Work songs, Gospel, The Blues and Jazz are the roots that hold up the influential behemoth that is African American music. These roots are buried deep. They are the kind of roots that make your sidewalk uneven and crack your driveway. The roots may lay 20-30 feet under the surface, but the lushness of the tree sits high in the sky spreading its influence into the environment, giving out the breath of life to American music as a whole.
This, is how Work Songs became Gospel, Gospel became Blues and Blues became Jazz.
Roots had to grow up through the ground sprouting branches. Branches like Rhythm and Blues, Rock, Funk, Soul Disco, House, Reggae, Hip Hop, Salsa, Zouk, Son, Soca, Kompa, Rhumba, Samba and countless other styles. These branches have leaves that change color, fall off and grow back in different variations each season. Sometimes branches snap off, leaves come and go. But the trunk and the roots are always there, always present, always holding the foundation strong.
Tree Roots grow best in un-compacted soil. That means soil that has not been compressed, or tampered with. No machines have dug it up, no one has ever turned it over. Work songs, Gospel, Blues and early Jazz grew in this un-compacted soil. Musically they are raw, stripped down and untouched. They grew from the heart of the Black Slave and sharecropper. They grew out of the ground through the pain of bondage.
James Weldon Johnson wrote “Stony the road we trod bitter the chastening rod.” In the Black national anthem for a reason. Black music is the direct reflection of a life filled with rough roads and scarred backs. It can be sad and dark, joyful and free, uplifting and depressing. It’s also trance inducing and full of layers to listen and dance to.
Lift Every Voice and Sing- Women of the Calabash
Work Songs, Gospel, Blues, and Jazz gave life to Black music in the Americas and in turn all of western music. Each branch growing with similar features and DNA, displaying the continuity of African culture. These similarities are ever present throughout generations of growth all the way to Hip Hop.
We can find similarities thematically and sonically, but also in the presentation and performance of Black music. Throughout this series we will breakdown these similarities, connecting the dots within the history of Black music in America. We jump into this cipher with.
Since the plight of the African in America began with chattel slavery we find that getting to freedom or to heaven became a very common theme. Spirituals like Ain’t That Good News and Swing Low Sweet Chariot lyrically show us what was on the minds of the African slave.
Ain’t that good news says “I got a crown up in the kingdom, ain’t that good news, got me a savior in the kingdom, ain’t that good news” Through long hot days in the fields some hope or mental escape was needed. Spirituals helped slaves to KEEP ON PUSHING! (Another song about the plight of Blacks in America)
Aint That Good News- Barbara Hendricks and Moses Hogan Chorale (Audio below)
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” like “Ain’t that good news” and many other slave songs were most likely passed down orally from generation to generation. Generations of people who needed hope in a strange land. Swing Low and Negro Spirituals in general played an integral role in our spiritual sustenance. That is why spirituals are a part of the roots of the tree. Helped to keep us strong from jump.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot, comin for to carry me home”. “A Band of Angels coming after me, comin for to carry me home.”
Again shows slaves looking for a home in heaven free from the chains of bondage. However like many songs we will analyze, it has a double meaning. When slaves heard this song being sung he/she knew to get prepared to escape. A “chariot” was coming to bring you north.
Do we still sing of being carried off to another land. A land of freedom and peace and love? Of course.
One of today’s most gifted and most successful emcees Common raps about being able to find that heaven here on earth through the gift of music and love.
Let’s take a look and a listen to a song from Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” A song entitled “Ghetto Heaven” The main theme is to try and find heaven in yourself and in the music while on this planet wherever you can.
Although we are not physically slaves. Poverty, racism, self hate, poor health and lack of education still have us in chains. Common grew up on the Southside of Chicago where the whippings and hard labor of our ancestors have manifested into one of the highest murder rates in America. Add in widespread segregation and poverty, fear of the police and lack of education. Black people still live in tough situations with a lot of struggle. Finding heaven and inner peace can be a difficult task.
Within African Culture music and dance play a role in every part of life. There is music for the morning, music for working, music for weddings, music for cleaning, music for worshipping, and a dance associated with it. Hence we also have music for stress relief and overall healing. Common is hoping to have music bring us the bliss of freedom, if only for a few minutes.
Geto Heaven Part Two- Common feat D’Angelo (Quotes 1,2,3)
“I walk through the valley with a life preserver, feeling at times that I just might murder. But that ain’t what I was sent for. I want my folks to say his life it meant more, than any car, any rock, and any broad. He found Geto Heaven in himself and God.” – Common
With some clever word playing off of the 23rd Psalm Common tells us he is not afraid of the valley of Death. He has life preservers to protect him from the chains of racism, and discrimination. His music and God. He is looking for that escape route. The connection between the spirituals “Aint that good news and “Swing Low” is clear.
We still make music about getting to that place of peace and freedom, we probably always will. The roots just grew that way. Work Songs, Gospel, Blues and Jazz made it so.
