Long Read: The Thrill is Gone? Blues, B.B King, and the Cultural Appropriation of African American Music

On June 8th, 2011, A special performance was held at the icon Royal Albert Hall in the United Kingdom. The show featured the guitarist “Slash” from the glam metal band Guns N’ Roses, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, Mick Hucknall from Simply Red, and…Blues great B.B King? Blues is a genre that created by African American musicians from the deep south and is rooted in African American history. It begs the question of why “The King of Blues” was performing on a stage of white and British musicians, for a predominantly white audience, all the way in England. However, there were a variety of events and factors that lead to this moment where a senior B.B King would be watching a red-haired British pop artist singing the icon blues hit “The Thrill is Gone”. It could be said that King was just a universal artist, but it is more accurate to say that cultural appropriation of BB King’s music occurred and drastically changed his career. 4c417e48-d396-4acf-b500-a1ee0edaff78

Cultural Appropriation is defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture”, and it is common with music. Of course, it is normal for musicians to have their influences, but the issue with the cultural appropriation of music comes down some main points. First, white musicians not giving credit to the Blues music they took from or, in some cases, the music they covered. Secondly, there are the labor implications for Blues musicians. In numerous cases, black musicians did not benefit in fortune nor in fame for their original work, while white musicians who appropriated their music often did. And lastly, it is a significant issue of cultural appropriation when the musicians taking from the Blues either do not understand the cultural history and significance or ignore it. For African American musicians, the blues music that was developed from the struggles of former slaves and the hardships of their people has constantly fallen victim to this cultural appropriation. White musicians would find inspiration and ideas from Blues musicians to make their own (and in most cases be paid more than their African American counterparts) or in some cases, cover the songs of blues musicians and find great success.  Whether the careers of the blues musicians were hinder or promoted by cultural appropriation, it no doubly had an effect on African American music and labor.

B.B King at The Royal Albert Hall 2011

B.B King was 86 years old at the time of the performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Such longevity in music is rare, and truly an accomplishment. At the start of the show, after he was announced, he slowly walked across the stage while the band behind him played an upbeat tune. He waved as we slowly made his way to a chair in the middle of the stage, getting help from stagehands all along the way. When he reached the chair, he turned to the applauding crowd of people and said thank you, before taking his seat and being handed his Gibson hollow body guitar that he played all throughout his career. Despite initially dropping his guitar pick, King got settled in and jumped right into the tune that band was playing with ease. Age may have slowed down his walking speed, but not his playing ability. Any musician would count themselves lucky to still be performing at age 86, especially at an esteemed venue such as the Royal Albert. However, getting to this point wasn’t a foregone conclusion for King. in the late 1960s, King career was past its peak. Joel Selvin with the San Francisco Gate said that:

“At age 42, his career was in decline. He had been on the road ceaselessly since before his “3 O’Clock Blues” was a No. 1 R&B hit for five weeks in 1952, after being released the year before — although the onetime Mississippi farmhand long maintained a residence in Las Vegas, he always said his home was “anyplace I stay three days” — but the natural constituency for his music was older black audiences. Soul power was the now sound, and blues was a reminder of bad old days, conks and Jim Crow. His popularity had steadily eroded in the black community.”

The eroding of King’s popularity was happening because Blues music was itself eroding in the Black Community in favor of the music of Motown and Soul. But what saved King’s career was what started happening in the 1960s: English white musicians began to take notice of King’s style of blues. Musicians such as Eric Clapton found inspiration from King’s style and created their own music based on what they heard. This style of blues was well enjoyed amongst the Rock musicians who found inspiration from King and began to use it in their own music. “He never received full recognition until the late Sixties, when British rock musicians began to appreciate his music,” said Elaine Lipworth with Independent. This explains what lead the infamous show at Fillmore in San Francisco. In 1967, King was booked for a show at the venue with The Steve Miller Band. He was put on the show by concert promoter Bill Graham, only after being encouraged to by white guitarist Mike Bloomfield. The audience for this show was filled with young white “hippies”, and king reportedly said “I need a drink of scotch” when he saw the crowdThis was the initial effects of cultural appropriation to B.B King’s music in particular after years of white musicians mimicking the great musicians of the blues for their own music. images

