Column: Don’t forget the musical influence of African Americans

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Ayron Jones & the boys Photo credit: Grady Ellsworth

For many people, February is a time of igniting the flame of romance and showering significant others with expensive gifts and affection. Restaurants and retail stores offer specials to couples and just about anything will come heart-shaped. For others, February is not just a time for star-crossed lovers but a time to observe and commemorate the history of African Americans. February is Black History Month.

Conceived by American historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926, Black History Month has been a time for men and women all over the country to remember that Black history is American history.

Most tend to think of the powerful civil rights leaders who have shaped Black history such as Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Rosa Parks, leaders that will, without a doubt, be remembered over the years. One pivotal part of Black history, however, isn’t talked about as much as it should be — the musical history and influence that Black people have in this country.

African Americans began participating in music long before Jimi Hendrix graced the world with his own rock-fueled rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Even back in the devastating bonds of slavery, Black men and women made music.

They would, at times, sing in their native language to communicate with others. Harriett Tubman, known as “the Moses of her people,” would use a popular song, “Wade In the Water” to warn escaping slaves of potential danger while helping them traverse the Underground Railroad. For slaves, music was a tool for staying alive.

According to PBS, once slavery had been abolished in 1865, several Black men and women sang gospel songs that would eventually be referred to as spirituals. Since most African Americans had been forced into Christianity, making their own spin on gospel music was essentially their way of individualizing the religion. This was still just the beginning; in the 1930s and 1940s Black musicians began to shape the future of American music.

From gospel music came blues. Music from the likes of Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald and B.B. King started to normalize the use of the guitar and songs of heartbreak and overcoming other hardships came to the mainstream. These roots of jazzy blues are what helped other musicians grow and flourish into what music is today.

“We are all here today because of our Black brothers and sisters who gave us soul music,” said Bruce Springsteen, an American musician during his Wrecking Ball” tour in 2012. “If not for the struggles and sacrifice illustrated through blues and soul, we would have no rock ‘n’ roll. We stand on the shoulders that have brought us to this point.”

Simply remembering the fact that today’s music was built on the pillars of soul and blues music is not enough. We need to put it in our best effort to remember these musical pioneers by name and to remember why they made music, not just the fact that they did. These valiant pioneers of modern music told their stories to those who were willing to listen. Now that nearly 100 years have passed since some of these titans made music, their stories are slowly being forgotten.

Black history is American history and as Americans, we must take it upon ourselves to remember this history and tell the stories of the men and women who have given us the beautiful music we have today. These musical men and women told their stories and their struggles in an effort not to be forgotten in a world where they were already persecuted. In observance of Black History Month, remember what these musicians did for us and where we would be without them.