The purpose of this report was for me to research and explore the connection between African American women and music. Since prior to the slave decades, music has been an integral part of African American society, and served as a form of social, economic, and emotional support in African American communities in the past and present. This paper will cover three different types of secular music that emerged during the slave days, through the civil war, reconstruction, and depression periods. They are blues, jazz, and gospel music. Each of these forms of music are still in existence today. In addition to exploring the history of each of these genres of music, this report will identify three African American female music legends, Bessie Smith, Emma Barrett, and Mahalia Jackson.
Blues emerged in the period between the end of the civil war, and the beginning of the 20th century. Originating in the fields of the rural south, it became popular after the emancipation of the slaves. In this form of music, the singer and composer is one in the same, a characteristic not evident in the spiritual songs of the slave communities. Spirituals were somewhat of a passage way for blues. Blues followed blacks to urban societies as spirituals followed the slaves onto the plantations. The differences between these types of music were that spirituals were collective, whereas an individual sang blues. Blues attributed to the evolution of black society toward individualism after the collective society of slavery. Blues became know as the music of the black working class. It was a way for African Americans to express the modern problems of economics, social errors, and poverty and power struggles they faced after they became free. African Americans were still living in unjust societies, where jobs were hard to find. They began to migrate north, but the case remained the same. They used music for economic gain in nightclubs, corner halls, publishing, and recording.
One of the greatest African American female blues singers was Bessie Smith. She was born on April 15, 1894 or 1898. The exact date is unknown. Her father William was a preacher, who died when Bessie was very young. This left her mother to raise seven children on her own. When Bessie was nine years old, her mother Laura had passed away, and two of her brothers had died as well. The oldest sister brought up the five remaining brothers and sisters. Prior to the death of Bessie’s mother, she was singing on a street corner to the accompaniment of her brother’s guitar. The money that she made went to support the family. At the age of eighteen, she began performing professionally as a dancer. While traveling the south and mid-west, she met Ma Rainey, “The Mother of Blues”. She joined the most influential agency handling black artists, Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA). In February 1923, Bessie recorded for Columbia Record Company. Her songs “Down-hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues” sold 780,000 copies in less than six months. The contract Bessie signed with Columbia yielded a $20,000 yearly salary. Her popularity increased rapidly, and TOBA was able to book her for theater and club shows paying up to $2,500 per week for personal appearances. Life for Bessie became hectic, as she was unable to manage such large sums of money. By 1928, her popularity leveled off due to a decline in the popularity of blues. In addition to this, TOBA folded in the summer of 1930. In the same year, Columbia renegotiated her contract for half of the original contract of 1923. And, in 1931, Columbia dropped her altogether. The swing era was emerging, and taking over where blues was leaving off. Bessie attempted to make a transition to the new genre of music. Late September 26, 1937, she left Memphis, Tennessee, for Darling Mississippi, when her car struck a parked van. Bessie died the following morning at a black hospital. She was buried in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
Like blues, jazz began to shape during slavery, and in the years after the civil war. The end of slavery meant the end of an isolation period that prevented blacks from sharing ideas and art forms such as music. Jazz differed from blues, because it was not much different than the slave spirituals. Jazz was an approach to feelings, personal expression, pain and pleasure of physical life. It was combination of spirituals and a new form of music. Black women contributed to the development of jazz. During slavery, they wrote songs about, and that became a part of every day experience. In the late 1800’s, ex-slaves bought small organs. Work songs and spirituals were recreated on the organs. This became a main source of family entertainment, and the creation of jazz music. New Orleans, Louisiana became the first great jazz center.
One of the greatest female, African American jazz singers was born in New Orleans, a few years before the turn of the century. Her name was Emma Barrett. She was a self-taught musician who became a jazz legend. As a little girl, Emma use to listen to the guys that gathered on street corners at night with their guitars. She began practicing on her own, and eventually landed a spot in Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra. In 1923, she became one of the first women players in the music to be recorded. The interesting fact about Emma was that she could not read music. This did not limit her popularity. Between the twenties and thirties, she played piano for a number of bands. She soon received the nickname “The Bell Gal” because of her custom of wearing a red dress, red garters, red cap and bells around her knee that jingled when she played. In the forties and fifties, she played in crowded Bourbon Street clubs. Emma eventually formed her own band in 1961, called “Sweet Emma the Bell Gal and Her Dixieland Jazz Band”. Some of their most famous songs were “I’m Alone Because I Love You”, “Clarinet Marmalade”, and “Little Liza Jane”. Health problems began to plague Emma in the mid 1960’s. She suffered from a leg injury and abscessed tooth, but continued to play. In early 1967, Emma suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on her left side. After recovery, Emma continued to play, using her right hand. Emma Barrett died on January 28, 1983, at the age of 85 years old. Her last performance was just 10 days prior to her death.
The twentieth century saw the development of a specific form of religious song in African American society. This form of music is known as gospel music. Gospel is a combination of church worship services, spiritual, and blues singing. The formation of the Pentecostal church in the late nineteenth century, created a form of fundamentalist Christianity that emphasized the Holy Spirit, stressed holiness of living, and encouraged followers to express their religious feelings, often by speaking in tongues. Gospels growth was assisted by the development of recordings and radio broadcasts, which also brought the form of music to white audiences. Recordings of sermons by Pentecostal preachers accompanied by instruments, choirs, and participating congregations became popular during the 1920’s and the depression of the 1930’s. Gospel music was a way for African Americans to rejoice in the Lord. It differed from blues and jazz music, as it did not dwell on the sad things blacks faced. Gospel music was a way to look at the bad aspects of society, and hope for change. The church was an integral part of African American society. It gave the black community a sense of belonging and power over their own lives.
One of the greatest names in Gospel music in the past and present is Mahalia Jackson. She was born on October 16, 1911 in New Orleans. Mahalia was brought up in a strict religious family. They disapproved of all kinds of secular music, including jazz, blues, and ragtime. Mahalia would sneak to listen to recordings of Bessie Smith, and other popular women of secular women. At age 16, she moved to Chicago and joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church Choir. Her strong, distinct voice carried above the entire choir, landing her a soloist spot. She also began to sing in popular storefront churches. Mahalia was not accepted by formal black congregations because of the strong rhythms in her songs. This rhythm is likely to have come from her listening to the secular jazz and blues music her religious family so strongly disapproved of. Her first recording was in 1934, and was named “God Gonna Separate the Wheat From the Tares”. Her first big hit came eleven years later in 1945. It was “Move On Up a Little Higher “. Eight of Mahalia’s records sold over one million copies each. Some of her most famous songs were “I Believe”, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, “Just Over the Hill”, and “I Can Put My Trust in Jesus”. All of her songs were drawn from biblical themes, but influenced by the blues. Mahalia was said to have one of the greatest potential blues voices, but only sang religious songs. Some of her greatest accomplishments were singing at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, filling Carnegie Hall, and singing at the Newport Jazz Festival. Mahalia was also closely associated with the civil rights movement. She died in Illinois on January 27, 1972.
Blues, Jazz, and Gospel each contributed to the completeness of the other. Each was a form of music used to express the inner most feelings of African Americans during such a struggling period of time. These forms of music were followed by several other music genres leading up to what we now know as soul music, rhythm and blues, and even rap music. During the years of emancipation and slavery, women of all colors had none or close to no role in American society. The three African American women defined in this report broke the mold. Not only did they have to overcome race barriers, but they also had to overcome the gender barriers alive at that time. The accomplishments they made speak for themselves, and they certainly opened up the door for some of the present African American females in music, such as Whitney Houston, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, and Dianna Ross, to name a few.
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