Looking through the history of American music, it’s easy to see African American influences in art forms that include the traditional spiritual and gospel music, the syncopating rhythms of jazz, and numerous other sound innovations through the generations: ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, rock and roll, hip hop, rap, and many more. It’s not too much to say that American music is African American music.
The uniquely American form of the popular stage and film musical has also given us works by or about African Americans that are extraordinary in terms of their historical value, artistic quality, or both. Here are summaries of a few of the most outstanding ones from the first half of the 20th century:
Treemonisha (1911) was ragtime composer and lyricist Scott Joplin’s third (and final) work for the stage. The story focuses on the character of Treemonisha, who was found beneath a tree as an infant and adopted as the daughter of a formerly enslaved couple. Joplin’s score blends traditional European opera with his signature ragtime rhythms.
Treemonisha also highlights the struggles of the Black culture of its time, including the desire to assimilate into white society while still feeling the pull of African American traditions. The opera was also pioneering for its time in underlining the importance of education.
Joplin was never able to stage a full production of Treemonisha. In 1972, an ensemble at Atlanta’s Morehouse College presented Treemonisha, and it received a true full premiere for the general public in 1975 at the Houston Grand Opera.
2. Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along (1921) was Broadway’s first full-fledged musical by a Black librettist (the duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles), composer (Eubie Blake), and lyricist (Noble Sissle), featuring an all-Black cast. The production broke records by running for some 500 nights on Broadway, and its “I’m Just Wild About Harry” remains a well-known song today. Poet and historian James Weldon Johnson commented that the show offered a sophisticated portrayal of the love story between the African American leads.
The show was revived in 2016 in a completely fresh way. Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed offered new choreography by Savion Glover, a new wrap-around book by George C. Wolfe and Audra McDonald in the starring roles. The new work honored the value of the original’s status as a groundbreaking moment in African American cultural history and tackled its complex aspects head-on.
3. Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky (1943), featuring the legendary Lena Horne in her only starring role for MGM, was the first film produced by a major studio with an entirely African American cast. The movie also starred renowned performers like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Directed by Vincente Minelli, it was based on the 1940 Broadway show of the same title with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root. The creators gave voice to a rare work of fantasy and imagination centered on the rich African American folkloric tradition and portrayed by an all-Black cast.
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” as sung by Waters, is among the most memorable and lyrically beautiful songs in Cabin in the Sky. “Taking a Chance on Love” is one of the other still-beloved songs from this classic musical.
4. Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones (1954), based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and with new lyrics in colloquial American speech by Oscar Hammerstein II to Bizet’s music, gave a Technicolor folk operatic treatment to the French classic. While the composer and lyricist were not African American, the entire cast was, including iconic movie star Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, who works in a parachute factory during World War II in an update of Bizet’s Seville cigarette factory setting.
Carmen charms soldier Joe (portrayed by the equally iconic singer Harry Belafonte), with this role also modernized from Bizet’s character of Don José. Dandridge earned the first Oscar nomination ever for an African American performer in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role. Otto Preminger directed, with Pearl Bailey in another strong performance as factory worker Frankie.
Hammerstein’s original 1943 Broadway version of the show was notably revived off-Broadway in 2018 with Anika Noni Rose in the title role.
5. Porgy and Bess
The 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin was based on a novel by Dubose Heyward, and was revolutionary for its time, not only for being the first Broadway production with an all-Black cast, but for the incandescent blues-meets-jazz lyricism of George Gershwin’s score. The hits from the musical, and the movie, remain among the most frequently performed in the American musical repertoire: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” are among the most well-remembered.
The poignant story focuses on Bess’ conflicted love for her man, the suffering but proud Porgy, whose disability has driven him to survive by panhandling among the other downtrodden residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row. Porgy’s disability likely reflects that of the author, DuBose Heyward. Bess is also involved with Sportin’ Life and with the possessive Crown. Ultimately, Bess finds sanctuary with Porgy before the two are separated by the connivance of Sportin’ Life and the whims of character and fate.
James Robinson directed a notable production of Porgy and Bess as the opening show of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 season, with acclaimed operatic performers Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the leading roles.
The year 2020 was one of economic and social upheaval, principled protest, and deep loss. But 2020 also brought new music that has uplifted the spirits of people all over the world. New masterpieces of world music, although derived from cultures that may have intriguing superficial differences, serve to remind us of the bonds that unite all of humanity.
As critics have pointed out, the term world music can be misinterpreted as simply referring to some “exotic” quality in music that comes from outside Anglophone regions. A better definition might be that world music indicates that a work is the result of creative collaboration and thoughtful artistic choices born in the intimacy of one particular place and culture but resonates with all people, everywhere.
Here is a glimpse at just a few of the world music albums that brought a greater sense of connection amid the challenges and triumphs of 2020:
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) by Keleketla!
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) is a South African album whose title derives from the storytelling tradition in the Sepedi language. “Keleketla” is the standard response to a storyteller’s opening question (“E Ileng Nonwane?”) at the beginning of a story. Keleketla! as an album brings the same type of craftsmanship inherent in storytelling to depict the conflicts and struggles in our changing contemporary world.
The album is the first collaboration between Keleketla! Library, a community media project based in Johannesburg, and the nonprofit organization In Place of War, based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 2008, Keleketla! Library has created a wealth of multi-artist, multimedia music and arts projects all over Johannesburg.
The album brings together an array of South African musicians with the British electronic duo Coldcut, and includes contributions from other artists such as Yugen Blakrok, Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, and many more.
