The Sounds of Black Music: Folk Voices

By NYPL Staff
June 15, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
 a life in music and protest

Considered to be the voice of the people, and rooted in the tradition of storytelling, folk music echoes with the everyday experiences and struggles of ordinary people. Below we highlight books written about some of the well-known voices in Black folk music as well as works that examine its history and impact on African American culture.

Banjo Roots and Branches

Banjo Roots and Branches edited by Robert B. Winans

The story of the banjo's journey from Africa to the western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Robert B. Winans presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument's West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States. The contributors provide detailed ethnographic and technical research on gourd lutes and ekonting in Africa and the banza in Haiti while also investigating tuning practices and regional playing styles. Other essays place the instrument within the context of slavery, tell the stories of Black banjoists, and shed light on the banjo's introduction into the African- and Anglo-American folk milieus. Wide-ranging and illustrated with 20 color images, Banjo Roots and Branches offers a wealth of new information to scholars of African American and folk musics as well as the worldwide community of banjo aficionados.

 Timothy Duffy's Southern photographs

Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy's Southern Photographs by William Ferris

In this collection of extraordinary portraits, Timothy Duffy brings new vitality to this old form, capturing powerful images of musicians who represent the roots of American music. These American blues, jazz, and folk artists are living expressions of a cultural legacy, made and remade by everyday people and passed down through generations. In the hands of the people in Duffy's portraits, centuries-old traditions find new expression in this digital millennium. Likewise, Duffy's photographic techniques fuse old forms and the original collodion wet plates with modern lighting. In this collaboration between photographer and artist, music and image meet around a history of struggle, adaptability, and creativity.

 race, gender, and the work of African American folklore in 1930s America

Frankie and Johnny: Race, Gender, and the Work of African American Folklore in 1930s Americaby Stacy I. Morgan

Originating in a homicide in St. Louis in 1899, the ballad of “Frankie and Johnny” became one of America’s most familiar songs during the first half of the twentieth century. It crossed lines of race, class, and artistic genres, taking form in such varied expressions as a folk song performed by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly); a ballet choreographed by Ruth Page and Bentley Stone under New Deal sponsorship; a mural in the Missouri State Capitol by Thomas Hart Benton; a play by John Huston; a motion picture, She Done Him Wrong, that made Mae West a national celebrity; and an anti-lynching poem by Sterling Brown. In this innovative book, Stacy I. Morgan explores why African American folklore—and “Frankie and Johnny” in particular—became prized source material for artists of diverse political and aesthetic sensibilities. He looks at a confluence of factors, including the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and resurgent nationalism that led those creators to engage with this ubiquitous song. 

The Invention and Reinvention of Big Bill Broonzy

The Invention and Reinvention of Big Bill Broonzyby Kevin D. Greene

Over the course of his long career, legendary bluesman William "Big Bill" Broonzy (1893-1958) helped shape the trajectory of the genre, from its roots in the rural Mississippi River Delta, through its rise as a popular genre in the North, to its eventual international acclaim. Along the way, Broonzy adopted an evolving personal and professional identity, tailoring his self-presentation to the demands of the place and time. His remarkable professional fluidity mirrored the range of expectations from his audiences, whose ideas about race, national belonging, identity, and the blues were refracted through Broonzy as if through a prism. Kevin D. Greene argues that Broonzy's popular success testifies to his ability to navigate the cultural expectations of his different audiences. However, this constant reinvention came at a personal and professional cost. Using Broonzy's multifaceted career, Greene situates blues performance at the center of understanding African American self-presentation and racial identity in the first half of the twentieth century. 

 society blues

Josh White: Society Blues by Elijah Wald

A gifted and charismatic entertainer, Josh White (1914-1969) was a blues star of the 1930s, a cabaret star of the 1940s, and a folk star of the 1950s and '60s. In 1963, a Billboard magazine poll ranked him America's third most popular male folksinger, surpassed only by Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte, and ahead of Bob Dylan. White brought American folk and blues to audiences around the world and released several dozen albums, all featuring his distinctive guitar style, supple voice, and unique showmanship. In this compelling biography, Elijah Wald traces White's journey from a childhood leading blind singers on the streets of Greenville, South Carolina, to the heights of Manhattan cafe society. He explores the complexities of White's music, his struggles with discrimination and stereotypes, his political involvements, and his sometimes raucous personal life. 

 the magnificent musical life of Elizabeth Cotten

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs; illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Libba Cotten, who grew up at the turn of the twentieth century, taught herself to play her big brother's guitar. Left-handed, she played upside down. When her brother moved away, she worked and saved to buy her own guitar, which she played while making up songs. Decades later, after Ruth Crawford Seeger hired Libba Cotten as a housekeeper, her talent was discovered within that very musical home. As Veirs writes in a lengthy note, Cotten performed "Freight Train," which she had written as a child, and other songs beginning in the 1950s and toured extensively for many years. Characterizing Cotten as a quiet, gentle soul, the straightforward text and informative author's note will mainly interest children and adults who love her music.

The Life and Legend of Leadbelly

The Life and Legend of Leadbellyby Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell

Well researched and thoughtful, this biography depicts the career of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (1888-1949), among the most influential of American folksingers. Folk music enthusiasts will be familiar with the highlights of Leadbelly's life—how his music earned him a pardon from prison, how folk music experts John and Alan Lomax discovered and promoted him, how songs he either wrote or embellished ("Goodnight Irene" and "Midnight Special," for example) have become an integral part of American musical tradition—but it is the level of detail that Wolfe and Lornell bring forward that makes this book a standout. Leadbelly's early years in Louisiana and Texas, his introduction to music and his life in prison are portrayed in a fast-paced style that lends immediacy to the book. The introduction to the Lomaxes, Leadbelly's foray into New York society, his eventual estrangement from John Lomax and his recording and performance career are equally well chronicled in this notable effort. 

Negro folk music U.S.A.

Negro Folk Music Harold Courlander

One of the first and best surveys in its field, Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. has long been admired for its perceptive history and analysis of the origins and musical qualities of typical forms, ranging from simple cries and calls to anthems and spirituals, ballads, and the blues. Traditional dances and musical instruments are examined as well. The author, well-known novelist, folklorist, journalist, and specialist in African and African American cultures  offers a discerning study of the influence of this genre on popular music, with particular focus on how jazz developed out of folk traditions. 

 a life in music and protest

Odetta: A Life in Music and Protestby Ian Zack

In the first in-depth biography of singer and civil rights icon Odetta, Zack offers a thoughtful portrait of an artist who never quite became as famous as she deserved to be, even though her music has influenced generations of musicians, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman to Rhiannon Giddens and even Miley Cyrus. Odetta did not fit into easily defined categories. She was an African American singer with an operatic voice and perfect diction who chose to sing folk songs associated with the civil rights movement. Seemingly simple gestures (to stop straightening her hair) took on great meaning during a time when Black pride had not yet achieved wider acceptance. Odetta celebrated Blackness before such recognition was mainstream even as she defied images of what constituted African American authenticity. She was naturally shy but overcame her diffidence to evoke a regal presence on stage while earning a reputation as an excellent finger-style guitarist; her approach became known as "the Odetta strum." Zack follows her career from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York, chronicling how Odetta had to endure not only racism but also sexism. A much-needed biography of a crucial American artist and activist. 

Interested in learning more about African American folk music? Check out these additional resources:

The Sounds of Black Music is a blog series featuring resources on music genres and influential artists from across the African Diaspora. This series is written and curated by Tracy Crawford and A.J. Muhammad.

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.