The forms of African-American music that began to develop in the 19th Century maintained African roots while responding to the conditions of slavery and racist oppression in the United States. Before the Civil War, black appropriations of Christianity were expressed in the music of spirituals, and after the end of slavery there was secular music which led to the creation of the blues and jazz.  All of these musical forms contain elements of both accommodation and resistance to the hegemony of racism and exploitation in American society. Some scholars have overlooked or dismissed the extent of protest in these musical forms because they are typically indirect or concealed, which was necessary for survival in an environment of racist violence. Only an analysis which expands the parameters of protest and politics can adequately recognize these veiled expressions of resistance. At the most fundamental level, all of these musical forms were resistant simply because they affirmed the dignity and self-worth of black people in a society which defined them as subhuman property.    

Historically, white slaveholders had been ambivalent about the indoctrination and conversion of slaves to Christianity. They hoped that Christianity could instill docility and a justification for slavery, but also feared that its messages about the righteousness of the oppressed could apply to the condition of slaves. Although many slaves embraced Christianity during the first and second phases of the Great Awakening, up until the Civil War most were not part of an established, official church. The forms of Christianity that developed among black slaves were significantly different from those of their white masters, as the theologian James Cone explained: “While white religion taught blacks to look for their reward in heaven through obedience to their white masters on earth, black slaves were in fact carving a new style of earthly freedom.” Rather than a conversion to white Christianity, black people undertook a syncretic conversion of Christianity which was better suited to their social conditions and desires for freedom. Slavery may have controlled the bodies of slaves, but it never completely captured their consciousness or forms of cultural expression:    

White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling their sacred rites. Their intention was define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages. But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure.

The beliefs of black Christianity were most clearly expressed in the musical form of spirituals. These spiritual songs promised that freedom and justice could be delivered in this world, rather than something that would have to wait until the afterlife. The separation between the sacred and the secular had not been relevant to West African culture, as noted earlier, and this division continued to be less pertinent for African-Americans than European-Americans. Spirituals made use of Biblical stories from the Old Testament that glorified God’s liberation of the oppressed from their oppressors; the most ubiquitous example is Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage to the Promised Land in the Book of Exodus. Whereas white Christians obsessed about guilt and sin, black Christians were more concerned with maintaining their hopes for freedom and justice without succumbing to despair. Spirituals were sung in the call-and-response arrangement which demanded collective participation, thus preserving a crucial West African musical practice and adapting it to Christianity. These spirituals which W.E.B. DuBois called “sorrow songs” expressed the collective grief of an oppressed community: “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” At the same time, collective hopes for freedom and justice also persevered and found a voice in the spirituals: “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”


If spirituals were the music of slavery, the blues were the music of Emancipation, Reconstruction, and the frustrated hopes which followed in the age of Jim Crow segregation. Spirituals, as well as work songs, shouts, and field hollers, had addressed the social conditions of slavery and mutual desires for freedom in a call-and-response form of group participation. Work songs were secular forerunners of the blues, setting a pace and rhythm for collective labor on the railroads, in the cotton fields, and other places where black people engaged in hard labor, before and after Emancipation. Like spirituals, work songs and other secular music typically communicated more through allusion and innuendo than explicit description or direct complaint; the tale of the boll weevil, a seemingly indestructible insect that destroyed cotton fields across the South, was filled with symbolic significance. Singing relieved some of the tedium of work, and masters sometimes encouraged it insofar as it enabled people to work harder and longer. The blues, by contrast, developed as an individualized style of musical expression, and its lyrical themes were more evocative of leisure time and personal experience. Some blues songs do reflect on work or the desire to escape work, but in general they touch upon a whole range of experiences and emotions which constitute everyday life.


If the blues were secular music in the sense that spirituals were sacred, the distinction was not absolute. In the words of cultural historian Lawrence Levine, “Like the spirituals of the nineteenth century the blues was a cry for release, an ode to movement and mobility, a blend of despair and hope.” Blues singers represented the personal perspective of an individual, but they articulated thoughts, feelings, and experiences that were commonly shared among their black audiences. The blues became synonymous with a depressed mood, but playing, singing, and dancing were also means of overcoming despair and recovering the will to persevere. Like spirituals, the blues affirmed the value of black lives in a society which systematically dehumanized them. Their main difference from spirituals was that the blues refused to describe these earthly thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the otherworldly metaphors and narratives of syncretic Christianity. Devout black churchgoers frequently condemned the blues as the vulgar, depraved, and dirty music of the Devil, especially for their frank portrayal of sexuality.  Despite the similarities in their depiction of the sorrows and joys of black people, an intractable division developed between the blues as the music of Saturday nights and the spirituals as the music of Sunday mornings. And yet many blues musicians would be greatly influenced by the church music they grew up with—particularly its format of call-and-response and rhythmic participation—even as they secularized its lyrical contents.     