While some might debate if Whites can sing the Blues, it is important to understand where the Blues came from. It was formed out of the history of African American culture and struggle. Blues musicians express their pain and the pain of their ancestors in their music. “It’s generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music.” The genre itself is rich with African American history, which details the issues of cultural appropriation. White musicians began to take from the culture of Blues for their own music and especially without the shared experiences of the history and culture that created it, and then greatly benefited from it. This was especially clear in the case of Elvis Presley and the song “Hound Dog”. With this tune, Presley benefited immensely from the song with fame and fortune, as the album sold more than three million copies. However, the song was first performed by Blues musician Big Momma Thorton in 1952. Thornton did not receive anywhere near the same accolades that Presley did for the song he appropriated from her. With Elvis singing the song, it really doesn’t make much sense content-wise. The original version of “Hound Dog” done by Thoroton was a true blues song with deep meanings in the lyrics. Briahna Joy Gray With Current Affairs said that“she tells off the low-down guy who keeps “snooping round her door.” It’s a declaration of independence by a woman who is sick and tired of having a “hound dog” of a man take her for granted”. But with Presley version, it was adopted in order to fit for a pop audience and completely lost the meaning of the song (it became about an actual Hound Dog). This song practically made Presley’s career, even after he drained it of its meaning and cultural messages that came with it. This highlights the two main issues along with cultural appropriation. When it is done, especially with a historically Black music genre with cultural implications, the deeper meanings of the song are lost, and the traditional influences of where blues music came from are forgotten through this process. At the same time, the white musicians who “adopt” the music essential exploit the labor of the Blues musicians who inspired them.

With B.B Kings case, it may be true that the embrace of white musicians and audience gave his career a boost, but King himself acknowledged the effects of cultural appropriation.“I’m not white, I’m a black guy. White groups from England, they’re going to get played and people are going to look to them before me. They have all the radio and TV stations, something people like me have never had access to.” King said in an interview with Independent. The cultural appropriation itself was having an effect on African American labor. The music that grew in the Mississippi Delta area was now being adopted by white musicians who were seeing great fame, chart success, and wealth from it. Black Blues musicians such as Big Momma Thornton didn’t find themselves in the spotlight, or such as in B.B King’s career, found themselves performing for an entirely different audience.  

About 12 minutes into the show at the Royal Albert, King was doing what he does best. With the band playing in the background, King announced he would have multiple guests on stage with him that night, making jokes all along the way. Even in old age, he had a mastery of his art. Before King invited his first guest on stage with him, he played a selection of passionate Blues tunes, and then introduced the song See That My Grave is Kept Clean with a story of the origin of the song. King told the crowd about how T-Bone Burnett who wrote the song for King just two years earlier. King joked to the crowd “Why did he wait until I got to be 84 to tell me about keeping some graves clean?” However, King was still making plenty of music late into his career, including his final album in 2008 One Kind Favor. 71f22ngaa9L._SX355_.jpg

One of his notable later works was the album he did with guitarist Eric Clapton called Riding with The King in 2000. The album won a Grammy in that same year, and both Clapton and King saw great recognition for the album. Interestingly, in this case, was Eric Clapton, who was another one of the white musicians who was inspired by the music of King and other blues musicians. Clapton wrote in his autobiography that King was “without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced.” However, Clapton wasn’t separate from the issues of cultural appropriation. Clapton constructed and spent a lot of time in his career trying to “perfect the performance stylings and musical arrangements of artists such as Freddy King, Robert Johnson, and Lowell Fulson.”But in regards to cultural appropriation, it is not just about taking things from a culture that isn’t your own, it is also about not appreciating or understand the culture that one is taking it from. In music especially, shared ideas and styles are common. But knowing about Clapton interesting past behavior, it would be a stretch to say he understood the cultural significance of the music he was influenced by. It is hard to forget the behavior of Clapton back in the 1970s when made the comment about Britain becoming “A black colony” and his endorsement of controversial British politician Enoch Powell.20 What is also relevant was Clapton’s claims to Blues legitimacy. Ulrich Adelt with the University of Iowa says that:

“Apart from his parents abandoning him as a child, Clapton has given other
reasons to authenticate his claim to be a blues musician. They underline his narcissistic
conception of the genre: what “gave” him the blues were his heroin and alcohol
addictions and his difficulties with romantic relationships, most notably his highly
publicized “secret” courtship of the former wife of Clapton’s friend and colleague George
Harrison, Pattie Boyd.”


