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Africa and the African Diaspora

Song and Dance: The Power Of Black Music

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Part of Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life
Part of Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life

American music is largely influenced by African American music, so concluded eminent musicologists just before the 20th century.

American culture, unwilling to accept blacks as equal citizens, had willingly accepted spirituals, gospel, sorrow songs, work songs, lullabies, love songs and instruments, like the banjo, which influenced virtually all music genres, Classical to Country & Western.

Perhaps the greatest African American cultural influence, apart from centuries of music and enslaved labor, arrived in the 20th Century and continues, in The Dance.

In the 1890s, white conservative Americans immediately opposed African American composer Scott Joplin's very popular Rag Time. Rag was rebellious music, conservatives argued. Its rhythms were hypnotic and made dancers behave seemingly euphoric and wanton.

Criticism came also from black American church leaders who condemned what they regarded as the juxtaposition of sacred mating and fertility movements, used at weddings and birthing rituals, with secular music.

Rag and emerging jazz and blues styles were just too sexy. Young Americans, who were not yet known as "teenagers" liked it just fine. The Roaring Twenties got much of its life from songs, rhythms and dances, performed by whites but influenced by black music.

Writes Samuel Floyd in The Power Of Black Music, African song in general is erotic because fertility and sexual prowess are central values in African life, African dances are designed to educate boys and girls toward their adult behavior.

“Of Dance, Drum and Song, dance was the most central to ritual.”

In 1901, leading musicians denounced rag as "rot". The American Society of Professors of Dancing voted to ban rag from ballrooms.

Before ragtime, popular American dance movements were orderly ballroom waltzes and quadrilles. Syncopated music by Joplin, W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton created "Jazz dancing" which was deplored by many white adults, who were concerned about young people's access to recorded music and new privacy found in cars and subways.

Black musicians were denied entry into music unions unless they conformed to white American and European stylings.

In 1905, African American composer and conductor James Reese Europe began reshaping American dance. He started with the waltz and rag. Hired by ballroom dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, Europe began creating the new American popular music--that is song and dance that didn't need to be identified as black.

Europe, who supervised several bands, is best known as Lt. Europe, commander of the World War One 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters Band which introduced jazz to Europe. Following his death in 1919, Lt. Europe was replaced as director of the Harlem based New Amsterdam Musical Association by Rabbi Arnold Ford.

The New Amsterdam Musical Association is Harlem's oldest African American corporation, founded in 1905 as a supporting agency for black musicians who were not allowed in the local white union. Rabbi Ford, music director of The Commandment Keepers (aka The Black Jews Of Harlem) was also music director for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association.

In the 1930s, artist Aaron Douglas created murals to depict African Song and Dance. In one mural, Douglas prominently included the saxophone, a European instrument, first noted for its comic rhythms, but profoundly transformed by Black musicians.

Part of Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life
Part of Aaron Douglas's Aspects of Negro Life

The artist's "Magisterial" Four Murals convey the pervasiveness of music and religion in African and African American lives, through labor, sorrow and joy.

In the 1930s, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who admired America's bigoted society, banned black music and black musicians, vilifying supporters of black music within Germany.

The Aaron Douglas murals are on public display at the Schomburg Center For Research In Black Culture.

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