The blues diverged dramatically from spirituals and all other musical forms in their candid accounts of sex, love, and relationships. Although the racist repression which followed Reconstruction effectively destroyed the prospects of economic and political equality for black Americans, Emancipation did create opportunities for sexual freedom that had been unthinkable under slavery. Just as the blues addressed all aspects of everyday life with blunt honesty and realism, their portrayal of sexual relations included common but taboo topics like infidelity, homosexuality, and domestic violence. These themes became especially pronounced when women like Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith came to define the style of “classic blues” during the 1920s. In a spirit of empathy and solidarity, many of their songs offered advice to other women about how to handle their lying, cheating, or abusive men. Again, blues singers were more likely to represent these taboo issues indirectly through metaphor and innuendo: Bessie Smith’s “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” is only the most well-known example. Such depictions were in stark contrast with the romanticism of love, marriage, and domesticity that pervaded other forms of popular music. Indeed, black women who sang the blues sometimes mocked this sentimental, bourgeois notion as an unrealistic fantasy. As Angela Davis wrote, 

[I]t is understandable that the personal and sexual dimensions of freedom acquired an expansive importance, especially since the economic and political components of freedom were largely denied to black people in the aftermath of slavery. The focus on sexual love in blues music was thus quite different in meaning from the prevailing idealization of romantic love in mainstream popular music.


As Emancipation brought an unprecedented degree of sexual agency, it also presented black Americans with new possibilities for movement and travel. Migration became a necessity for many laborers desperate for work, but along with sexuality it also offered a new source of freedom, especially the ability to leave the South.  As Davis explained, “[F]or people of African descent who were emerging from a long history of enslavement and oppression during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sexuality and travel provided the most tangible evidence of freedom.” Northern migration would eventually become associated with disillusionment and frustration, but during the formative years of the blues it still signified the hopes for a better way of life. Travel was mainly a male prerogative, but women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who sang the blues also enjoyed mobility as performers in touring groups. The sounds of movement were directly incorporated into the music of the blues through the mimicry of train whistles and locomotives—what Albert Murray called “railroad onomatopoeia”—as well as frequent lyrical references to “going down the road,” “a poor boy long way from home,” “rambling man,” or “hear my train coming.” With the onset of the Great Migration during World War I, blues musicians began to adopt a new sound which reflected the ruthlessness of an urban environment, as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) observed: 

The blues and blues-oriented jazz of the new city dwellers was harder, crueler, and perhaps even more stoical and hopeless than the earlier forms. It took its life from the rawness and poverty of the grim adventure of ‘big city livin.’…The tenements, organized slums, gin mills, and back-breaking labors in mills, factories, or on the docks had to get into the music somehow.


Sustaining West African tradition while responding to American oppression, the blues became the preeminent musical form of African-Americas. The blues enabled music to mimic the emotions expressed through the human voice, particularly in the use of flattened notes that became known as blue notes. These blue notes are played or sung at a pitch lower than their corresponding notes on the diatonic scale standardized by Europeans. At the beginning of the twentieth century, jazz developed as an instrumental form of the blues. Jazz musicians utilized brass instruments and drew influence from marching bands, but here again they played with a unique style that was arranged in syncopated rhythms and imitated the expressive sounds of human voices in a call-and-response dialogue. Jazz also maintained and expanded the improvisational quality that characterized numerous forms of music descended from Africa. Like the blues, jazz made use of spirituals and church music, but musicians played in a rough or “dirty” style that frequently led them to be denounced by the religiously devout. In short, “The jazz treatment of the musical instrument strikes listeners…as harsh or strident. Yet this feeling of harshness or roughness is basic to the expressive quality of jazz.” The blues originated in the countryside of the rural South, taking on a new style and sound as the music accompanied the migration of black Americans to the North and its cities. Jazz, on the other hand, was a thoroughly urban form of music that developed from a collision between various forms of African-American and European-American music.   


