A Piece of History: What Happened to our Tunes?

Photo Courtesy: 365 Voice
Photo Courtesy: 365 Voice

“Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” These words were written by James W. Johnson in the early 1900s as poem and were later made into a song when Johnsons’ brother added music to the poem. This song quickly became known as “The Negro National Anthem.”

Lyrics and music once meant something in our community and had a significant meaning to it. But, that was a long time ago…before we met artist like Khia, Lil Wayne, Beyoncé, etc.

During the 17th century, when blacks were slaves and unable to get an education, they relied on doing everything orally. They would make-up folktales/songs to make the time go by, and these were passed down from generation to generation. They [folktales] were very popular within the African-American community. These songs would be about life, religion, becoming free etc. But, our music has changed dramatically since that time. Now, whenever I turn my radio on, the lyrics I hear are about sex, disrespect to women, curse words, and several other things that would cause our ancestors to roll over in their graves. Several people in our communities don’t know anything about the genre of music that was once called “Negro Spirituals.”

Negro Spirituals were religious songs sung by slaves. But, when exactly did music stop being about life and start being about sex?

“Rhythm and Blues” (R&B) originated in the 1940’s. There were bands such as Tympany Five and Wynonie Harris; their lyrics were backed up with different instruments: trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, etc. Some of their popular songs were “Beans & Cornbread”, which isn’t about food, but the food identifies “friends”. Saying that friends are like a good meal – they go hand in hand. Harris recorded a song, “Good Rocking Tonight” (remake), which was about having a good time with a loved one and enjoying the rhythm and blues. These songs still had a connection with Negro Spirituals.

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