As an album, Keleketla! has received praise from critics for the dynamism of its beats and its rich fusion of jazz-funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The opening song, “Future Toyi-Toyi,” offering the stomp-based rhythms of a dance performed in protest of the former system of apartheid, instantly draws listeners in. Other songs go in completely different musical directions, but the overarching themes are those of personal and societal transformation.
Lindé, Afel Bocoum
In his album Lindé, legendary Malian artist Afel Bocoum continues his explorations in the blues tradition. He is known to fans as one of the last of the great late-20th century generation of African composers and performers who blended their culture’s sound with new ones from throughout the world. And as a native of Niafunké in Mali, Bocoum comes from a region positioned to draw on the sounds and traditions of both the northern and southern parts of the country.
Lindé draws its title from the name of the wilderness lands near Bocoum’s childhood home that he loved exploring. The music seamlessly mixes in guitars and traditional instruments while making use of stunning innovative techniques and bringing in texturally enriching contributions from noted guest performers.
The album opens with a gentle percussion-and-strings piece in which the voice of the artist walks us through the landscapes that shaped his early years. Afel Bocoum’s lyrics acknowledge but look beyond Mali’s civil wars and political strife, speaking of unity and common purpose among the world’s peoples.
Famous Fados on Portuguese Guitar by Custódio Castelo
On Famous Fados, Castelo, one of the most distinguished performers of the traditional art of Portuguese fado guitar, plays classic Portuguese fados of his own arrangement.
The fado musical genre is a part of UNESCO’s list of World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Castelo is one of its leading proponents. Alongside other masters such as Carlos Paredes, he has given new depth and flexibility to the traditional fado guitar, making it an instrument capable of a range of concert and solo performances. This particular collection offers us some of history’s best-known and best-loved fados.
The fado genre’s rich history dates back to the 1820s, although music historians believe that its ultimate origins go back much farther. The word fado refers to a melancholy style filled with a sense of “fate,” destiny, and moody reflectiveness amid a sense of loss. Fado songs typically feature a solo vocalist accompanied by guitar, and they are traditionally performed in coffee houses and other intimate venues.
Castelo’s reinterpretations of these classic pieces are amplified by his instrument—he uses his own specially made guitar, fashioned from an oak tree root by Oscar Cardoso, as respected an instrument-maker as Castelo is an artist. From this 12-string, tear-shaped guitar, Castelo is able to evoke all the beauty, sadness, and power of the highly expressive fado form.
Sketches of China by Xuefei Yang
Sketches of China features Yang, a well-known classical guitarist, in pieces that paint a picture of her homeland. The double album incorporates Chinese folk songs whose original motifs date back as far as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), as well as many contemporary pieces. Yang’s goal is to highlight the entire tapestry of Chinese music through ages, traditions, and styles.
Yang uses several of her own arrangements, notably on “Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon” and “Flower Drum,” as well as work from noted contemporary composers such as the world-renowned Tan Dun. In his “Seven Desires for Guitar,” she masters a challenging modernist piece into which Dun incorporated rhythms of traditional Spanish flamenco and the notes of the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument known as the pipa.
Yang’s range and versatility as a soloist are highlighted by a rich orchestral background as well as a minimal accompaniment. It is her artistry that sets this album apart, delivering one crystalline moment of sound after another.
The common language of music brings people of diverse backgrounds together throughout the world, while also opening new doors to appreciation for the musical sounds and styles that distinguish individual regions and cultures.
Even a quick glance at the music of Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, will reveal a diverse set of traditions and expressions. Musicologists note a constantly diversifying blossoming of genres across the continent, with each culture producing notable musicians and distinctive forms of music.
Here are summaries of only a few of the African musical genres that are today both highly influential and particularly notable. All are worth taking the time to get to know and enjoy.
Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Afrobeat fuses the sounds of Western jazz and nightclub life into the centuries-old traditions of Nigerian music. Now often heard around the world, Afrobeat often incorporates beats common to other, non-African styles, such as hip-hop. The style is typically marked by strong vocal melodies backed by bass percussion, making it one of the world’s most danceable music genres.
Afrobeat’s ultimate origins can be traced to Ghana in the 1920s. In those days, local Ghanaian musicians seasoned their songs with calypso beats and even the popular Western foxtrot. Then in the late 1960s, a musician who would earn the nickname of the “Father of Afrobeat,” Fela Kuti—strongly influenced by American artist James Brown—put his own spin on the style. By the mid-1970s, it had become widely popular in Nigeria.
Fela, who died in 1997 at only 58 years of age, remains a legend among Nigerian music-lovers in particular. He has also influenced later generations of younger musicians worldwide, including Mos Def and Erykah Badu.
Afrobeats—a linear descendent of Fela’s 1960s and ‘70s Afrobeat—features heavily in Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift. She collaborated extensively with young musicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, and other parts of Africa, showcasing their talents in a way that brought many of them to the attention of a global audience for the first time.
The Sahara Desert region is the homeland of Gnawa music, which also goes by the names of Gnawi Blues and Ethno-Pop. Its beats are anchored in the traditions of the Gnawa community, which derives from groups of sub-Saharan peoples who were enslaved and first brought to Morocco in about the 11th century CE.
Over centuries of enslavement, during which they were typically forced to serve as soldiers, the Gnawa assembled themselves as a distinct people out of several previously unconnected sub-Saharan groups. They formed their own cultural traditions in the process and gradually gained their freedom.
Gnawa music originated in religious ceremonies—blending music, dance, and poetry—that resulted from a blend of the group’s highly spiritualized version of Islam and the local traditions of West Africa. In recent years, the tone of this music became more secularized even as it has gained popularity across Moroccan society.