Ragtime—a polyrhythmic musical form played on the piano—was the most direct antecedent of jazz. Ragtime mainly originated in the cities of the Midwest (particularly St. Louis) and quickly developed into America’s most popular form of music in the 1890s. In its early years, ragtime was linked with “coon songs” which developed from vaudeville and the minstrelsy, with the “rag” part also describing a kind of dance. The popularity of ragtime was stimulated by a growing market for the mass reproduction of sheet music: Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” published in 1899, was the first piece of instrumental music that sold in excess of one million copies. Indeed, ragtime’s growth also coincided with a spectacular increase in the manufacture and sale of pianos:  the number of pianos produced in the United States surged from under 100,000 in 1890 to over 350,000 in 1909. Nevertheless, the frenetic, polyrhythmic style of ragtime was greatly at odds with the more conventional styles of music played on the piano during the Gilded Age. As a musical instrument, the piano signified the cult of domesticity and repressive gender relations of Victorian culture, and it had become a symbol of bourgeois respectability among upwardly mobile families seeking to distinguish themselves from the working class. In a later chapter, we discuss how Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis similarly subverted the dominant meanings of the piano in their raucous performances during the early years of rock ‘n’ roll.


The uniquely complicated relationships of race and ethnicity in New Orleans were decisive for shaping the evolution of jazz. As we previously noted, the city’s economic and cultural connections with the Caribbean Islands distinguished it from the rest of North America. In Congo Square and other spaces, West African music and religion had survived to a greater extent in New Orleans than anywhere else in the United States. The city also included a substantial population of mixed-race people known as Creoles. Initially, all people born in the Louisiana colony called themselves Creoles, but in time this term acquired racial connotations to distinguish the city’s exceptionally large number of mixed-race people.  Throughout the nineteenth century, Creoles maintained a distinct social milieu that was mostly separate from both the black and white communities in New Orleans, situated in the Seventh Ward on the downtown side of Canal Street.  They proudly identified with their French ancestry, as they spoke French, practiced Catholicism, and observed French holidays and customs. In the realm of highbrow culture, Creoles held music and opera in the highest esteem: the city’s French Opera House served as its central cultural institution, and there was great emphasis on instructing young boys in a Eurocentric musical pedagogy of notation and instrumental technique. As many as three opera companies were playing at any given time during the nineteenth century, and European music was regularly performed in plays, concerts, and balls. 


The segregationist rollback of Reconstruction eliminated the intermediary and independent racial status of Creoles in New Orleans. Under Jim Crow, anyone with the smallest traces of African ancestry (the “one-drop rule”) was reclassified as black.   The U.S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—which proved to be the decisive ruling for upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation—originated with a Creole’s challenge to his non-white status. A shoemaker from the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé, Homer Plessy had been legally classified as an octoroon (seven-eighths white, one-eighth black) and regularly passed as white. The legal redefinition of Creoles pushed them toward the spaces of black New Orleans, forcing a confrontation between two completely disparate cultures. Meanwhile, between 1880 and 1910 more than 40,000 black people migrated to New Orleans from rural plantations where the Ku Klux Klan was escalating its campaign of terror, increasing the city’s total black population to nearly 100,000. This migration ensured that the urban culture of the black community continued to maintain strong links with the rural culture rooted in the Mississippi Delta, especially the blues. Creole musicians vigorously distinguished themselves from their black counterparts on the uptown side of Canal Street, but Jim Crow had the unintended effect of bringing these groups and their music into greater proximity. New Orleans became a battleground where sharply differing styles of music collided, and this collision facilitated the development of jazz in the early twentieth century.

Urban spaces and festivities mediated the social relationships in New Orleans which gave birth to jazz. Although access to space in New Orleans was segregated according to race, it was impossible to fully contain and separate different groups or their music, particularly within the city’s vibrant street culture. Parades involving music, dance, elaborate costumes, and rowdy revelry were an important legacy of French and Spanish colonial rule, and they were also a central component of West African and Haitian cultures. The streets of black New Orleans became sites of fanfare and festivity in funeral marches and their second line of dancers and musicians playing brass instruments, enacting sustained links with West African burial rites and ring ceremonies. As segregationist repression intensified in the late nineteenth century, clusters of black secret societies, fraternal orders, and mutual aid associations arose to preserve the ceremonial traditions of vodou and other practices transported from West Africa via Haiti. Blacks in New Orleans also celebrated Mardi Gras by organizing neighborhood “tribes” who designed their own elaborate costumes in the style of Native Americans. The rituals of these so-called Mardi Gras Indians appropriated the cultures of native people, albeit loosely and often mistakenly, in ways that actually maintained a closer connection with West African ceremonies, narratives, and imagery. These elaborate performances embodied the enduring forms of resistance in New Orleans, expressing an affinity that first developed when runaway slaves joined with Native Americans in the remote areas of Louisiana to establish clandestine communities of Maroons.  


