Friday, June 19, 2009

Juneteenth - Musically Jumping for Joy

Imagine yourself 144 years ago on June 19, 1865. It is has been two and a half years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The place, Galveston, Texas. You might see federal troops coming into town or you might be one of the first to hear Gen. Gordon Granger make the announcement to enslaved citizens that they were free. 

The day and the celebration is known as Juneteenth. It can be celebrated by all freedom loving Americans and anybody else around the world. The day can be a private appreciation of how far we as Americans have come. It is also a  a time of parades, performances or the beginning of family reunions. And of course, the telling of personal stories.

I have no doubt that some of those stories were told musically. This is is good thing because June is also Black/African American Music Month. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter officially recognized the contributions made by a diverse and influential group of performers.  Because of a lack of music education some young people are questioning “Do we have anything musically celebrate?”  If you only look at the commercialization of popular music you might want to say no.

Not so fast. There are a number of music ethnographers, musicians, and bloggers who are doing what can to preserve and bring all types of music forward. For example, you might have stumbled into an “Old Skool Friday” video or audio post. You might have encountered a Twitter outbreak of song swapping links connecting music to the past and the present.

We all have that one tune that when you hear it on the radio or your media player you crank it up.  This is a brief look and listen of some of the music forms, created or refined in America.

Spirituals and The Kumbayah Moment

Many of us in contemporary American have no concept of performing manual labor twelve hours a day, six and a half days a week. Music was used to help sustain people through their long workday, a vocal road map out of town or a petition of endurance. One particular spiritual song had an interesting journey.

Kumbayah is a Gulla spiritual song from the North Carolina descendants of West African slaves. Around 1930 an American missionary journeyed to Africa and taught it to people in Angola. When western musicians came to Africa in the 1950s and 1960s they heard the tune and brought the song back to America as a folk music. This rendition is performed by The Kuziems Singers.

You don’t need a group to sing a spiritual. You can write your own like Carol AnnB at Undeniably Me:

I am waiting on a miracle
Can’t you see I’ve lost my way?
To heal this heart of mine
And to help me guide the way

Spirituals not only soothed souls but begat two other forms of American music, The Blues and Jazz.

Blues in the Night

You can’t have the sacred without the profane. Spirituals guides folks vision upward and Blues music helped people cope with the pain of the day to day, a busted heart or the tear that would not fall.  Saffire The Uppity Blues Women have 25 years of performing and recording experience. This is a rocking bunch of dames. I present to you their lyrical rendition of Too Much Butt for One Pair of Jeans.

Yes, the Blues can be funny. What is not funny is the lack of opportunity to hear Blues performers and musicians via radio or music distribution sites unless you really look for them. Kat Danser’s blog is a connection to Blues artists she has worked with, the actual business of being a Blues performer and a link to her main site where you can check out her tunes and discography.

Swing That Jazz

Finding information about jazz performers and especially woman jazz performers who are not singers, is tough but there is hope. Certainly you could check out Blog-O-Jazz or A Blog Supreme from NPR to learn who is who except all the who folks seem to be male.  Well, I will never let an opportunity to refute the notion that women did not play jazz pass me by.

Yes they did and they do. This is short clip of some of the well known women jazz bands of the 1930s and 1940s.


On the contemporary seen is Nicole Mitchell and her group Black Ensemble Earth or women like Deana Kirk who is taking her second chance at her music career. You can read the NY Times article about her choices including owning a jazz club and the decision to restart singing professionally.

Juneteenth is about celebrating freedom, freedom from expectation or limitations. It is the freedom to love all kinds of music and the right to perform. It is an opportunity those that can to introducing new generations to the foundation of what they are hearing today. Music needs love, nourishment, exposure to light and cross pollination.

Gena Haskett is a Contributing Editor at BlogHer where this post originally appeared.

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