Knowledgeable listeners often find parallels between Gnawa musical styles and the blues in the United States. Gnawa is especially distinctive in its use of drumming, metallic castanets, and the guembri, a bass lute with three strings. Gnawa music has gained so much popularity that the Moroccan government has established an annual festival in the city of Essaouira, dedicated to the style as one of the country’s prominent cultural heritage products.
Mali has gained a worldwide reputation as a focal point for blues music. As music scholars have pointed out, the blues is a uniquely African American art form, but one with deep roots in West Africa, deriving as it does from the spirituals and work songs brought to the New World by enslaved people centuries ago.
Many recent Malian blues artists, including the late Ali Farka Touré, have grounded their style in the music of their own cultures, rather than in that of the United States. Others are influenced to one degree or another by Western pop music. African American blues, traditional Malian sounds, and world beats all continue to play off against each other throughout this genre.
Other Malian blues artists include Afel Bocoum, who mixes musical traditions from the north and south of his country with the sounds of Western and Malian instruments.
One of the world’s premier annual blues events, Festival in the Desert, has taken place outside Timbuktu since 2001, highlighting the work of Tuareg musicians, blues artists, and others. With the festival suspended indefinitely due to recent unrest in Mali, organizers hope to showcase the talents of Malian blues musicians by promoting tours elsewhere.
Also known as Ethiopian jazz, Ethio-Jazz offers a one-of-a-kind melding of Western-inflected jazz, soul, Latin stylings, and Afro-funk with the often-haunting sounds of ancient Ethiopian music. Today recognized as one of Ethiopia’s most sought-after cultural exports, Ethio-Jazz dates back to the 1950s.
As it has developed over the decades since, this sound has expanded Africa’s—and the world’s—musical vocabulary. Its melodious sounds are anchored in ages-old Ethiopian ballads often evoking a sense of love, yearning, and nostalgia.
In the 1950s, Nerses Nalbandian, whose family had settled in Ethiopia as refugees from the 1915 genocide against Armenians, laid the groundwork for the development of the genre. Nalbandian’s uncle had led Ethiopia’s National Opera, and Nalbandian himself took up the baton after his uncle’s retirement.
He composed music for the country’s National Theatre, working out ways to preserve authenticity while incorporating local musical traditions in arrangements for big bands. His solution to this problem centered on adapting Western instrumentation while acknowledging the distinctive musical scales indigenous to Ethiopia.
Bandleader and composer Mulatu Astatke—also renowned as a keyboardist and vibraphonist—is another monumental figure in the history of Ethio-Jazz. Astatke, often credited as the “Godfather” of the genre who fully brought American jazz rhythms into traditional Ethiopian forms, is largely responsible for the recent popularity of Ethio-Jazz on the world stage.
In Ken Burns’ Jazz, a documentary film series on the history of jazz music, we learn how this music form is truly “an improvisational art.” It is “America’s music,” as restless and yearning as the country itself since its beginnings and as much a multicultural melting pot.
Jazz is filled with contradictions: both self-expressive and collaborative, anchored deep in the blues of the 19th century but always changing, steeped in its own particular traditions but reborn as something different every night, on every stage. Simple and complex, dressing up or dressing down depending on the moment, losing everything but still reveling in the power of love.
Jazz also gave America its own collection of royalty: a king (Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”), a duke (Duke Ellington), a count (Count Basie), a lady (Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”), a prince (Miles Davis, the “Prince of Darkness”), and many more. The new sound produced by these distinct personalities caused the entire world to get up and dance.
Jazz remains one of the few uniting commonalities among Americans across multiple ages, backgrounds, and points of view.
Telling the story of an American art
From the ragtime tunes played at the turn of the 20th century, through the “hot” jazz of a generation later, to the cool fusion of recent years, jazz is truly, as the documentary’s trailer says, “America’s soundtrack.”
Exploring Burns’ beloved 10-episode documentary series Jazz is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the rich and varied history, the sheer artistry, and the moving human stories of this uniquely American musical form. As the New York Times’ review of the documentary noted at its debut, it is not too far-fetched to claim that, through its ability to mingle and blend a diverse group of people and cultures over the past century and more, jazz has given us a way of “mirroring the ideals of democracy.”
Now, Burns and PBS have made full-length episodes of Jazz available for free on the PBS website, bringing the documentary within reach of home educators everywhere. Fans can also purchase the DVD or Blu-ray set or the accompanying richly illustrated book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
A rich mixture of everything good
The first episode of Jazz, “Gumbo,” introduces us to jazz’s origins. With deep roots in the African American spirituals and work songs dating from the days of slavery, amplified by soul-stirring New Orleans blues, jazz came into its own as a distinct musical voice in the 1890s. In this chapter, we meet the Black musicians who took these elements, mixed in the vibrant local sounds of marching bands, Caribbean beats, Italian opera masterpieces, and minstrel show tunes, and set it all to the quick-time syncopation of ragtime—this was a gumbo unlike anything American had seen.
They named a decade after it
Episode 2, “The Gift,” tells the story of the 1920s Jazz Age as jazz spreads far beyond New Orleans. Paul Whiteman develops a symphonic style of jazz, slower and sweeter, with a new appeal to “mainstream” white listeners. Louis Armstrong comes out of the streets of New Orleans to Chicago and assembles a powerhouse band of both Black and white musicians whose swing style electrifies a new generation, as Duke Ellington sets up his ensembles in New York’s Harlem and introduces his smooth blue style.
Episode 3, “Our Language,” takes us through the rest of the Jazz Age when voices of solo singers like Bessie Smith take the spotlight, and as jazz proves to be the ticket out of limited circumstances for clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Jewish immigrants, while Duke Ellington begins his storied tenure at the Cotton Club.
