African-American Musicians

Music connects us to our ancestral roots.
Music connects us to our ancestral roots.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

If you have ever heard the sound of a heartbeat, then you have already begun to learn about the roots of music. When you hear a heartbeat, what do you think about? Perhaps you think about life, or maybe a drum.

When we look at the world around us and see different people in different countries, people of many nationalities and languages and customs, we are able to understand just how unique we are.

But even though we are unique, music is one thing that most people have in common. It seems that no matter where you go, you can find some form of music. It just may be the language of life.

Music is the link that connects us to our ancestral roots in Africa, Australia, the West Indies, North and South America, and every other land in the world. In fact, the music of many of today's famous songwriters and producers can be linked directly to Africa, where some say life began.

African music has influenced all the music of the world, but it may have had the greatest impact on American music.

In Africa, music has long been heard as lullabies, work songs, religious songs, and so on. Despite a great deal of struggle, African people created musical forms that have become stronger and greater, having spread to every corner of the world.

In Spain and other Latin countries, African music had a big influence on new styles of music such as Merengue and Salsa. In the Caribbean, Calypso was influenced by African work songs. Reggae was born when West Indians adopted American rhythm and blues (or R&B) and rock & roll.

In America, African work songs slowly grew into the blues, and jazz became the first all-American music form. African-American dance music was kept alive through rhythm and blues. Rock music was born when R&B, country music, and ballads were mixed together.

Soul music came from R&B that was mixed with gospel music, and funk and rap music followed. Of course, there would be no musical legacy if it were not for the many musical pioneers who paved the way.

Singers Marion Anderson and Bessie Smith
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

At age six, Marion Anderson (1897-1993) joined the choir of her family's church. She sought to improve her singing, but she was denied access to training because of her race. After high school, Anderson performed in nearly two hundred concerts in Germany and other foreign countries.

She was known and loved for the way she sang classical music and spirituals, but even greater than her voice was her sense of pride and dignity. She overcame racial obstacles that opened doors for countless musicians who followed.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was one of the finest blues and jazz singers in history. Her recordings from 1923 to 1933 rank among the best in jazz. Until shortly before her death, Bessie's work was almost unknown by white audiences, but African-American audiences bought thousands of her albums. The beauty of her voice transformed simple songs into masterpieces.

Throughout her career she recorded with many jazz greats such as Joe Smith, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, and Louis Armstrong.

To learn more about African-American musicians, go to the next page.

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