineteenth century were ragtime and the blues. Ragtime was the first African American music to appeal to an international audience. It is often associated with music composed by Scott Joplin. Its origins are unknown but its roots are in the music of early African American piano players.

The blues is an individual expression. Its origins are in the African American work songs and the life experiences of African Americans from slavery to the present day. The blues have always been popular with African Americans. The musical form began in the Southern states. As African Americans migrated to the North, so did the blues. The blues has influenced jazz, gospel, and rock and roll music.

The Music Historical Legacy Begins

More African American music forms were developed in the twentieth century: boogie woogie, jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues.

Boogie woogie is thought to have originated in the Southwest region of the United States. It was being played in jook joints from Texas to Tennessee. W. C. Handy reported hearing it in Memphis, Tennessee. Jimmy Yancey is considered the father of boogie woogie. This musical form was an influence on both the Kansas City big band sound and rock and roll.

Work songs, spirituals, and the blues make up the elements of jazz. Jazz ensembles are based on the brass bands and society orchestras of the nineteenth century. Improvisation is a key element of jazz, as is using instruments for vocalization.

Gospel music is urban. Where spirituals are exhortations to God for deliverance from adverse conditions, gospel songs are joyful. Gospel songs are composed. Charles Tindley published New Songs of Paradise (1916), the first collection of composed gospel music. Thomas A. Dorsey popularized gospel music.

Popular African American music is known as rhythm and blues (R&B). It is a blend of blues, boogie woogie, jazz and gospel. This musical genre became very popular with white artists who recorded the songs written and sung by African Americans. This musical blend can be found in the boogie woogie style of piano playing by Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and the gospel style of Ray Charles. African Americans continue to create new music styles, including Hip-Hop and Rap, which are copied by others.

Many white artists, including Elvis Presley, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, have cited the legacy of African American music as influences on their own.