Jimi Hendrix made a lasting impact on the rock music scene of the late 1960’s. He revolutionized the way key elements of the genre, like the electric guitar, were played but also how they were understood.1 Despite his short life and even shorter career, the impression he created on American music and culture is palpable even today. You can see him on t-shirts, skateboards, and every throwback playlist on Spotify. His voice, image, and identity are something people gravitated towards during the late ’60’s and early 70’s, just as they do now.
Trap Skateboard Company advertisement influenced by a famous Jimi Hendrix portrait
As a black man he stood out against his white peers, like Jim Morrison, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Many believe that his exceptional musical performances stood out because of the uniqueness as his position as a black man. Though there is a great amount of evidence to support this I contend that his significant musical abilities and his position as a powerful black man worked in tandem to elevate his position as an influential black musician. His race was something deeply rooted in his music and his career. Though he catered to mostly white audiences at his more popular venues, like Woodstock, he continually made attempts to perform to black audiences as well. 2 The pain and power that went into his music was also something that was deeply influenced by his identity and his experiences. His first songwriting success, “Stone Free” talks about breaking free of societal pressures, which for him would have included the oppression he faced due to racial prejudice and backlash.
Jimi Hendrix poster housed in the National Portrait Gallery
The elements of his music that stemmed from his personal life are what made his music so unique. The creative elements of his music encouraged freedom and persistence but, in contrast, the pressure of the music industry ended up being Hendrix’s tipping point. He died from side effects of his drug use.3 His influence in the music industry lives beyond him and he will forever be remembered as one of the most influential black musicians ever.
Though her rein took place during the 1920’s the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, is still a household name.1 Blues queens, like Bessie Smith, had a huge impact on the music scene of the time but they also made considerable contributions to the cultural environment of the time. Their songs, often times characterized by their themes of love and loss, talked about the struggles of being a black woman and the consequences of the cross section between race, gender, and class. One example of this is Bessie Smith’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find” which talks about a cheating husband but also the difficulty of leaving a relationship due to outside forces.
The authenticity of the stories within blues queens’ music is something that has been continually questioned.2 The success of these women put them in the spotlight and made them someone to critique as well as a figure to look up to. This popularity is exhibited through the numerous radio spots, advertisements for sold out performances, and music endorsements, like the one below.3
“Chirpin’ the Blues” sheet music with endorsement by Bessie Smith
Though the music was the main event of a Blues queen’s career, if the authenticity of their music and the narrative surrounding them was questioned then they could lose support and ultimately those gigs would go away. This is not a singular issue, though, rather it is a societal issue rooted in sexism and racism. Bessie Smith is not exempt from this kind of critique.4 She was very rich and very famous, and sometimes its hard to think that a figure like that could experience things like cheating, addiction, or poverty. Bessie Smith was not exempt from critique but she was a much more complicated woman than met the eye. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Bessie Smith sings about a rather specific situation in which a man cheats on a woman and the woman wishes she could go back in time and fix the situation. Bessie Smith may, or may not have experienced this specific situation but she did experience love and loss, and could relate to the feelings exhibited in the song. Her parents passed away when she was very young and she supported herself by singing on street corners. She was married twice, the first marriage ending in the death of her husband and the second ending in a painful divorce.5 In Bessie Smith’s case, her music is a reflection of her experiences. There are a lot of scenarios in her songs that she may not have lived through but she experienced the kind of pain and loss that permeated many of them. Ultimately, bringing attention to these experiences and showing the resilience and ingenuity of women she should be lauded as a feminist and a positive role model.
1 Lordi, Emily J.. Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
2 Suisman, David. “Was Bessie Smith a feminist?.” Souls, vol. 1 iss. 1, 1999.
3 Austin, Lovie adn Alberta Hunter. “Chripin’ the Blues.” New York: Jack Mills, Inc, 1923.
4 Blackwell, Amy Hackney. “Ma Rainey.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
5 “Bessie Smith.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
1865 was one of the biggest years in the history of the United States of America. The end of the American Civil War was fast approaching and the 13th amendment was ratified early that year. Celebrations, both public and private, erupted all over the country. With these celebrations came some historic national firsts. One particular first came in a religious celebration that took place in the Capitol soon after the completion of the 13th Amendment. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet was invited by The Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Reverend William H. Channing to speak and perform religious ceremonies to honor this historic moment. 1
Rev. H. H. Garnet
It was not only the first time that an African American preacher had performed a religious ceremony in the Capitol but, according to public letters, it was also the first time a black man had spoken there. 2 The significance of this event was not lost on Washington residents and both white and black men came to hear him speak. To further the momentous occasion congregants of the local black Methodist church, joined by a variety of members of nearby white churches, sang for the occasion. This interracial choir showcased both an ideological and political commitment to the expansion of rights for African Americans.
Article reflecting on Rev. Garnett’s appearance in the Capitol
Spirituals are such an integral part of the African American experience, in many cases they represent hope and strength in times of strife. 3 It’s fitting that they would be included in such a historically important moment. The combination of politics, religion, and music symbolize the progressive and creative changes happening in the United States at this time. This celebration is ultimately representative of how music and ceremony can provide an outlet for people to come together and represent the multi-faceted nature of change. This moment in time shows how music can help to bring people together and how it can provide a platform for the celebration of progress.
As long as the entertainment industry has sought to reach the masses it has caused controversy. Minstrel shows, the first form of mass entertainment in the United States,1 is one of the most prolific examples of this. Minstrelsy relied heavily on songs and dances performed in blackface, the act of covering one’s face in burnt cork to give the illusion that the actor or actress is black themselves. Characters that were in blackface were played as caricatures of stereotypes in the African American community.