Swing tunes and roadhouse stomp
In “The True Welcome,” Episode 4, we learn how jazz proves one of the few joys left to a nation sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Swing music and dance take center stage in Episode 5, “Swing: Pure Pleasure.”
Episode 6 shows us “The Velocity of Celebration,” as the 1930s move into the ‘40s, bringing with it a new sound: the pounding, stomping, blues-laden sound that starts in Black American juke joints and roundhouses, soon wildly popular as played by Lester Young and Count Basie. Benny Goodman delivers a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday makes the grim lyricism of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” her signature, and a young unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald steps in front of a mike for the first time. Plus, Duke Ellington takes a triumphant tour of Europe as the events unfold that will soon ignite World War II.
The soundtrack of modern American life
Episode 7, “Dedicated to Chaos,” demonstrates the powerful role of jazz in lifting the morale of the troops overseas as it embodies the spirit of individual freedom and democracy in every irreverent, improvisational note. Arranger Billy Strayhorn joins Duke Ellington’s band, lifting its performances into a new level of sublimity. And Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet join virtuoso forces on the now-iconic “Koko,” which opens the floodgates of bebop style.
In “Risk,” Episode 8, jazz changes as the world does. The Cold War brings undreamt-of peace and prosperity in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as well as a new dissonance, broken rhythm, and sense of tension to America’s favorite musical form. In Episode 9, “The Adventure,” we see how widespread access to the trappings of popular culture and television, along with the other amenities of a comfortable suburban existence, overlay a growing sense of crisis in the music as well as in everyday life.
And in “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” the series concludes in the 1960s and early ‘70s, with jazz quickly losing ground to rock-and-roll. We lose legends John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, while numerous surviving jazz greats struggle to make ends meet. Miles Davis takes his gifts as trumpeter and composer in a new direction, creating fusion, a blend of jazz and rock, and a flurry of blended styles emerge.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose commentary and reminiscences as senior creative consultant expanded and enriched Burns’ series, said in a 2001 interview that jazz is a reflection of the totality of the Black American experience in its ability to improvise, to take a theme and shape and change it, and to expand boundaries and create new possibilities in ways that no one had ever thought of before.
The precise origins of jazz as a distinct musical art form remain a matter of contention among experts and fans, and researchers learn new information about its development seemingly every day. The first documented jazz recording is one central point of entry that can help us understand its history.
That recording was made on February 26, 1917, at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s offices in New York City. That was the day the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (whose name originally used the spelling “jass”) quintet recorded the tune “Livery Stable Blues.” While the Chicago-based ensemble’s “Tiger Rag” would prove far more influential, “Livery Stable Blues” is acknowledged as the first. Among today’s listeners, the song may sound silly, with the instruments imitating barnyard animal sounds, and the recording quality is not the best. (Interested fans can hear the full recording in numerous venues online, including an uploaded Smithsonian magazine article celebrating the recording’s centenary.)
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) brand included shiny black dinner jackets over white, buttoned-collar shirts. ODJB was a publicity-seeking group, whose public cavortings received widespread media coverage. At the time they cut “Livery Stable Blues,” the group was performing to large and adoring crowds in New York at Reisenweber’s Café near Columbus Circle, not far from the current site of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Musicologists know that this all-white band had shamelessly borrowed both style and substance from music they’d heard played by African American bands back home in New Orleans. The recording of “Livery Stable Blues” went on to become one of the first-ever hit singles, with estimates of copies sold ranging from between about 250,000 to 1 million.
From spirituals to a cosmopolitan blend of sound
The origins of jazz lie squarely in the African American experience. Its notes outline the story of Black life in America, with all the pain, sorrow, triumphs, and joy that the community has experienced since long before the founding of the country. For example, the genre’s blue notes offer a modernized take on the sounds of slave spirituals and work songs. Its fast-paced syncopation and swinging exuberance went on to drive the boogie-woogie beats of the many tenement “rent parties” popular among growing Black populations in New York and other big cities from the 1920s until after World War II.
Most scholars date the birth of jazz as an identifiable style to the honky-tonks, barrelhouses, and saloons of Storyville, the New Orleans red light district that flourished from 1897 to 1917. Tuxedo Dance Hall and other venues gave budding composers and performers the opportunity to hone their skills and improvisational ability in front of largely mixed-race audiences. The whole of the district was filled with opportunities for work for Black musicians and composers, and the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe “King” Oliver all got their starts there.
The original New Orleans jazz sound drew from the city’s rich history and ethnic mix. Originally a French, then a Spanish colony, the city was already steeped in a distinctive musical culture by the time it was incorporated into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It continued to retain its cosmopolitan outlook and its love of music, dance, and spectacle.
The city’s large population of Creole people of color—with a heritage in both African and European roots—was a particularly distinguishing factor. People from a variety of backgrounds lived close together in New Orleans’ narrow streets and squares, resulting in a true blending of cultures and musical sounds.
Brass bands, ragtime, and the journey north
Beginning in about 1890, brass bands were also a big part of the music scene in New Orleans. In those days, before the city had put up the type of “Jim Crow” color barriers, these bands were often integrated. So, while the roots of jazz lie squarely in the African American tradition, its growth was nourished by numerous multicultural influences. The musical traditions developed through African American funerals and mutual aid society parades met the sounds of ragtime and dance bands and the city’s many ethnic communities’ Mardi Gras walking clubs, all establishing a uniquely New Orleans quality.
Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and their contemporaries built distinctive personal styles, and all three were among the many Black innovators who went north to Chicago to perform in the days after World War I. It was they who formed a recognizable nexus at the core of building the sound we know today as classic jazz.