Clapton simply did not understand what The Blues in cultural terms, which falls under the concept of cultural appropriation of taking something from a cultural, and not understanding it. of course, Clapton benefited immensely from his music both economically and with fame. He even created a trio band, Cream, based off a Buddy Guy show he saw back in London, England, which only added to his musical accolades. To Clapton’s credit, he did (at least) give acknowledgment to the Blues musicians that he took from. The situation was worse with other English groups and musicians. Led Zeppelin has a long track record of plagiarism lawsuits and evidence of cultural appropriation. Such as with the song “When The Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie was included on the band’s fourth album, but without the credit for Memphis Minnie as the originator of the song. By doing this, the song became synonymous with Led Zeppelin, and Memphis Minnie is relatively unknown. With the song “Hats off to Harper” the band pieced together parts from multiple blues songs, including “Shake ‘Em on Down” by Bukka White but just listed the song as “Traditional”. According to Nsenga Burton with The Root, former frontman of Led Zeppelin said that “[British people] didn’t really have the musical knowledge as you guys have [in America],” said Plant. “So we tapped as much American ‘spook music’ as we could — as much blues — mixed it up, and nobody liked it. But the feeling of freedom was fantastic.” Along with admitting to the obvious of tapping into American Blues music, Plant also showed a degree of ignorance to Black music history by using the term “spook music”, a derogatory term for black music, when speaking about the subject. The trend seems to be that white British musicians have a history of taking part in the practice of cultural appropriation, including The Beatles who “swiped elements from musicians ranging from Chuck Berry to Pee Wee Crayton, but were usually careful to disguise the source.” However, through all of this, these groups came out with labels such as “greatest of all time” and had limited consequences for the appropriation of Black music and labor. B.B King was caught in a different outcome than some of his predecessors and other musicians during this time of cultural appropriation. It isn’t necessarily that he “adapted” to fit the growing white audiences, but that these new white fans found something in his music that they enjoyed, and overwhelmingly embraced it (Much like the white musicians of the time). Ulrich Adelt said that “white audiences of blues were beginning to demand an older and “safer” conceptualization of blackness at the exact moment when calls for “black power” were becoming imminent. This process left “black” performers like B.B. King trapped in a place where they were economically rewarded for making music that catered to a nostalgic consumption of blackness”. After King was embraced by this new audience, he developed a new outline for his career which drifted farther from the traditional ideas of what the Blues music was. The goal now was to reach as many people as he could and to play to the best of his ability and led to him playing internationally in Europe and Asia and live television performances. While some may find shame in King for shifting into this new audience and mindset, capitalizing on his mobility within in music market paid dividends in saving his career, added to his musical longevity and was a precursor to the show at the Royal Albert all the way in 2011. 220px-Claptonridingwiththeking

About an hour into the show, King was joined by all of his guest on stage. This included Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones, Mick Hucknall, and Slash of Guns n’ Roses. They all sat in chairs center stage with King in the middle, and begin to perform the hit song “The Thrill Is Gone”. The scene was one of comfort, unlike many music shows that are seen today (besides Ronnie Wood moving all around in his chair while playing). Hucknall sang the second verse and made sure to try and sing it like he was a bluesman himself, adding in the head gestures and everything. King said mid-song “out of all the records I’ve made, over 5000, I never made one that was called a “Hit” but this one we’re trying to do now.” “The Thrill is Gone” was an iconic song for King, but it also was one of the final pieces in the crossover of his career that gave him so much commercial success. Cultural Appropriation of blues music is an unfortunate reality, and when it is happening it always affects black cultural and labor to a certain degree. With Big Mamma Throtan and Memphis Minnie, it meant that whites were using their art and labor for their own success, while they received little to no recognition for it.  For B.B King, it meant an entire career shift, and a completely different market to sing too. Whether saying that King lost his roots, or lost cultural significance with doing this or not is subjective. However, it is more likely to say King was caught into a time of rampant appropriation and successfully navigated it in order to keep performing, which is the goal of pretty much any musician. King ended the show with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and receiving a well deserved thunderous applause for his performance. For himself and the audience, it was a wonderful night of music. But for other musicians who suffered from the effects of cultural appropriation and all the stories in the songs that were forgotten when they were white-washed, perhaps the thrill is gone.


