Realize it or not, the early African American experience set the blueprint for music across the United States. Indeed, across much of the English-speaking world. Spanning a diverse range of genres, from ragtime to jazz, funk and hip-hop, Black American music has steadfastly influenced recording artists throughout the 20th century and beyond.
While the origins of African American music — characterized by the conditions of enslaved Black people — predate the American Civil War, in this article we narrow the focus. To accompany our Spotify playlist, we explore recorded music from the 1890s onwards. While our list is by no means exhaustive, this compilation offers selected highlights that capture the varying styles of Black music. We’ll meet familiar faces, like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, but also artists who — while no longer household names — were popular best-sellers in their day.
Alongside Grammy and Pulitzer prize-winning tunes, many of these songs also have the honor of appearing in the National Recording Registry. This list of sound recordings are considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”
Ready? Then hit play, open your ears, and let’s immerse…
The World’s Very First Recorded Music
Black music’s influence emerged far earlier than many realize, with the earliest recorded commercial music. In the late 19th century, formerly enslaved George W. Johnson was one of the first people to record music using the phonograph. He had a flair for it — by the mid-1890s, Johnson was producing the United States’ best-selling songs. His achievement was all the greater because mass-production back then was not as simple as hitting Save and Share. Instead, a singer recorded sound waves on wax phonograph cylinders. Running several cylinders at once, a singer could make three or four recordings simultaneously. To succeed the way he did, Johnson would have had to sing the same song fifty or more times a day. He even held at least one recording session at Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey.
Later came Mamie Smith, the first African American blues artist to make recordings. In 1920, she made history when her song, Crazy Blues, sold over one million copies in a year. You can hear lilting, longing vocals that are synonymous with the blues style. Mamie Smith set the stage for Bessie Smith — no relation — to become the best-selling blues artist of the 20s and 30s.
20th Century: Jazz, The Apollo And More
Music wouldn’t be what it is today without the African American invention of jazz. Originating in New Orleans, jazz developed the feel of blues and ragtime swing. Structured with call and response phrases, polyrhythms (multiple rhythms occurring simultaneously) and quick improvisations, jazz swept the nation. Different parts of the country latched onto various aspects of the sound.
A hallmark of New Orleans music, still best-known for the brass band ensemble, were instruments like the trumpet, trombone and tuba. It was from New Orleans that Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band emerged. Touring from Los Angeles to New York City during the 20s Prohibition era, they became one of the first jazz bands to produce recordings.
Also during the 20s, Louis Armstrong — an influential musician credited with many developments of jazz (also from New Orleans) — produced the first scat recording. This improvisational vocal technique is where the singer emulates the ease of a wind instrument. Like many great things, it seems scat was created by accident. Referring to his 1926 tune, Heebie Jeebies, Armstrong said: “I dropped the paper with the lyrics — right in the middle of the tune… And I did not want to stop and spoil the record which was moving along so wonderful… So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started Scatting… When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out… And to my surprise they all came running out of the controlling booth and said — ‘Leave That In.'”
Another blues great, Ma Rainey, frequently recorded with Armstrong. Although less well-known today, she was ahead of her time. Rainey gave an early nod to her sexuality in 1928, on her recording, Prove It On Me Blues. Check out her lyrics:
Where she went, I don't know I mean to follow everywhere she goes; Folks say I'm crooked. I didn't know where she took it I want the whole world to know.
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends, It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to the gals just like any old man.
When prohibition ended in the early 30s, the Apollo Theater reopened in Harlem, New York City. Previously a venue with a strict “Whites Only” policy, it became a cultural and musical mecca for the Black community. Everyone who was anyone performed at the Apollo, from Louis Armstrong to Bessie Smith. Even the “Queen of Jazz” herself, Ella Fitzgerald, made her debut at one of the Apollo’s first Amateur Nights!
Later, James Brown performed his 1963 live album at the venue. In Brown’s definitive biography, RJ Smith notes that the record was “so staggeringly new it scarcely bore any connection to the music called rhythm and blues. Here was the new soul music.” This stamped a firm definition on jazz, soul and swing by Black Americans.
A Shift In The Narrative
As recorded music became more accessible, so did the influence of Black recording artists. In 1933, Black guitarist and singer Lead Belly recorded the American folk standard, Goodnight, Irene. While the song was a staple in his live performances, it didn’t gain popularity in the charts until after his death in 1950. The white American folk band, The Weavers, subsequently recorded a version of the song. It became a national hit, charting Billboard for 25 weeks, peaking at #1 for 13 weeks. The Weavers omitted some of Lead Belly’s lyrics, with Time magazine labeling it a “dehydrated” and “prettied up” version of the original. The Weavers’ lyrics are the ones that are now generally used, and many artists have covered the song, including Frank Sinatra. Similarly, during this time, Black singer Ethel Waters recorded Stormy Weather. Once again, it was picked up by another group who changed the lyrics, before being covered by household names like Sinatra and Judy Garland.