Jim Crow segregation pushed blacks and Creoles into adjoining urban spaces, inducing more exchanges between two disparate cultures of people who were often hostile to one another. Creole musicians who had been formally trained in Eurocentric notation and technique were increasingly compelled to play with black musicians and perform for black audiences. Jazz began to evolve from the ensuing synthesis of European instrumentation and African-American styles of syncopation, signifying, antiphony, and improvisation. Yet contrary to the perspective of benign multiculturalism, which typically draws comparisons between jazz and gumbo through melting-pot metaphors, this new musical style was not the result of a harmonious union. In attempting to secure work by winning the favor of dancers, and especially when competing during “cutting contents,” Creole musicians discovered that their skilled, Eurocentric techniques were no match for the bluesy, off-beat style played by black musicians who could move their audiences into states of erotic ecstasy. Jazz, even more than other musical forms, was indeed the product of an array of elements—not only the European symphony, but also ragtime, vaudeville songs, church music, and marching bands—but the main ingredient in this mixture was still the blues. Jazz musicians absorbed and incorporated these different musical styles, but each was significantly altered and transcended in being subjected to syncopation, signifying, antiphony, and improvisation.

The well-known rivalry between the bands led by Charles “Buddy” Bolden and John Robichaux was decisive for establishing the primacy of a bluesy style in New Orleans jazz. Robichaux and Bolden engaged in a heated competition for musical dominance in New Orleans, and in many ways the conflict between them and their corresponding audiences expressed the enduring conflicts between Creoles and blacks. Robichaux’s dance orchestra included some of the finest Creole musicians in New Orleans. Robichaux himself was a violinist, and within his band the instruments consisted of two cornets, a clarinet and trombone, a second violin, and a bass and drums. As was typical of Creole musicians, Robichaux’s orchestra played strictly by the notes while taking great pride in their ability to read music and reproduce the correct sounds. They usually played sweeter styles of music at dances geared toward a more elite, light-skinned crowd. Buddy Bolden, on the other hand, was a black musician who played the cornet at a volume that would become legendary for its loudness, and his band emerged as the favorite within the black community of New Orleans among people who lived for good times and long nights of sweaty dancing. The Bolden band was similarly comprised of brass instruments used alongside bass, drums, and a guitar, but they distinguished themselves by playing these same instruments in syncopated rhythms and a bluesy style composed of profane variations on the music of the Sanctified church; Bolden played “ratty” music for the “good time people” who enjoyed the “sportin’ life.” Bolden and his sound ultimately prevailed: by 1905 he was known as “King Bolden” in the streets of New Orleans.

The only known photo of the Buddy Bolden band

Again, this conflict in which Bolden was ultimately victorious was played out in struggles over urban space.  Both bands performed regularly in outdoor settings, especially the pavilions at Johnson and Lincoln parks or picnics on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. Lincoln and Johnson parks both opened in 1902, located across from one another in the impoverished and swampy Gert Town neighborhood in the Mid-City area. Lincoln Park was the better equipped and more respectable of the two, a site for picnics and concerts on Sunday afternoons. Music was played in the park’s pavilion, which included a stage and an orchestra pit; the John Robichaux Orchestra performed there regularly. Johnson Park, on the other hand, was simply a field for baseball games. Legend has it that Bolden would play his cornet so loudly from Johnson Park that he could lure dancers away from the more respectable neighboring Lincoln Park when the John Robichaux Orchestra was performing. Bolden and his band played outdoors in New Orleans on a regular basis, whether on an advertising wagon moving through the city or for a party on the lakefront of Lake Pontchartrain. As their music could be heard outdoors throughout New Orleans, musicians like Louis Armstrong who were growing up in poor, black neighborhoods received most of their early musical education from the sounds they heard flowing into the streets. Street parades became firmly established traditions in the black neighborhoods of New Orleans, and children like Armstrong had the opportunity to not only hear but also occasionally play in the brass bands at these parades.  