- “But to choose words and be heard across waters. Doing something you like to support daughter’s. Keeping your guys from collecting court orders. Conveying messages that the ancestors brought us.” – Common
This line holds a special place for me because I actually use the music of my ancestors across waters to support my daughters. So does Common, and so do many others. Music has saved a lot of souls.
With this lyric Common is describing to us power of Black music. We can use it to send our message all over the world, and convey the message passed down through generations. It is our voice in a world of pain. We can use it to support our families and our dreams, while at the same time always keeping the roots strong allowing the tree to thrive.
- “Thought of things to say to become the in thing for the day. Somehow that didn’t seem the way for me to make it. MUSIC IS A GIFT THAT IS SACRED. Whether serving or a surgeon, you gon go through it. Can’t imagine going through it without soul music. It’s like Donny Hath helped me see Lonnie’s path. On my behalf let’s take whole steps to I mhotep. And show depth as we make people nod. Find HEAVEN IN THIS MUSIC AND GOD.”
This is it! Music is our sacred gift. We can use it to reach heaven spiritually, here on earth, and within ourselves. No matter if you are a drug dealer or a pediatrician. You have struggles and soul music can guide you towards greatness like Imhotep. No matter how much pain, you can find some relief in the vibrations of song.
Common used music to relieve some of the pain of racism and second class citizenship. Just like we sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot, We now sing Common’s lyric “Find heaven in this music and god” The ability to let the music soothe you, let the beat bear the weight of your suffering. Allowing the rhythm to take you to a place of peace.
“Maybe someday I’ll reach that higher goal. I know I can make it…….. with just a little bit a soul. -Curtis Mayfield
“Some say we pro-black, but we professional. We missed a lot of church so the music is our confessional. Big Boi
OutKast! A Hip Hop duo consisting of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin. On their third album entitled “Aquemeni” They created a song called “Liberation” The song features Erykah Badu, Big Rube and Cee-Lo Green.
Sonically they infuse elements of Work Song, Gospel, Blues and Jazz to create a sound palette that oozes soul. Not to mention on an album with ferocious lyrical prowess there is no rapping. They tap into the roots of the tree, extract the base (bass) and create a musical gift.
Lyrically this song shows another side of what freedom can be.
We are not tied by the neck and feet physically anymore. That treatment however led to economic instability, unfit housing, and systemic racism. Mental liberation is what we need now. To know that we are not second class, or 3/5ths, or a burden.
Big Rube says ” It’s a hard road of hope when the rain don’t fall, and the ground is dry, BUT THE ROOTS ARE STRONG so some survive”
Even though sometimes it feels like all hope is gone, remember those roots are there. Unwavering, allowing the continuity of African culture and its music to sustain us, and bring us to mental liberation. A place where we know we are equal, a place where we accept and expect only the best.
A few quotes from “Liberation”
“Can’t worry about what another Ni**a think, now that liberation and baby I want it”
This kind of mentality was not even a possibility for black people until recently. We had to worry about what our oppressors thought. We did so, or face grave consequences. OutKast is praying and wishing and hoping to be able to have this kind of freedom. Which they do, through the medium of music. But do we?
Even still we have to be more than careful. Remember Amadou Diallo, and Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Alton Sterling, and Sean Bell. I have never had a positive interaction with an on duty Police Officer. As a matter of fact, I’m afraid of them. What is really sad is that I type those names with so many more that could be listed. This shows we are still searching for that “Liberation” Our freedom to be alive and breathing is not guaranteed.
“Ya have a choice to be who you wants to be its left upa to me, and my Momma dem told me”
First thing I noticed about this lyric is its delivery. Its is spoken in a southern dialect and uses a line you may know. If you grew up around southern black people you have heard someone say “My Mama n dem” with the syllables pushed together. That’s black vernacular handed down through generations.
Now the thematic element. A choice to be who you want to be? A very new freedom for people of color. 50 short years ago which is a blip in history. Discrimination, segregation and Jim Crow were still completely legal and huge part of our society. Black people for the most part did not grow up saying “ I can do whatever I want to do.” Black people lived with struggle, struggle that affects us mentally to this day.
“I’m so tired been so long, struggling, Hopelessly 7 and 40 days”
The timbre with which this line is sung along with its biblical references (Noah and flood) is reminiscent of a Work Song or Field Holler. Envision a native African, on a sugar cane plantation, can’t find his wife, on his knees, both hands to the sky singing for some relief. Now envision Marvin Gaye on his knees singing “Make me wanna Holler, throw up both my hands” It’s the same thing. This however is Cee- Lo Green of the Dungeon Family throwing up both his hands, praying for a better day.