In 1936, blues singer Robert Johnson recorded for three days straight in San Antonio, Texas. Normally a juke joint and street performer, Johnson produced 29 songs in a single year. These epitomized the Delta blues style. However, Johnson’s talent was overlooked during his lifetime. He was found dead on a roadside, aged 27. But his legacy lives on — Johnson’s music influenced new generations of blues acolytes, including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix.
Just as African American music of the time influenced other artists, politics and civil rights were influencing the music. In 1939, seminal jazz singer Billie Holiday released Strange Fruit, a protest song against racism and the lynching of Black Americans:
Southern trees bearing strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south Them big bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolia, clean and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the leaves to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Black women in the music industry continued making history throughout the mid-20th century. In 1944, Sister Rosetta Tharpe released Down by the Riverside. The song highlighted her pioneering electric guitar talents, which Rock and Roll musicians have widely cited as an influence. The Library of Congress added her version of the song to the National Recording Registry in 2004, noting that it “captures her spirited guitar playing and unique vocal style, demonstrating clearly her influence on early rhythm-and-blues performers.” Tharpe’s creativity played a strong role in conceiving Rock and Roll as a genre of music, earning her the title “the Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
Motown And The Development Of Pop
As the 20th century progressed, so did Black music’s influence. Motown (originating in Detroit) was a new genre encapsulating uplifting music through a deeper development of soul and jazz. Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and countless others defined this post-civil rights era. During the 60s and 70s, hundreds of hit songs were released. They had catchy beats, lyrics and vocal styles. Many are still widely played today. It was during this time that the critique of “whitewashing” Black music arose. Of course, this same critique feeds into the development of pop music as we now know it.
One of the first Black artists credited with owning the pop genre was the late great Bill Withers, who passed away in early 2020. The music he produced in Los Angeles gained worldwide notoriety with his affectionate lyrics and sweet guitar. Withers’ 1977 album, Live at Carnegie Hall, met with critical acclaim. Daryl Easlea from BBC Music said: “It is up there with James Brown’s Live at the Apollo 1962 or Aretha’s Amazing Grace… for allowing you to truly share the live experience of an artist at their pinnacle.” Rolling Stone ranked the recording in its list of 50 greatest live albums.
Despite commercial success, Withers was soured by the industry when asked to record an Elvis cover, demonstrating the kind of challenges Black musicians still face today. “I don’t cover Elvis Presley. You know what I mean? […] It was an affront to my — to me as a man. I just felt confined that this one [producer] that really had nothing to do with any Black music at all could just shut me down like that. It bothered me. So, I’ve never signed with another record company since,” Withers remarked years later.
Black Music In The 90s and 00s
Black music continues to heavily influence the industry. Quick-witted lyrics, synth drums and samples from existing records are just a few of the characteristics found in critically-acclaimed 90s-00s commercial Black music. A great analysis of the 2018 Travis Scott song, SICKO MODE, highlights the various styles and samples incorporated into the Billboard No. 1 hit. It notes that taking a mere three words — “Gimme the loot” — from B.I.G. (which also samples James Brown’s song, Cold Blooded) adds 14 producers to the already lengthy list credited for this summer anthem!
Today’s Black artists continue to expand the colorful beats and vocals from the early music industry. Finishing up our playlist, we’ve included a few picks and blends from the past 30 years of R&B, soul, hip-hop, rap, pop and more. Kick back and enjoy some Boyz II Men, The Notorious B.I.G., D’Angelo and Beyoncé. And we would be remiss not to include a pick from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prizewinning album — the first non-classical or jazz musician to earn the award.
Concluding our playlist is the not-quite-yet-household name, Saint Mela, a New York City collective headed by lead vocalist Wolf Weston. The group is making their mark. They released their debut album in 2018 and their second EP in 2020. Composing “sharp indie pop to prop up their greatest asset: the gripping voice of their lead singer. Weston’s powerful alto,” says the New York Times, is something that upon hearing, you should be “prepared to dance.”
Black Music And Beyond…
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter first declared June as Black Music Month. “I won’t make the other states feel inferior by naming all the Black musicians that have come out of Georgia,” he joked. Thirty years later, President Barack Obama noted the ways that Black musicians have helped all of America “to dance, to express our faith in song, to march against injustice and to defend our country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”
What of the future?
The availability of in-home digital audio workstation software, microphones and studio setups have made recording and producing music more accessible than ever. We see this shift with platforms like Soundcloud, which gives experimenting artists the freedom and opportunity to upload their work for free. “Previously, the recording industry was a vertical business model in which a handful of labels and their relationship with the radio controlled what music was heard by the public. Now the process is completely egalitarian: if you have something to say, you have a much better chance of being heard,” says Steven Dewey, member of Saint Mela and an engineer/producer.
It’s been thrilling to share this glimpse of how Black musicians have influenced today’s commercial music. We hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, and encourage you to delve deeper into the wealth of Black artists who have shaped this diverse and ever-changing industry.