Indoor music venues and the famous nightlife of New Orleans also had a crucial role in circulating the emerging jazz style. The Bolden band was known for playing late into the night for black audiences in the most impoverished and violent neighborhoods of New Orleans.  A frequent venue for Bolden’s band was popularly renamed the Funky Butt Hall after one of his most beloved songs, though its original connotation seems to have had more to do with flatulent odors than gyrating derrieres. In the years between 1895 and 1910, there were as many as 25 bars operating in the area around South Rampart and Perdido streets—although live music typically was not yet played in most establishments that served alcohol, the large population of intoxicated patrons gave Bolden a ready audience. This area was unofficially known as black Storyville, and just a few blocks above Canal St. was one of the world’s most well-known red-light districts, created by city officials in 1897 and known to residents simply as The District. At least one musician did get his start playing piano at a brothel in The District before moving on to become a jazz pioneer: born into a Creole family as Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe, he Anglicized his last name and adopted a first name to match his self-promoted reputation for sexual prowess, becoming Jelly Roll Morton. Young Ferdinand initially believed that the piano was “an instrument for a lady” but later changed his mind after watching a man play ragtime. His claim to having invented jazz rested on the assertion that he added a vital element of “seasoning” which he called the “Spanish tinge.” By this standard, jazz could only have developed in a city with enduring connections to the Caribbean, where the cultural collision inflicted by colonialism and slavery created so many mixtures of African and European musical styles.


New Orleans is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz, but like their counterparts who played the blues, jazz musicians soon fled the South and relocated to cities in the rest of the country. One study found that among 427 black jazz musicians from the South who were born before 1915, a total of 374 (86.4%) migrated north between 1900 and 1941; the vast majority of these musicians moved between 1917 and 1930.  The most popular destinations for black jazz musicians were Chicago and New York City, which became the urban centers of the “jazz age” in the 1920s; prominent musicians who came to Chicago at least temporarily from New Orleans included Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Bill Johnson, Freddie Keppard, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, and Edward “Kid” Ory.  Their movement was part of the first wave of the Great Migration in which approximately one million African-Americans left the South between World War I and the onset of the Great Depression. An urban culture of commercial entertainment, centered on music and dance in nightclubs, flourished in the black neighborhoods of Chicago, New York, and many other cities during the 1920s. This thriving urban culture, accompanied by the growth of the recording industry, allowed jazz to expand from a regional style into a national and even international form of popular music.


Jazz also grew in popularity among white Americans during the 1920s. From the beginning, white musicians in New Orleans had played an instrumental form of syncopated music known as Dixieland. The first jazz record, “Livery Stable Blues,” was recorded by a white group from New Orleans called the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) in 1917. Yet these white musicians mostly maintained their distance from their black and Creole counterparts, and some like ODJB’s trumpeter Nick LaRocca audaciously insisted that black musicians played no part in the creation of jazz. The rise of jazz in the Northern cities during the 1920s, however, attracted different types of white youth with more rebellious attitudes. A subculture of flappers developed among young women who defied the Victorian ideals of femininity through their distinctive fashion and involvement in taboo activities like smoking in public. A smaller group of white jazz musicians embraced a bohemian lifestyle which rejected conventional social norms in favor of leisure and pleasure. The perception of moral danger was strong enough for the Ladies Home Journal to warn its readers about “the wriggling movement and sensuous stimulation of the abominable jazz orchestra with its voodoo-born minors and its direct appeal to the sensory center.” This fear of a mixture of rhythmic music descended from Africa (“voodoo-born minors”) and sexual titillation (“wriggling movement and sensuous stimulation”) would be repeated when white youth began listening and dancing to rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.


The identification with and appropriation of black music and style among rebellious white youth has been an enduring theme in popular culture ever since the Jazz Age. This dynamic is driven by the psychosocial desires of alienated white youth, which sometimes lead them to challenge racism but usually do not.  Their root cause is the discontent arising from the pressures of the Protestant work ethic, sexual repression, and instrumental rationality. In searching for an antidote to this discontent, alienated whites have often projected their fantasies about an escape from civilization and modernity onto African-Americans and sometimes onto Native Americans or non-Western cultures. In more recent times, black music and style have been used to create an appearance of authenticity within commercial culture.  While resistance to hegemony among people of color has been significant, as we’ve begun to examine, appropriation has distorted its features in ways that actually reflect the concerns and desires of the appropriators. White engagements with black music have facilitated numerous anti-racist alliances, more than any other medium of cultural expression. In other instances, however, they have merely inverted the racist stereotypes that black people are closer to nature, more sexually permissive, and less inclined to work and self-discipline; they simply romanticize the qualities that racism denigrates. The dynamic of appropriation would endure through the development of hip-hop, but its historical roots extend beyond the Jazz Age to the foundations of American culture.