Watch the full performance here; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5_j91FjsXM 



“B.B. King.” BB King King of the Blues. Accessed December 1, 2018. http://www.bbking.com/2012/03/12/b-b-king-live-at-the-royal-albert-hall-2011/.

“B.B. King.” BB King King of the Blues Comments. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://www.bbking.com/bio/.

Burton, Nsenga. “Led Zeppelin Front Man ‘Spooked’ by Black Music.” The Root. January 12, 2017. Accessed December 6, 2018. https://www.theroot.com/led-zeppelin-front-man-spooked-by-black-music-1790881017.


Chilton, Martin. “Hound Dog: 10 Facts about Elvis Presley’s Hit Song.” The Telegraph. August 23, 2011. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/music-news/8718491/Hound-Dog-10-facts-about-Elvis-Presleys-hit-song.html.


Clarke, Donald. “Eric Clapton Opens up – Even on His Bizarre Racist Period.” The Irish Times. December 28, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/eric-clapton-opens-up-even-on-his-bizarre-racist-period-1.3327327.


Edwards, Gavin. “Led Zeppelin’s 10 Boldest Rip-Offs.” Rolling Stone. June 25, 2018. Accessed December 6, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/led-zeppelins-10-boldest-rip-offs-223419/.


Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. “One Kind Favor – B.B. King | Songs, Reviews, Credits.” AllMusic. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.allmusic.com/album/one-kind-favor-mw0000794719.


Goodwin, Mitch. “Friday Essay: The Art of the Pinch – Popular Music and Appropriation.” The Conversation. December 06, 2018. Accessed December 4, 2018. https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-art-of-the-pinch-popular-music-and-appropriation-86919.


Gray, Briahna Joy. “The Question of Cultural Appropriation.” Current Affairs. Accessed December 1, 2018. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/09/the-question-of-cultural-appropriation.


Kopp, Ed. “A Brief History of the Blues.” All About Jazz. August 16, 2005. Accessed December 2, 2018. https://www.allaboutjazz.com/a-brief-history-of-the-blues-by-ed-kopp.php.


Kreps, Daniel. “Eric Clapton Pays Tribute to B.B. King: ‘He Was a Beacon’.” Rolling Stone. June 25, 2018. Accessed December 2, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/eric-clapton-pays-tribute-to-b-b-king-he-was-a-beacon-42958/.


Lewis, Randy. “Blues Legend B.B. King, Inspiration to Generations of Musicians, Dies at 89.” Los Angeles Times. May 15, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-b-b-king-20150515-story.html.


Lipworth, Elaine. “BB King: In the Court of the King.” The Independent. April 01, 2009. Accessed December 1, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/bb-king-in-the-court-of-the-king-6105280.html.


Page, Clarence. “How White Fans Saved B.B. King’s Blues.” Chicago Tribune. May 16, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-bb-king-blues-page-perspec-0504-20150515-column.html.


Ruhlmann, William. “Riding with the King – B.B. King, Eric Clapton | Songs, Reviews, Credits.” AllMusic. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://www.allmusic.com/album/riding-with-the-king-mw0000066846.


Selvin, Joel. “A Night at the Fillmore Changed B.B. King’s Career Forever.” SFGate. May 17, 2015. Accessed December 1, 2018. https://www.sfgate.com/music/article/Music-A-night-at-the-Fillmore-changed-B-B-6266457.php.


Blog Post 3: Mayfield, Coltrane, and the Music of the Movement.

In 1963, America was in the height of the Civil Rights Movement. On August 28th of that year, the infamous March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom occurred. But less than a month later, white supremacist bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama. The attack killed four young women and sparked outrage. One of the people emotionally affected by this was a Jazz saxophonist named John Coltrane, who wrote the song “Alabama” just two months later. image001This is just one example of how The Civil Rights Movement and music shared a bond with each other. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, musicians were apart of and/or influenced by the essences and events of the Civil Rights Movement. Musicians made songs about perseverance, events, and triumphs of the fight for racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr said that “if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.” In this post, we will be looking into the musicians Curtis Mayfield and John Coltrane, and how the fight for civil rights inspired them, was aided by them, or both.

