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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Have Black People Forgotten Their Music Heritage?

Painting "Blues Legends"
African-Americans have brought many great things to this land. Borne of pain and strife, they survived, fought for their rights and won. Music was a big part of that struggle. We owed a debt of gratitude to the African-American community for bringing us the Blues, Jazz and later Motown. But today, with the incessant thumping of Hip-Hop blasting from every car in black neighborhoods, I wonder, "Have black people forgotten their music heritage?"

During a hot summer on plantations across the deep south during the late 1800's Negro slaves took old gospel songs and put a twist on them. In 1903, W. C. Handy toured the plantations and heard this music that the slaves played with simple instruments - guitars, harmonicas and banjos. He made note of it all. A few years later, this great music finally was presented on a stage and the Blues were born. W. C. Handy was memorialized as being the Father of the Blues.

During the late 1800's African musicians began blending African and European traditional music. New sounds, new rhythms, new beats formed and became a completely unique sound. In 1915 it was given a name - Jazz.

Blues and Jazz became the foundations for what eventually became Rock-n-Roll. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones wanted to sing like the colored singers. Elvis took his style from negro singers.

As much as I like Rock-n-Roll, I can't imagine a music collection without the Blues or Jazz. Country music has evolved from twangy backwoods sounds to be more like Blues and Rock.

As the disco era ushered in, in 1978, Saturday Night Live legends, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi formed a group called The Blues Brothers. Their albums played tribute to the great music of the Blues. At the end of one song, John Belushi implores the live audience to, "Buy as many Blues records as you can."

Today, Blues and Jazz CD's make up small sections in music stores and library bins.

Blues is often criticized for being too depressing. But that comes from someone who has no idea what the Blues are about and why the Negro slaves sang those songs. Life was miserable for Negro slaves. They were at the mercy of their white masters. Most slaves were treated cruelly and led very hard, short lives. The Blues sang about those hardships, but in the end of the song there was always a line of hope. There would be a brighter day. There would be a tomorrow where all this hatred and torture would end.

We all go through hard times in life. But without hope, there is no reason to get up the next day. The Blues gave those slaves a reason to face another day. That is a lesson that I hope is never lost in our society - through great hardship, courage and hope still prevailed.

Jazz, on the other hand, was the "thinking man's music" - with its complex beats and rhythms. Jazz songs were more traditional in the beginning, but over time, improvisation took them to new heights.

What would music be without Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Buddy Guy, Albert Lee, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Billy Cobham, and Miles Davis?

But sadly, I see signs that these legends are being forgotten, especially by African-Americans.

Last night, I went out on my deck and I heard something I hadn't heard in a long time in my neighborhood which is predominantly black. I heard jazz. I thought it was coming from a house down the next street. And it was coming from a really good sound system. I stopped and listened to a few songs. It was great.

Then, I ran up to Burger King for a couple value menu items and I heard the Blues playing. I looked and there is a small park where two streets converge to form a point. On a stage was an all black Blues band, tearing it up. After I spent my $3 at the drive-thru window, I parked my truck and listened for a bit.

It was a free concert put on by the city. It wasn't well publicized, but anyone within earshot could have stopped and enjoyed the music.

I started checking out the seventy or so people who had gathered on the other side of the pond that separated the band from a grassy slope. There were families with kids, single people mingling and a few old folks on lawn chairs. And they were all WHITE. There was ONE black guy wandering around on the perimeter of the small crowd. He looked like one of those guys that starts his conversation with, "You got a smoke I can borrow? Or can you lend me a dollar for the bus?" He looked lost.

In a community that is mostly lower middle class blacks, where were the black people? The band was black. I'm sure the jazz band was probably black, too. Not sure, but there are some great black jazz bands in the area.

I used to go to a lot of Blues and Jazz concerts years ago. The crowds were mostly white. I never understood that.

Nowadays, if there is a rap concert, there is a massive crush of young black kids fighting to get in and it usually winds up in violence. At a rap concert a month or so ago, an 18-year old black man was shot in the head and killed at Luke Easter Park. Some idiot just started firing into the crowd. They obviously don't remember or were not taught the lessons of being in the mess together and working together to get out of it, with that tinge of hope.

Gospel music and the Blues carried the Civil Rights Movement. While they were beaten and spit on by uncivilized whites, the marchers sang. When they were dragged off of buses, beaten and hospitalized, they sang. When dogs were turned loose on them, they sang. Fire hoses, they sang. And when they died, the grieving gathered and sang. They sang of hope. They sang of salvation. They sang of Jesus. They sang of a brighter day. They sang, even when "The Great Dreamer" lay dead on a balcony in Memphis.

Through all of the horrors of slavery and the fight for Civil Rights, African-Americans sang - Blues, Gospel and Jazz. Their music gave them courage to face an unspeakable evil - hatred based on the color of one's skin. Those that marched and sat where they were not allowed had character and conviction. And their music carried them through it.

It was so nice to listen to that music last night. It was a refreshing change from standing on the corner of the busiest intersection in the city and seeing vehicles that look a little too upscale for the income level of the neighborhood with the windows down and "music" blasting out...
...Those motherf**cking bitches can suck my d**k...
Or another classic...
...All you motherf**ckers come out. All you motherf**ckers come out...
I like the love songs...
...Dem girls are my hoes, they suck it from my toes...
I don't know if those were the exact lyrics of the uplifting ballads I heard bump-bumping out the expensive cars, but I'm not too far off. Let's put it this way, if you have small kids, you need to put ear muffs on them, even in the summer; otherwise, you have ugly vocabulary lessons to go through later.

I rarely see a rap artist who appears on television that isn't bleeped at some point. Cee Lo Green cleaned up his raw hit song that was all over the Internet. He came up with a palatable public version and he's made a hit out of that too.

Sometimes, I think Snoop Dog is the only one that gets where he is, and performs within FCC guidelines - an amazing feat, considering how much weed is in his blood.

But I digress. My point is that African-Americans gave the music world gold - Blues and Jazz - and today they don't seem to care about it. They treat it like vinyl records left in the sun.

I'm in awe when I talk with young black kids and how little they know about the struggle and the music. Their grandparents know. Actually, their great-grandparents would know even better.

For all the pain, all the bloodshed, all the fight, all the marches, all the lives, you'd think that would be a cornerstone of black heritage and history - and the music that went along with it. To me, AFRICAN-American is kind of a farce. Most black people are so far removed from Africa that is seems ludicrous to include it in a title of nationality. But the music. That was not that long ago. Have black people forgotten their music heritage? I hope not. There was something magical about its origins and how it carried a people to the Promised Land - and finally, to the White House. Don't let it slip away.

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