Over the decades, social and racial justice movements have produced powerful, memorable music that can be performed and enjoyed for years afterward. The enduring nature of the songs created to elevate the struggle for peace, justice, and equality, as well as those written to memorialize lives unjustly brutalized or cut short, continue to enrich American culture even years after the events that they commemorate.
Now, a new generation is adding its distinctive voice to our culture through music composed to accompany the Black Lives Matter protests, which have existed as a movement under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag since 2013. This new music has also revitalized the already universally popular genres of traditional hip hop, rap, and R&B.
A family bears witness to loss
In 2014, Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York, was killed at the hands of police while saying, “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times in succession. Two years later, the Garner Family formed a group to release a single titled, “I Can’t Breathe.” The song is not only a tribute to Garner, but an updated R&B-style rallying cry for principled protest against police brutality. The lyrics echo the ongoing tension between local communities of color and oppressive policing tactics (“We all know the solution, but they blame you and me”), while at the same time offering a positive plea for unity and mutual support and noting with tragic finality, “A life can change as the wind blows.”
One of the Internet’s most popular anthems
In early June 2020, rapper Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” skyrocketed into first place among the most popular protest songs available on the Internet, tallying some 65 million streamed views within the space of two weeks. In his video, the singer-songwriter’s harrowing depiction of unjust death and the grinding brutality of dealing with trauma on a daily basis are complemented by images in the media chronicling the coronavirus pandemic and divisions around the nation.
Starting with its introduction that references the killing of George Floyd and his “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner, the song runs its lyrics against background footage of some of the protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and highlights both black and white faces among people fighting for positive change.
The singer zooms out to reflect on the fact that, “It's a problem with the whole way of life,” then asks listeners to understand that we need to “start here.”
Music with a message
In Usher’s “I Cry,” the Grammy-winning singer of the 2015 hit “Chains” gives us another poignant song decrying police brutality.
The raw emotion in “I Cry” is Usher’s way of letting his sons know that it’s acceptable for men to show emotion, particularly in the face of waves of overwhelming violence against Black communities. In the related music video, he sings the spare lyrics against a backdrop of newspaper headlines describing the horrific killings of innocent Black Americans. The words summarize Usher’s feelings of helplessness at what is happening in the world around him, as well as his determination to be a part of the solution: “I’ll fight for the future we’re making.”
While “I Cry” is gentler in terms of the lyrics and beats than the more raw “Chains” (featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly), the two songs complement each other in their ability to portray the African American experience in the present moment as fraught with tension and a constant sense of being unfairly targeted, while refusing to accept the untenable status quo.
The soundtrack of our moment
With their 2020 album RTJ4, the hip hop supergroup duo Run the Jewels (Killer Mike and Jaime “El-P” Meline) released a work that the online publication Vox immediately dubbed as “required listening” for the year. The Vox reviewer wrote that the performers had put “racial unrest to music.”
Coming as it did after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minneapolis that galvanized street protests even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the entire album hit the nation where it still had a number of unhealed wounds.
“Walking in the Snow” is one of RTJ4’s central songs. “They feed you fear for free,” the lyrics go, leading listeners through the numbness and pain of seeing victims’ names unroll on the evening news. The song goes on to try to help listeners see the urgent need to replace “apathy” with “empathy” for the sake of those targeted with hate, as well as those expressing the hating.
An icon celebrates struggle and joy
In 2016, Beyoncé began using her enormous platform to come out strongly on behalf of racial justice in general and Black Lives Matter in particular. After the widely publicized police shooting deaths of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that year, the superstar posted a call to action on her social media pages, pleading with fans to speak out against police brutality and demand solutions.
The video for her 2016 song “Formation” includes an image of the phrase “Stop killing us.” Another video that year, for “Freedom” (featuring Kendrick Lamar), juxtaposed the song’s moving lyrics against a visual backdrop that included images of the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin holding up photos of their slain sons. Both songs appear on the Grammy-winning album Lemonade.
To celebrate Juneteenth on June 19, 2020, Beyoncé dropped “Black Parade,” a single focused less on suffering than on the abiding resilience and solidarity of the Black community. Juneteenth is a holiday that marks the end of slavery, observed by African American communities since the end of the Civil War in 1865.
Describing the new song that aims to uplift roots, history, and the beauty of the Black communities and voices, regardless of the circumstances, Beyoncé wrote a message on her Instagram highlighting the need to focus on “joy,” while posting an authorized directory of Black-owned businesses and rallying fans to support them throughout the year.
Music and literature have met and mingled countless times, as composers have taken inspiration from poems, plays, novels, and stories to create listening experiences that bring out new dimensions of original literary works. Many of these musical pieces have become classics in their own right, part of the lasting cultural heritage of humanity.
One of the great American poets, Langston Hughes (1901 or 1902 - 1967), is today remembered as a writer who gave voice to the hopes, dreams, and common experiences of African Americans. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance in New York, Hughes wrote in numerous genres, but is best-remembered today for his lyrical poems that contain a sense of both the joy of living and the painful path of history within their sinuous lines.
Hughes drew enormous inspiration from music to feed his creative process throughout his life. Composer Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes developed an enduring personal friendship that began a decade after she discovered his poems as a teenage music student at Northwestern University in 1929.
Their Friendship Began with His Poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shortly after his high school graduation. The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, published the poem in 1921. Hughes went on to study at Columbia University, becoming immersed in New York’s vibrant cultural scene, which he soon helped shape.
“I have known rivers,” the poem opens. Its lines wind down through history, as Hughes’ voices speaks on behalf of the millions of voiceless Black and Brown men and women over centuries who lived, loved, dreamed, and died beside the world’s great rivers, from the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Congo, to the Mississippi.