Curtis Mayfield is considered to be one of the essential musicians of the Civil Rights Movement. Starting out as a teenager, Mayfield played with a band called The Roosters, who later came to be known as the Impressions. Most of their songs were love songs, including their first hit For Your Precious Love in 1958. But in the 1960s, Mayfield became the lead singer of The Impressions, and the content of their hits songs changed. Mayfield began creating music that

Curtis Mayfield

reflected the Civil Rights movement, and in turn, sent a message of strength to the people of the movement. In 1964, Mayfield and the Impressions released the song “Keep On Pushing” less than a year after The March on Washington. It was immensely popular and inspiring among the Freedom Riders. Students at Howard University sang the song while protesting for better treatment and more courses on African American History. One of the verses in the song goes as follows:

Now maybe someday

I’ll reach that higher goal

I know I can make it

With just a little bit of soul

‘Cause I’ve got my strength

And it don’t make sense

Not to keep on pushing

The song was about not giving up, pushing onward, and was inspiring to people of the Civil Rights Movement. So much to where Martin Luther King Jr named it “the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement” as for the song encompasses the idea of the fight, and why they should continue to fight. Mayfield released numerous songs that inspired the people of the movement, such as “We’re a Winner” and “People Get Ready”.  

John Coltrane was a Jazz Saxophonist during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although for much of his musical career he wasn’t very political in his music, there were instances of Coltrane showing inspiration from the political discourse of the time. Such as his song “Alabama” which was inspired by the church bombing in Birmingham, 1963. This song is somber, where Coltrane is expressing his emotions of the event through his music. With the slow tempo, long solos, and minor key, the song has a sad sound that reflects how people were

John Coltrane

feeling about the attack on the church. “Coltrane was inspired by Martin Luther King’s speech, delivered in the church sanctuary three days after the bombing, and patterned his saxophone playing on it. Like the speech, “Alabama” shifts its tone from one of mourning to one of renewed determination for the struggle against racially motivated crimes.” (Micucci, 2016) However, Coltrane became much more political in the last few years of his career and life. An example of this was the song “Reverend King”, which he made with his wife in 1966. This song was used to make a statement about the thoughts towards Martin Luther King Jr and the growing displeasure of his nonviolent approaches at the time. Coltrane also performed at anti-war rallies and Civil Rights events before his death in 1967.

DkfKg8NXcAAv6GTMusic and the Civil Rights Movement share a bond with each other. Musicians were inspired by the cause and the movement when making their music, and that music was used inversely to inspire the people of the movement. This symbiotic relationship is seen in the music of Curtis Mayfield, John Coltrane, and various other musicians of the time. Musicians used their songs and platforms to fire up the people of the movement, and in some case help those in need. Such as Aretha Franklin and her social activism. Her hit song “Respect” was already acclaimed as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement when she offered to bail activist Angela Davis out of jail, saying “Black people will be free”. The musicians of the movement stand the test of time for their talent, inspirations, and messages through song in the fight for rights.





“Biography.” JOHN COLTRANE. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.johncoltrane.com/biography.


“Civil Rights.” Curtis Mayfield. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.curtismayfield.com/civil-rights.html.


Curiel, Jonathan. “Coltrane and MLK Changed America / Both Became Activists Who Stirred Our Souls.” SFGate. January 21, 2012. Accessed November 02, 2018. https://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Coltrane-and-MLK-changed-America-Both-became-2654965.php.


Micucci, Matt. “Nov. 18, 1963…John Coltrane Records “Alabama”.” JAZZIZ Magazine. November 18, 2016. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.jazziz.com/nov-18-1963-john-coltrane-records-alabama/.


Morrison, Nick. “Songs Of The Civil Rights Movement.” NPR. January 18, 2010. Accessed November 02, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/99315652/songs-of-the-civil-rights-movement.


Scruggs, Afi-Odelia. “In 1968, Curtis Mayfield Was the Voice of Victory for Civil Rights.” USA Today. February 23, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/nation-now/2018/02/22/black-history-curtis-mayfield-voice-civil-rights/1005396001/.