“Shake that load off, Shake that load off, Shake load off, Shake load off, Shake that load off”
With cascading three part harmonies moving behind it, the phrase “Shake that load off” is repeated 32 times. Since Black people arrived here, we have been looking for ways to shake the load off, to escape from the captivity. We used music, religion, dance, anything we could to KEEP ON PUSHING. Leading us right into a quote from the great
“Spend your life trying to numb the pain, You shake that load off and sing your song, liberate the minds then you go on home.”
This is everything we have been discussing. Black people, from slavery into 2016 are still trying to numb the pain. We attempt to shake the load off with, prayer, with drugs, with sex and many other things, but nothing is a strong as our SONG. Songs that liberate the mind, then we go on “home”
“Born under a bad sign, Been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all” – Albert King
Not only did we sing of a new life in heaven and freedom from the pain. We also used music to tell the story of the daily grind. The everyday struggles. Bills, women, men, relationships, parties, hanging with friends, just the ups and downs that life brings. One of the greatest gifts we get from songs that tell real life stories, is the glimpse into the life and head of the performer.
Let’s compare a Blues song from 1942 by T-Bone Walker and and Hip Hop song that lyrically is a blues song from 1994 by The Notorious B.I.G.
Mean Old World- T. Bone Walker
Everyday Struggle- Notorious B.I.G
T- Bone– “Yes, I drink to keep from worrying, Mama I smile to keep from crying. Just to keep the public from knowing just what I have on my mind.”
Biggie– “They don’t know about your stress filled day, baby on the way, mad bills to pay that’s why you drink tanqueray. So you can reminisce and wish wasn’t living so devilish”
These songs were written 52 years apart. T-Bone Walker is from Linden, Texas and Biggie is from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Yet the their lives seem to have similar issues going on. Stresses of life pushing them to drink is the obvious, and that is prevalent in all cultures. What makes this unique to the Black experience is the generational effect White supremacy has had on our progress, opportunities, self fulfillment and expectations.
I’m no “Blame Whitey” kind of dude either. But let’s look at it like this. If you run a race where you are the only healthy contestant and everyone else has a pulled hamstring, you are gonna win most of the time. Sometimes a really strong person who can’t be stopped will get ahead. But for the most part healthy legs win. Generations of Black people have been running with the tweaked hammy, even Biggie and T-bone Walker. They were the strong ones, and they still did not think highly of themselves.
Biggie wishes he wasn’t so devilish and T-Bone hides his emotions in smiles and booze so the world can’t see him. These are mental shackles that come with generations of hate.
For someone as gifted and influential as Biggie to take away from his life that he is nothing but a devil says a lot about our culture.
Sadly that thought process is a daily operation for a black man in America. Living the duality of being Black and trying to exist in a country that hates you. Dubois spoke of the “Double Consciousness”
‘Looking at yourself through the eyes of others. Measuring your soul by the tape of world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. ” The Notorious B.I.G. was a poetic genius. Excellent with the word play, a truly unique delivery, with vivid story telling abilities. He touched millions of people world wide with just two albums. However he was still forced to look at himself through eyes of country who did not truly value him. “Heart throb never, Black and ugly as ever” This is what he thought of himself.
They both go on to say-
“Someday baby I’ll be six feet in the grave, then I won’t be running the streets like a low down dirty slave” T-Bone Walker
“I don’t wanna live no mo, sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door. I’m living everyday like a hustle, and another drug to juggle. Another day another struggle” – Biggie
Both of these men reached the pinnacle of their industry. Yet, the everyday struggle was still real for them. The above lyrics were written in 2 totally different generations by seemingly very different people. Doesn’t it seem like they could have worked together? (whooo, what a dope album). The continuity of theme is so strong because the roots and the trunk are always buried deep, holding strong, allowing the branches to flourish, if only for a brief moment.
Slaves sang coded songs about getting to freedom, T- Bone Walker sang songs about getting through the day in this “Mean old World”. Common helped us find Heaven in ourselves. Marvin Gaye threw up both his hands to the Inner City Blues, Outkast created praise music to help “Shake that load off” and Biggie rapped about his everyday struggle.
We create music to help us shake off the load of oppression, to turn that sore into scab. The basis of this music comes from Work Songs, Gospel, The Blues and Early Jazz. The theme of wanting to be truly free and find peace in this world runs from Work Songs all the way to Hip Hop. Continuity of Culture.
These are only a few of the thematic connections we can make, but the fact is this.
Black music throughout its growth in America has similarities that run deep between styles that are centuries apart. The Roots of the tree will always be there, season after season.
Songs of getting to physical Freedom
Ain’t that Good News– Spritual
Swing Low Sweet Chariot. – Wallis Willis
Song of getting to mental Freedom
Lift Every Voice and Sing- James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson
Geto Heaven (pt II)– Common
Keep On Pushing– Curtis Mayfield
Songs of the everyday struggle and self reflection
Inner City Blues- Marvin Gaye
Mean Old World– T-Bone Walker
Everyday Struggle- Biggie
Next Section- Sonic Connections