Margaret Bonds (1913 - 1972) was an accomplished musician and composer who had begun composing at age 13. According to Bonds, Northwestern University was a “terribly prejudiced place.” She had made enormous sacrifices to be able to study at a well-known school, and she won prizes in piano and composition during her time there. Yet, due to the practice of segregation, she was not even allowed to use the Northwestern swimming pool. Restaurants in the area refused to serve her.
Then one day, going through books at her neighborhood public library outside Chicago, Bonds began reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from Hughes’ first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. Reading it gave her a sense of security, a belief that she, as a young, African American woman, had a rightful place in the world. “I know that poem helped save me,” she said.
After They Met, They Began a Long and Fruitful Collaboration
Bonds’ discovery of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was the touchstone that led her and Hughes to a decades-long artistic collaboration. She finally met him after she finished her university education, at the home of a mutual friend. They became inseparable, “like brother and sister,” Bonds later said, getting to know each other’s families and becoming comfortable in one another’s homes.
Bonds even often sent Hughes melodies she had composed, asking him to write lyrics for them. By the mid-1930s, she had set numerous Hughes compositions to music, including “Poème d’Automne,” “Winter Moon,” and “Joy.” Bonds’ interpretation of Hughes’ “Love’s Runnin’ Riot” went on to be performed and recorded by Duke Ellington. In 1940, Hughes and Bonds worked on the revue Tropics After Dark, collaborating with Arna Bontemps, another writer who played a key role in the Harlem Renaissance.
Bonds set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” to music in 1941. Bonds’ music unwinds Hughes’ words at a stately and sonorous pace as it sets to music the historical events in which Black people moved through the world through deliberate or forced migrations. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains perhaps Bonds’ most often-performed art piece, and she always remembered it as among her favorites.
Their Collaboration Culminated with the Now-Famous Three Dream Portraits
The 1959 Three Dream Portraits is a song cycle of three Hughes poems set to music by Bonds. “Minstrel Man,” once notably recorded as a poem read by legendary African American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, is a soliloquy juxtaposing the speaker’s outward mask of frivolity with his inner pain. The irony lies in the fact that this pain went largely unnoticed by the white audiences that typically attended minstrel shows.
“Dream Variation,” the center movement, speaks of “a place in the sun.” It is filled with harmonies gathered from world cultures beyond American borders, and has a joyous sense of movement through dance.
The concluding movement, “I, Too,” uses Hughes’ poignant yet ringing words, “I, too, sing America.” Even as the speaker, the “darker brother,” is banished and forced to eat in the kitchen, he feels that when others “see how beautiful I am,” they will invite him to the table, ashamed that they ever excluded him. Critics note that Bonds’ music becomes more self-assured with each of the three movements. It reaches a crescendo of confidence toward the end of “I, Too” that winds down into wistful uncertainty by its concluding notes.
This artistic choice by Bonds in the late 1950s mirrored the world around her. The Civil Rights struggle was beginning to gain momentum, with enormous struggle and loss ahead. When Bonds wrote her music for Hughes’ words, the outcome of this struggle was still unknown. Three Dream Portraits remains a deeply meaningful work more than half a century later.
Medgar Evers, born in 1925 in the city of Decatur, was a soldier who fought in the invasion of Normandy in World War II before becoming Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP. He was in charge of leading voter-registration drives and directing targeted economic boycotts across the state.
In addition, his job involved looking into hate crimes committed against African-American citizens. He launched an extensive investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in 1955.
As a result, Evers was used to receiving death threats. On one occasion, someone tried to run him over. Another time, someone threw a firebomb at his house, where he lived with his wife Myrlie and their young children. Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963, by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. He was not yet 38 years old.
On June 19, 1963, a week after Evers’ murder, President John F. Kennedy sent to Congress the proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Barack Obama officially declared the home of Medgar Evers home a historic landmark in 2017.
There have also been a number of songs composed about him. Here are three of the most well-known:
“The Ballad of Medgar Evers”
The Freedom Singers were one of several noted choral groups active in the days of the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Singers’ rendition of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” also known as “They Laid Medgar Evers in His Grave,” is one of a number of songs memorializing the slain civil rights leader. It was written by Reverend Matthew A. Jones, Sr., a SNCC field organizer who modeled its cadences on the folk song “The Ballad of Jesse James,” making it ideal for choral interpretation.
Notably, the lyrics of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” name his murderer, white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Beckwith was not convicted of the slaying until 1994. However, the song lyrics provide contemporaneous evidence that he had immediately been identified as the killer by the community.
Strong forensic evidence pointed to Beckwith, who had left his rifle behind at the scene of the crime. Still, the all-white juries in two 1964 trials failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Myrlie Evers never stopped fighting for justice for her husband’s memory. In 1994, Beckwith was finally convicted. He would die in prison in 2001 at age 80.
“Too Many Martyrs”
As a young man, now-legendary folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs composed another “Ballad of Medgar Evers” at about the same time as the song written by Jones. The piece by Ochs has a faster tempo, but it also relies on traditional folk ballad rhythms and storytelling style. It begins with the image of “a boy of 14 years” who “got a taste of Southern law.” This is a reference to the murder of Emmett Till.
After learning of the Evers assassination, Josh Dunson, a writer for the folk music publication Broadside, was quoted as saying “We’ve already got too many martyrs.” The refrain of the Ochs piece references the many “martyrs” who lost their lives to hate-fueled violence. Ochs later called the song “Too Many Martyrs.”