Staff, Independent. “How Aretha Franklin Offered to Post Bail for Angela Davis, Saying: ‘Black People Will Be Free’.” The Independent. August 16, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/aretha-franklin-angela-davis-bail-activism-civil-rights-a8495206.html.


Staff, Legacy. “Curtis Mayfield: The Sound of Civil Rights.” Legacy.com. December 25, 2015. Accessed November 02, 2018. http://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/article/curtis-mayfield-the-sound-of-civil-rights.


“The Story behind Alabama, by John Coltrane.” The Music Aficionado. October 01, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://musicaficionado.blog/2016/04/14/alabama-by-john-coltrane/.


Blog Post 2: Blues, Jazz, and the role of Race And Gender for Black Female Musicians.

Musicians of any background are influenced and inspired by a variety of factors when creating, and performing their work. Angela Davis argues, for African Americans, that music has been used to encompass the collective social consciousness of Black Americans. She says “Throughout the history of the African presence in America, song and dance have informed the collective consciousness of the Black community in vital and enduring ways” . This suggests that Black musicians overtime used their labor in music to explain and express the ideas of the African American community in a volatile society. In her essay  “Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle” Davis explains that Black women used music to develop and express the social consciousness of their community, and she also explains how early black female musicians were influenced by a variety of social factors in the making of their music. However, some black female musicians had to overcome the stereotypes of their gender and the barriers against their race in order to achieve success as musicians.

In this post, we will be exploring the role that race and gender played in music. The primary focus will be on women musicians of early blues music, and jazz music, the influences they had, and the stereotypes they had to overcome. The musicians that will be present are blues musician Ma Rainey, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and jazz trombonist Melba Liston.

Blues musicians in the reconstruction (and post-reconstruction) era are a good example of freed Blacks expressing their ideas, frustrations, and feelings in an overtly oppressive society. Angela Davis explains how during racial slavery, Blacks used music and song to “preserve their ethnic heritage” and expressed “their desire to transform their collective predicament” . However, during the recent times after the end of slavery, Black musicians developed music that served the same purpose of reflecting the collective social conscious, but with new subjects that reflected the new struggles and problems found in these times. With this, Black women expressed some of these ideas through the blues music. For example: Blues musician Ma Rainey in her song “Trust no man” relates back to an idea of self reliance that developed in the collective consciousness of women slaves. This idea was important because it breaks away from the social norm developed by white society that women had a duty to find a good man, rather than be independent. I argue that a part of this idea is related to the lack of separation in labor that black men and women experienced during and after slavery.  While explaining  why there isn’t a large amount of gender distinctions in early black spiritual music, Davis makes the point that there was a lack of division between men and women with the labor they were made to take on during slavery. Although women were forced to perform unique tasks different from men, Davis argues that “…the overall predicament was not qualitatively differentiated from that of their brothers, fathers, sons, and husbands”.

Ma Rainey’s “trust no man” challenges the social construction white society developed for women at the time, but also wasn’t necessarily anti men.  Angela Davis argues that the ideology behind this music wasn’t directed towards the flaws of black men, rather a need for black women to form their own “economic and psychological independence”. This independence that women were forming drew a distinction from the gender roles of their white counterparts within their communities, and Ma Rainey used her music to make this point.

(Ma Rainey)

In other music genres, such as Jazz, it was a different reality for musicians. In Jazz music, gender stereotypes and sexism were prevalent. Katherine Soules makes the argument that  “The swing era and jazz began to emerge in full force from the blues tradition, establishing a voice for the black community that had existed on the fringes of society” . However, she also makes the argument that the Jazz community was dominated by men, and that Black women musicians were subjected to sexism, racial discrimination and stereotypes. 

