This year for Black History Month, we’re going to be releasing some content that explores the history of Black music, starting with this blog post detailing the impact of Black musicians on popular music in the United States. We hope that—like us—you learn something new along the way!
Did you know that in the 1920s, blues music and country music were essentially the same thing, with the only distinction being the race of the singer? While music itself has the ability to transcend all boundaries, it’s important to keep in mind that different socioeconomic and political factors undoubtedly had effects on the music people made and listened to. It also has effects on how the music travels and transforms. To shed some light on the history of music, mainly in the US, here’s an approximate timeline of popular music genres, and the way they evolved from traditional influences to the music that we listen to today.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origin of the genre of music we know as “blues.” This is mainly because the style evolved over a long time before we had a word for it or other documentation. Blues was originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1860s by African-Americans, taking influence from African-American work songs and spirituals. The first blues recordings were made in the 1920s by Black women such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith. These singers were backed by jazz bands, and this style is known as classic blues. Later during the Great Depression, many Black people moved to northern states and carried blues traditions with them.
Jazz was all the rage by the 1920s. Jazz originated in the late-19th to early-20th century as variations of classical music combined with African and slave folk songs, and influences of West African culture. Jazz originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, directly evolving from blues and ragtime music. As jazz spread around the world, different styles arose from different regional and local cultures. From traditional jazz to swing to bebop and beyond, jazz is one of the US’s greatest exports. Since the Jazz Age, it’s been recognized as a keystone of musical expression in traditional and popular music. If you peel back enough layers, most genres of popular music are evolutions of basic jazz and blues elements.
American jazz composer, lyricist, and pianist Eubie Blake made an early contribution to the genre’s etymology
Rhythm and Blues (R&B)
By the 1940s, rhythm and blues, known as R&B, had come into popularity. A genre originating in African-American communities, the term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly toward urban African Americans. As “urbane, rocking, jazz-based music with a heavy, insistent beat” was becoming more popular, it all fell under the larger R&B umbrella, though the history is richer than the monolith may suggest. R&B lyrical themes often describe experiences of pain, as well as triumphs and failures in terms of relationships, economics, and aspirations. The migration of African Americans to industrial urban cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s created a new market for jazz, blues, and related genres of music. These genres of music were often performed by full-time musicians. The precursors of rhythm and blues came from jazz and blues, which overlapped by the late 1920s and 1930s. The use of the electric guitar as a lead instrument, as well as the piano and saxophone, became increasingly popular.
We’ve written about Latin music in the past, and many of those genres also evolved from Black influences—particularly from Cuba and Brazil—around the same time. African American music began incorporating Afro-Cuban rhythmic motifs in the 1800s. For the more than 20 years when cakewalk, ragtime, and proto-jazz were forming and developing, the Cuban genre habanera was ever-present in African American popular music. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton considered the tresillo/habanera rhythm (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz. In the late 1940s, New Orleans musicians were using Cuban influences heavily precisely at the time when R&B was first forming.
Rock and Roll
Jazz you could dance to became swing, and those rocking elements of swing eventually became rock and roll. Rock and roll music emerged from the wide variety of musical genres that existed in the United States in the first half of the 20th century among different ethnic and social groups. Some of the hallmark elements of the genre—strong rhythmic elements, blues notes, and call and response patterns—came from contributions from America’s Black population. According to the writer Robert Palmer: “Rock ‘n’ roll was an inevitable outgrowth of the social and musical interactions between blacks and whites in the South and Southwest. Its roots are a complex tangle. Bedrock black church music influenced blues, rural blues-influenced white folk song and the black popular music of the Northern ghettos, blues, and black pop-influenced jazz, and so on. But the single most important process was the influence of black music on white.” Whatever Elvis did with rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe did it first.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe c.1960s on the show “TV Gospel Time” with the Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Choir
Skipping forward a bit, we come to disco, a genre of dance music that emerged in the 1970s from the urban nightlife scene. Its sound brought forward a new mix of instruments and sounds like syncopated basslines, string sections, horns, electric piano, synthesizers, and electric rhythm guitars. Disco started as a mix of music from venues popular with African Americans, Latino Americans, Italian Americans, and gay men in Philadelphia and New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It declined in popularity by the late 1970s and early 1980s but remained a key influence in the development of electronic dance music. The style has had several revivals since the 1990s, and the influence of disco remains strong across American and European pop music. If you turn on the radio, you’ll quickly notice how elements of disco have come back into popularity lately.
House music was inspired by disco and came into popularity just as disco was dying down. When the backlash against disco started, dance music went from being produced by major label studios to being created by DJs in the underground club scene. In the early 1980s, Chicago radio jocks and club DJs played a range of styles of dance music, including older disco records, electro-funk tracks, newer Italo disco, and electronic pop. Some DJs made and played their own edits, and sometimes mixed in electronic effects, drum machines, synthesizers. Starting in 1985 and 1986, more and more Chicago DJs began producing and releasing original compositions. These compositions used newly affordable electronic instruments and enhanced styles of disco and other dance music they already favored. These homegrown productions were played on Chicago radio stations and in local clubs catering mainly to Black, Latino, and gay audiences. The rudiments of house music can be heard in many EDM tracks produced today.
House music pioneers Alan King, Robert Williams, and Derrick Carter
Hip hop music, also known as rap music, is a genre of popular music developed by African Americans in the Bronx in the 1970s. Musical elements used in hip hop music have stemmed from blues, jazz, and R&B recordings from the 1950s and earlier. Hip hop is an entire subculture, and rap music falls under it. Hip hop as music and culture formed from the multicultural exchange between African-American youth from the United States and young immigrants and children of immigrants from countries in the Caribbean. The beginnings of hip hop music were an outlet for the youth of marginalized backgrounds and low-income areas. Hip hop’s early pioneers were influenced by a mix of music from their cultures and the cultures they were exposed to as a result of the diversity of U.S. cities. For example, New York City experienced a heavy Jamaican hip hop influence during the 1990s. This influence was a direct result of the mass immigration of Jamaicans to New York City and the American-born Jamaican youth who were coming of age during the 1990s. In 2017, hip-hop music surpassed rap as the most popular genre in the US.
It’s pretty amazing, really, the way all musical roads lead to the same influences. We’ve also seen time and time again how multiple cultures and genres have combined to become something greater than the sum of their parts.