Whatever its title, the song’s relentless pace and highly detailed imagery—describing Evers’ assassination as he stood in his own driveway—continue to elicit a visceral impact on listeners today. Evers got out of his car late on the night of June 12, 1963, after arriving home from a meeting. His assassin used a rifle to fire at him from the cover of a nearby honeysuckle bush, shooting him in the back. Evers died about an hour later.
“Only a Pawn in Their Game"
Bob Dylan was another folk and protest singer deeply moved by Evers’ murder. Dylan wrote his own tribute to Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game." He performed it at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dylan’s song asserted that the murderer was “not to blame,” due to his being “a pawn in their game.” Instead, he depicted Beckwith as just another part of a wider system set in place by others and beyond his control.
Dylan also mentions the many law enforcement officers, white preachers of segregation, Ku Klux Klansmen, and even the governor of the state as other “pawns” in this game. In fact, Mississippi’s former Governor Ross Barnett shook hands with Beckwith in the middle of Myrlie Evers’ testimony at one of the killer’s 1964 trials. Barnett also visited Beckwith in prison.
The song’s larger point is that it is not only individuals who need to change, but also a system of entrenched racism. This message continues to be meaningful. However, in 2020, Dylan's lyrics sound hollow and tone deaf to many listeners, particularly because he is white. The song depicts adult human beings as mere chess pieces, rather than as men filled with hatred so strong that it would cause them to support, and sometimes to commit, acts of violence against innocent people.
The spirituals that developed within the African-American tradition still form the core of the melodies and lyrics that make up the American folk song treasury. These spirituals, typically composed around Bible passages that poetically describe a longing for salvation and freedom, were originally sung among enslaved people in the American South.
Scholars have catalogued approximately 6,000 African-American spirituals. Some fell into the category of work songs. Others focused on uplifting lyrics describing life in a better world to come. Still others served as psychological supports that helped enslaved men and women keep a measure of their individuality and dignity under inhuman conditions.
Many of these songs became widely known during the abolition movement of the mid-19th century. They were particularly popular among “conductors” and “passengers” along the Underground Railroad, the network of safehouses through which slaves escaped north into freedom. Many scholars believe that the lyrics of some of the songs held deliberate clues that helped escaping slaves on their way along the Underground Railroad.
There is not universal consensus about this issue, or even regarding the precise provenance of each song. However, it is certain that many were used during the days of slavery to encourage thoughts of freedom, and to provide solace and spiritual sustenance to enslaved people. Here are five of the most important such spirituals:
1. “Go Down, Moses”
In “Go Down, Moses,” the lyrics describe the escape of the ancient Israelites, led by Moses, as they fled Pharaoh’s armies. The first sheet music publication of a form of this song, entitled “The Song of the Contrabands,” appeared in 1861. Some scholars trace its first widespread use to 1862. It is said to have served as a fighting anthem for escaped slaves sheltered at Fort Monroe, nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” in Virginia.
Tubman herself earned the nickname “Moses” for her role in freeing enslaved people, so it is easy to find double references in the song. The ancient Israelites and African-American slaves were both “oppressed so hard they could not stand.” And Tubman took on the responsibility of saying to modern-day Pharaohs, “let my people go.”
For her biography of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869, author Sarah Bradford was able to speak directly to her subject. According to Bradford’s book, Tubman used both “Go Down, Moses” and another hymn, “Thorny Desert,” to alert waiting slaves that she was nearby, ready and able to help them escape to freedom. Tubman’s first-person account further supports the conclusion that at least some spirituals carried a double, coded meaning, and were deliberately used as tools in the fight against slavery.
2. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”
“When the sun comes back, and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd,” say the opening lines of this song. The lyrics continue, asserting that an “old man” will be waiting to show the way to freedom. Some scholars believe there is strong evidence to suggest that “Follow the Drinking Gourd” encoded instructions for escaping slavery by navigating according to the position of the Big Dipper, popularly called the “Drinking Gourd” among enslaved African-Americans.
The Big Dipper points toward the North Star, which slaves are said to have used as a marker to keep them bearing north. The Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey, has prepared an analysis of each line of the song, comparing it to landmarks known to have appeared along many slaves’ escape routes.
Other researchers aren’t sure that this song is even that old, pointing to its first known publication in 1928. Regardless, it continues to serve as a striking “map” song that illustrates the way escaping slaves used landmarks in the natural world on their path to freedom.
3. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
“Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah, milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.” It’s not heard to hear an echo of an enslaved person’s longing for freedom. A number of music historians trace “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” back to Civil War days, noting that it may have first been written down on St. Helena Island near South Carolina.
St. Helena lies at a geographic focal point of the distinctive and linguistically rich African-American Gullah creole culture. Traditional folklore surrounding St. Michael depicts him as a guide of souls to heaven. The Jordan River itself represents the experience of crossing a divide, from life into death and eternal reward—or into freedom from slavery.
The Reverend Velma Maia Thomas, a contemporary public historian and author, has noted that rivers figure prominently in African-American spirituals, and for good reason. Rivers cleanse and heal. They also represent a transition from one state of being to another. Coincidentally, rivers conceal the scent of humans from any dogs tracking them.
4. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
The Jordan River in “Swing Low” equals the Ohio River, and the “band of angels” are the “conductors,” who are “coming for to carry me home.” As Thomas explained it in an interview recorded for a recent PBS broadcast, slave owners would hear what they thought were innocuous lyrics about heaven. But, “next day, two or three people would be gone.”
“Swing Low” was among Harriet Tubman’s favorite songs, according to scholars at Eastern Illinois University. Its authorship is often credited to Wallace Wallis, a mid-19th century enslaved man (possibly later a freedman) who worked on an Oklahoma plantation owned by members of the Choctaw Nation.