An example of this is the case of Mary Lou Williams. Soules says that “Race and gender combined to make life as a composer difficult for Mary Lou. Not only was Mary Lou Williams a woman, but she was a black woman, and black women in the first part of the twentieth century were not afforded many rights” . Some of the issues she faced first as a Black musicians were segregation, which included musical unions . Although Williams made strides in overcoming social barriers against women, such as not dressing like a man on stage, or being hired into a band more “marketing purposes” , she was said to “play the piano heavy like a man” . The argument here is that in order for a woman musician to be successful in jazz at this time, she either needed to, how I would say, look the part for marketing purposes, or their style would have to be one of a man. Other musicians, like trombonist Melba Liston, faced similar issues. Emmett G. Price III says that Liston wasn’t paid the male counterparts in bands she played in, and was also denied musical and career opportunities. Additionally, Liston had to overcome the power structure that was an inherent part of jazz. Tammy L. Kernodle argues that in jazz music at the time, the role for a “woman” was not in the space of the man and his work. Her role in this power structure was outside of the process and his defined spaces, but as a supportive role to the man. But when a woman entered these spaces, she then became defined as a “bitch”, thus stigmatizing her move into the jazz culture. This is something that Liston had to navigate, especially when she was a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

Mary Lou Williams
(Mary Lou Williams)
(Melba Liston)

The role of how race and gender played certainly affected how Black Musicians, women in particular, found inspiration for their songs, and the path that they had to take for their success. While both Williams and Liston faced challenges based on their race, gender, or both; both overcame the barriers they face and are renowned musicians in their own right. Liston is described by Price III as a “renaissance women” and also says that she: “ utilized her own internal challenges as well as the pain and suffering of her people as muse, meaning, and manuscript for her artistic endeavors” . Female Black Musicians such as the ones mentioned in this post have a rich and unique history. From examples of expressing the social consciousness of their community in their music, to overcoming gender barriers in a male dominated music world, these musicians certainly accomplished amazing things within their work.

Reference List

Kernodle, T. (2014). Black Women Working Together: Jazz, Gender, and the Politics of Validation. Black Music Research Journal, 34(1), 27-55. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0027

Davis, A. (2001).  “Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle”. In Black Feminist Cultural Criticism(pp. 217-232). Malden, Mass: Blackwell.

Soules, K. (2011). “Playing Like a Man”: The Struggle of Black Women in Jazz and the Feminist Movement. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.cedarville.edu/music_and_worship_ba_capstone/2/

Price, E. (2014). Melba Liston: “Renaissance Woman”. Black Music Research Journal, 34(1), 159-168. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0159

Blog post 1: How the racist ideology that developed from racial slavery shaped how black musicians were viewed and treated.

After the end of legal institutional slavery in the United States, It would be a fair assumption that newly freed slaves would find themselves segregated culturally, and economically from whites. During the Reconstruction Era and after the freedoms that Blacks achieved were being suppressed by a prevailing prejudice and violence by white society, and by white governments legally. This being done through laws known as Black Codes, and later with Jim Crow laws starting around the 1890’s. In short, this prevailing prejudice allowed for racist ideologies to affect educational, political, and employment opportunities for blacks

In regards to employment, It can be easily assumed that the prevailing racial prejudice from whites had an effect on how Black workers were perceived and treated. However, it is also true that in some professions, these effects were not as severe. In music, there was a degree of cultural “interaction” between whites and blacks. In these cases, there is evidence showing that musicians were exchanging ideas, instruments, and styles with each other regardless of race, and people were consuming music of the time regardless of the race of the musician. Unfortunately, music wasn’t immune to the effects of racism, although, it is perhaps manifested in a different way than other vocations. In fact, in the modern music industry, racial stereotypes still are having an effect on black musicians. In this post, we are going to be exploring how the racism that formed from slavery how black musicians were treated and perceived in latter years after slavery, and more modern times.

Ma Rainey (center) and her band, 1923.

What is interesting about music as an occupation for Blacks, when compared to other occupations, was affected by the racist ideology that formed from racial slavery in different, perhaps subtle ways. Although it wasn’t immune to easily seen racial prejudice (as for it was common for whites to perform for whites and blacks to perform for blacks) there are common instances of African American groups performing for all white or predominantly white audiences, The question to answer in this is: why was social interaction not as hindered by the racial prejudice in the same way? It may have been because of what content was being performed. Consistently, the music that Blacks performed for white audiences were in fact, white songs. Patton and The Sheiks, which was an African American musical group in the early 20th century, would adapt their performances for their audience. If their audience was predominantly white, they would before less “ragtime” or “blues” style music, in favor of traditional white music. What this says is that the reason that music was presumably less affected by the racist ideology (in regards to consumption by whites and performances) is that it actually was, but in a different way. It seems that if black musicians during the time understood that if they wanted to perform for a white audience, in most cases they had to perform white music, and not black music, or even their original music. This was true for other blues musicians such as Luke Jordan and Brown Pollard, who would play white songs like “Mississippi Sawyer” when playing for a white audience.

