By Erol Ozsever
Ragtime. Blues. Jazz. Rock ‘n Roll. Motown/Soul. Funk/Disco. Hip-hop. The list goes on. Almost every movement of American popular music is in some way–and often a large way–influenced by black music. The influence is immeasurable, and this installment is meant to pay tribute for so many cultural innovations, even if it only skims the surface of how immensely black culture has revolutionized music across the globe, as it would be impossible to mention every visionary in a blog.
Ragtime: Let’s start all the way back with Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Joplin regarded himself as a composer of ‘art music’ and not just a songwriter. Joplin pioneered ragtime, a style of music known for it’s off-beat rhythmic displacement known as syncopation. Ragtime not only laid the groundwork for early jazz, but Joplin’s influence can be heard in some of the late compositions by French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Interestingly, jazz musicians later drew influence from Debussy’s extended use of harmony in an old-world/new-world cultural exchange.
Delta Blues: Delta blues is considered the earliest form of blues originating around the turn of the 20th century. People began to purchase recorded music of what were called “race records” in the 1920’s and 30’s. Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is one of most famous delta blues guitarists who famously allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his talent.
Jazz and Swing: Early swing-era jazz didn’t emerge overnight, but often used a 12-bar blues pattern along with vivacious syncopation and evolved out of New Orleans brass bands. Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) are potentially two of the most important musical figures in American history.
Rock ‘n Roll: In the 1950s Early Rock ‘n Roll took the 12-bar blues pattern and make it loud, fast, and raucous. And a fellow by the name of Chuck Berry (1926-2017) was one of the leading pioneers of Rock ‘n Roll playing an instrument that was barely out of infancy–the electric guitar. White artists such as Elvis Presley (1935-1977) and Johnny Cash (1932-2003) were instrumental in the pioneering the genre of Rockabilly, which drew influences from both Rhythm & Blues and country music and continued to shape country music. “Hound Dog” was originally performed by Big Mama Thornton before it became one of Elvis’s biggest hits.
Chicago Blues: Blues also evolved to incorporate the electric guitar, and Chicago became known as the home of “Electric Blues” with prominent figures such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Many of the musicians of Mississippi Delta moved to northern urban cities because of poor economic conditions and racial discrimination in the south. Chicago Blues was a cultural phenomenon that spread across the Atlantic Ocean to heavily influence the next generation of musicians in England.
We often think of the music of ‘The British Invasion’ (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, etc.) when we think of the 1960s, but it is important to note that many of the figures from the British Invasion including Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones attribute Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters as his primary influences. Other English musicians that were heavily influenced by American blues include Pete Townsend from The Who, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds, to name a few. And in 1966 a black American guitarist took the London scene by storm. He was so loud, so innovative, and so outright talented that seeing him live made a handful of now legendary guitarists want to quit. That was none other than Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). 50 years after his death, guitarists are still befuddled and awestruck by his sonic wizardry.
Soul: Motown and Stax records popularized soul music for a mainstream audience with influences from southern Gospel music. Artists on the Motown catalog include Stevie Wonder, Ben E. King, Marvin Gaye, among others.
“The Godfather of Soul” James Brown became a powerful influence in the development of hip-hop and an advocate for civil rights with “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”.
The 1970s: Jimi Hendrix’s influence carried well into the 1970s with many guitarists including Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin using wild string bends, sonic feedback, and riffs heavily influenced by the blues. We can hear Led Zeppelin’s homage to boisterous early rock ‘n roll with their 1971 song “Rock ‘n Roll” and homage to the delta blues in “When the Levee Breaks”. The 1970s also saw the rise of funk into mainstream culture with rhythmically driven grooves from bands such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, Kool & the Gang, and Parliament, to name a few.
The 1980s and beyond: Funk continued into the 1980s, and hip-hop began to emerge with influences from Funk, Soul. And Hip-hop very quickly influenced rock music in the Aerosmith/Run DMC collaboration of “Walk This Way”. This paved the way for a number of rock groups including The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Rage Against the Machine the combine rock and rap. Rock and Rap have since made a number of main-stream cross-genre collaborations including Rage Against the Machine touring with Wu Tang Clan in 1997 and Jay-Z touring with Linkin Park in 2005. Rap has even found its way into modern country music after Tim McGraw and Nelly released “Over and Over” in 2004.
American popular music–and popular music for the majority of the western world–has been forever shaped, and influenced by movements in black music. These innovations have created what some argue to be the only truly American musical idiom. And it has the power to reshape our music and pop culture by pioneering new genres and revolutionizing genres that have already become institutions. We are all forever indebted to the artistic contributions of these creative minds.
By Erol Ozsever