Another account credits it to enslaved woman Sarah Hannah Sheppard, whose daughter Ella Sheppard would grow up to join the Fisk Jubilee Singers. What is certain is that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the numerous African-American groups who performed the song widely in the last years of the 19th century.
5. “Steal Away to Jesus”
This song, also often credited to Wallace Wallis, is frequently cited as a coded song. The title does refer to spiritual salvation after death. The determined, stately, slow music is filled with a sense of longing and melancholy, even of resignation to whatever fate will bring. But the song also describes the sense of escaping into a physical state of freedom. “I ain’t got long to stay here,” say the lyrics.
“Steal Away to Jesus” has been recorded by numerous performers over recent generations, no time more memorably than when renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson guest-starred on jazz great Nat King Cole’s television variety program in 1957 (a clip is available on YouTube). Cole joined Jackson at the mic for the final verses of the song. Their rich voices blend into an incomparable listening experience—one filled with deeper historic meanings.
Movie theme songs can serve as touchstones for personal memories, define key cultural moments, and even become part of history. The following are a few of the greatest and most popular theme songs that have been made famous on the big screen. All of them can evoke the spirit of the movies they defined with just a few notes.
1. “As Time Goes By"
“You must remember this.” As sung in the 1942 film Casablanca by performer Dooley Wilson, “As Time Goes By” carries with it a bittersweet sense of longing for the past, along with resignation and affirmation of the power of an enduring love.
We all know the story: Humphrey Bogart plays world-weary cafe owner Rick, existing on the periphery of the fighting in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. His former love Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly appears, begging him for help in getting her husband, a resistance fighter played by Paul Henreid, to safety in Lisbon.
“As Time Goes By” was Rick’s and Ilsa’s song, and they both request to hear it, becoming immersed in the glow of the past. Torn between love and duty, Ilsa and Rick enjoy a few stolen moments before she joins her husband in order to help support his work.
The song was actually repurposed for the film. Songwriter Herman Hupfeld originally wrote it for a now-forgotten 1931 musical, and pop icon Rudy Vallee recorded it.
Now honored with a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame as a “Towering Song,” “As Time Goes By” still reminds us that “The world will always welcome lovers.”
2. “Moon River”
Audrey Hepburn remains a legend, for her grace, style, and warm personality, as well as her role as a UNICEF Special Ambassador. Hepburn’s most memorable performances include playing the lead role in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) as Holly Golightly, a madcap young woman in New York who makes her way through life by mooching off of the admirers she gathers, while she lives a vivid fantasy life.
“Moon River,” with wistful lyrics that perfectly complement the soulful flow of its music, is the song Hepburn’s character sings, playing her guitar while musing and dreaming on her fire escape: “Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.” The song, for which Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics to Henry Mancini’s music, won an Oscar for Best Original Song, followed by two Grammys.
The movie’s storyline, with its twists and turns of plot as Holly’s past threatens to shatter the genuinely tender love that develops between her and her handsome neighbor (played by George Peppard), works the song into its most vivid and heartbreaking moments, until these two lost souls find each other again and are “off to see the world” together.
3. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”
The 1969 western “buddy” film about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a fictionalized version of the life stories of the famous outlaws, and Katharine Ross played their mutual love interest. The film won multiple Oscars, including one for William Goldman’s witty, highly quotable script. The film also won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
The simple lyrics and joyful tune, performed in the film by BJ Thomas, accompany a now-iconic moment in the film, when Newman and Ross ride together on a bike down a dirt road through an orchard. The song lifts the scene into a depiction of pure happiness about being alive, despite the “raindrops” that may fall. It’s a pick-me-up song whose rhythms and lyrics have made it a favorite among young performers over the decades, even while adults get its more poignant references to keeping the “blues” at bay.
4. “9 to 5"
In 1980, singer-songwriter Dolly Parton joined actress Jane Fonda and comedian Lily Tomlin in one of the first female “buddy” comedies ever. The movie 9 to 5 also delivered a stinging message of social commentary about women’s rights and the fair treatment of employees. The movie’s eponymous theme song, written by Parton, remains a popular anthem for people struggling for dignity in the workplace.
The storyline involves the three friends, who all work as secretaries, in an epic take-down of their sexist tyrant of a boss who denies women promotions while using and abusing them for their abilities. Ultimately, he is dethroned and the three women are finally recognized for their talents.
The song’s lyrics ingeniously weave social satire with a buoyant can-do attitude, as the music bounces through Parton’s descriptions of stumbling through another day fraught with ambition denied and dreams shattered, but still with the confidence that there are some things no one can take away.
As Parton reminds us in the song’s refrain: “There’s a better life.”
Once you’ve heard the song “Happy,” it will probably be impossible to get its upbeat and danceable rhythms out of your head. Pharrell Williams’ hit song seems to be an embodiment of dance itself.
The song was a central part of the 2014 animated film Despicable Me 2, the second in the already-classic series of movies about the villain-turned loving father Felonious Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), his adopted children, and the hordes of bright yellow, exuberantly chaos-making Minions. “Happy” went on to become the biggest-selling song of the year.
Don’t we all want “a room without a roof?” The playful visual imagery of the song also seems to hold deeper meanings about an acceptance of life’s wanderings, whether by hot air balloon or otherwise, and always with the attitude that “happiness is the truth.”
“Happy” will bring back a whole wealth of fun family memories for many people. It will also be part of the joyous history of the life of the late civil rights hero and United States Congressman John Lewis. Vital and life-affirming to the end of his 80 years, Lewis was captured on a now-viral piece of campaign film footage moving with confidence and fluid grace, as he danced alongside supporters of then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to the beats of “Happy.”