Luke Jordan, (1940’s)

What is important to acknowledge about this musical adaptation is that although it isn’t as blatant example of the racial ideology at play (when compared to other examples in employment) it is still one that has lasting effects. It is likely that the reason early black musicians were doing this adaptation with music because shows that came with a majority white audience came with the larger pay. To reference Patton and The Sheiks, their shows for white audiences, where they performed a favorable white show, was for a time their largest source of income. But while this is true, it demonstrates that these musical acts knew that the traditional music being performed by African Americans were not going to be enjoyed by the white audience. The types of music that were formed and inspired either from slavery, or African tradition such as “blues” weren’t preformed perhaps because they wouldn’t be welcomed by the higher paying audience of the time. To summarize the point, it seems that black musicians had to “europeanize” themselves to gain a positive reception to these audiences, rather than be successful with their originality.

Beyoncé (2013)

While it is true that overtime this has changed, for example in the civil rights movement with artist such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield who performed “soul songs expressing notions of black power” (Adelt, 23, 2007),the effects of this can still be seen today. Where it is most apparent is in modern perceptions of black music. One case occurs with music award shows. With the Grammy awards, black musicians lose in mainstream categories at a very high rate. Beyoncé, for example, has the most Grammy nomination among women performers in history, with 62 nominations, and yet only has won 22 times, and 18 of those wins are not in mainstream categories. “Only three black women have ever won the award for album of the year. It has been handed out 59 times” (Vilanova, 2017). This is signifying that in modern times, black musicians are no longer adapting their music for a white audience, but the effects of a racist ideology are holding back the recognition of their art and labor. Going back a few years in 2015, Beyoncé again lost the Grammy award for best album to a white artist, Beck. However, in this case, fans of Beck criticized multiple aspects of Beyoncé’s music. According to John Vilanova: “Beck’s defenders criticized her lyrics, production team, and instrument credits. The subtext: The highly produced music Beyoncé puts out is both unsophisticated (read: too black) and somehow less her own.” (Vilanova, 2017)

Music is a unique form a labor, as for it can serve the purpose of culture building, social activism, and entertainment, as well as serving as a form of income. But the prevailing ideology of racism that formed under racial slavery has had an effect on how black musicians have been perceived and treated. Black musicians had to adapt their performances, or risk not performing to higher paying shows. In today’s music industry, Black performers who are no longer adapting their music or performances are not receiving the recognition they deserve, and are, unjustly, still being seen as second best to their white counterparts.

Reference List:

Lab, Digital Scholarship. “The History Engine.” History Engine: Tools for Collaborative Education and Research | Episodes. Accessed October 06, 2018. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4038.
“Life after Slavery for African Americans.” Khan Academy. Accessed October 06, 2018. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/civil-war-era/reconstruction/a/life-after-slavery.
Otto, John, and Augustus Burns. “Black and White Cultural Interaction in the Early Twentieth Century South: Race and Hillbilly Music.” Jstor: Wayne State University Libraries. Accessed October 06, 2018. https://www-jstor-org.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/stable/274743?read-now=1#page_scan_tab_contents&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
Vilanova, John. “Beyoncé’s Grammy Snub and the Glass Ceiling on Black Art.” Los Angeles Times. February 13, 2017. Accessed October 06, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-vilanova-grammys-beyonce-adele-glass-ceiling-20170118-story.html.
Adelt, Ulrich. “Black, white and blue: racial politics of blues music in the 1960s.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of
Iowa, 2007.


Why I am here

Music has the power to do many things. From smaller things such as bring a smile to our faces and make us feel happy, to much larger subjects such as bring attention to important social issues, social activism, and help define the aspects of a culture. In this website, I want to take a deeper look into the history of African American music, and attempt to answer historical questions in regards to it. I hope to create a serious historical analysis of various African American music, and learn something myself along the way.