Thomas Rice as the original Jim Crow
These performances not only relied on racist notions of identity but also gendered ones. White male performers could experiment with identity and commodify it by playing on the entertainment quality of challenging racial and gendered notions of identity.2Thomas Rice, the actor who created the Jim Crow character, is one example of these performers.3 The Jim Crow character was modeled as a former slave who wished to return to the way things had been during the antebellum years. During and after reconstruction real, living, breathing black American men lived in fear and persecution due to racist beliefs that created a scary and wild image of them. Minstrel shows furthered these images by showcasing them as stupid and brutish. The Jim Crow character was an emasculating and oftentimes pitiful version of the African American man.4 This portrayal stood as a stark contrast from the expectations of white men during this time period. A poster from a five person minstrel show shows this contrast. In it you can see through their difference in posture, clothing, and personality the inferiority of their African American characters.
The cover to sheet music for a five part piece designed for a blackface minstrel show
Jokes at the expense of the African American men were the real cherry on top. For example, the Jim Crow character’s wish to return to plantation life also included his desire for the protection of his master. This falsely portrayed wish for domination says more about white men than it does about their black counterparts. It exhibits the racist and sexist values of the United States and the too slow change in societal acceptance. Minstrelsy was a popular and important part of the American entertainment industry. Like many forms of entertainment, though, it helped to fuel the fire of hate a prejudice and that cannot be forgotten.
1 Weiner, Melissa F. “Minstrelsy.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
2 Locke, Joseph. “Blackface.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
3 Burns, James. “Thomas Rice.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
4 Nuruddin, Yusuf. “Jim Crow Racial Stereotypes.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
The concept of “nurture versus nature” is a scientific and ideological question that haunts every single academic field. Not even the immortal and ever changing world of music can escape. In her 2017 IBMA Keynote address bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens notes that the intersection between her biracial identity and love for bluegrass music are just an examples of why it is so important to “celebrate the greater diversity of the people who have shaped the music that is so much a part of [her] identity”. 1 There is a generational thread that exists within bluegrass music that is not simply resigned to Rhiannon Giddens’ story. The Lomax family, a similarly generational act, documented families all across the American South during the late 1930’s, some who are participating in the musical traditions associated with folk and bluegrass music. 2
Bog Trotters Band members seated with instruments, Galax, Va. Includes Doc Davis, with autoharp; Crockett Ward, with fiddle; Uncle Alex Dunford, with fiddle; Wade Ward, with banjo; Fields Ward, with guitar
Music is so often attached to particular aspects of identity, it goes beyond family and represents tradition within an entire line of people. One aspect of the folk musical tradition is the way in which it can, and has, reinforced gender and age roles within a tradition. In many songs there may be particular parts mapped out for different vocal ranges, allowing for mother, father, and children to talk their place within the musical tradition. 3 A slightly more contemporary example that S.W. Mills uses in Bringing the family tradition in bluegrass music to the music classroom, is Johnny Cash’s “Daddy Sang Bass”.
The idea of this broad category of music bringing people together didn’t exist just in communities of white Americans.The racial makeup of these traditions is something explored both by Giddens in her keynote address as well as the Lomax family. Their documentation spanned the gamut, showing musicians in each tradition.
Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson” accompanied by a musician on violin, Lafayette, La.
One thing that connects these two racially divided traditions is the generational role of music, especially folk music. It shows its importance not only in the formation of modern folk music but also its role in the formation of family values. Though documentation (and misuse) is a relatively controversial topic the ability to study such things wouldn’t exist without the resources provided from people like the Lomax family. Ultimately, it’s important to acknowledge the beautiful and meaningful way music brings people together.
Music is a multifaceted art form that intersects with many other forms of expression and has both a creative and cultural importance to many Native American communities. One prolific intersection, especially in Native American cultures, that exists is that of music and dance. In some of the earliest entries from European explorers, their experience with native tribes comes hand in hand with music and dance.1 One of the issues we have talked about in class is the appropriation and misuse of Native American cultural practices. This is not an issue that exists solely in the realms of music and other object-like representations. Within many European cohorts “American” dance was seen as something exotic, a form of entertainment that was both culturally intangible to them yet consistently available for general consumption.2 Unlike with Native American songs the technology to record the movement of dance was not widely used until the 1950’s. This meant that the visual representations of dance, outside of live performances, was concentrated in the lens of photographers.
Emma B. Freeman was a popular American photographer during the late 1910’s.
Emma B. Freeman was one such photographer. Freeman’s work concentrated on stylized portraits of indigenous people, culture, and fashion. She was a relatively controversial artist in that she was not always consistent in her portrayal of specific tribes and groups of people.3 She would accidentally mix, match, and generalize certain aspects of the tribes she was studying. Music and dance were both subjects she played with at times, documenting ceremonial dancers lined up before a dance. She also introduced musical instruments into the portraits of unmoving patrons.
Dancers from the Hoopa tribe.
Members of the Klamath tribe preparing for the white deer skin dance.
Emma B. Freemen’s style idealized the Native experience and tokenized their appearance through objectification. This stands as an example of the balance between appropriation and preservation and shows just how complicated the intersection between art and representation can be.
1Music in the USA : A Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick, and Paul Beaudoin, Oxford University Press, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/stolaf-ebooks/detail.action?docID=415567.
2Haines, John. 2012. “The Earliest European Responses to Dancing in the Americas.” U.S. Catholic Historian 30, no. 4: 1-20. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost.
3 Clark, Gus. 1991. “Emma B. Freeman: photographer romanticized, stylized Native Americans.” Humboldt Historian 39, no. 5: 5-10. America: History and Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost.