The History of Music

Neal Stephenson said the following about America in Snow Crash: “There’s only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery.”

I’m not sure that we do movies and software better than anyone else anymore, but certainly music is one of the best American exports ever.

I am and always have been a huge fan of music. Now, that’s not to say that I know all the technical ins and outs of music, because I don’t. I don’t play guitar nor any other instrument for that matter, and I definitely cannot carry a tune.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have personal knowledge of how to make music that I love it so much. Perhaps not. I know lots of musicians who are just as big of music nerds as I am. In fact, in my experience, it’s rare to find music nerds as big as I am who are not musicians.

In any event, I love music. And it’s not even one particular style of music that I like. I love everything from classical to hip hop to heavy metal. I like punk, desert rock, Motown, R&B, psychedelic rock, folk, big band, early jazz and country, ska, rock & roll, the blues, etc. My music library spans from when the recording of music became a thing all the way up to present day.

My library of songs that I physically (well, digitally) own is 49,197 songs. I haven’t added much to it in the past few years because of streaming. My last.fm account has tracked over 300,000 songs I’ve listened to in the past decade plus. I tell you all of this only to illustrate how expansive my love of music is.

For the past few decades, I’ve listened to music while I work. When I’m not streaming, I have a smart playlist that contains only songs I haven’t heard in the last six months. Most of the time, I listen to all my music on random shuffle. Once in a while though, a song will come on and I’ll have to hear more of that.

This morning, a ZZ Top song came on and I decided I wanted to hear their first album. For a long time, like almost everyone else, all I knew of ZZ Top was their popular 80s songs like Legs, Sharp Dressed Man, etc. Sometime in the early 2000s, I picked up their very first album from 1970 and I loved it. Then I got other early albums like Deguello, Tres Hombres, Rio Grande Mud, etc., and I became a real ZZ Top fan.

Anyway, this morning, when I was done listening to ZZ’s first album, I decided I wanted to hear the blues, which ZZ is very much rooted in. While I was listening to the blues, it occurred to me that every single classic blues artist (from the early 1900s on up) is Black. And then it occurred to me that you simply cannot overstate the influence of Black musicians on modern music. Black influences are so fundamental to American music that there wouldn’t really be American music without them, at least not as we know it.

Without Jimmy Reed, the Three Kings (B.B., Freddie, Albert), T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, etc., there might not be a ZZ Top. Now, that’s not to say that ZZ doesn’t have a style of their own, because they surely do. Billy Gibbons is considered one of the world’s best guitarists–even Jimi Hendrix said so. However, that ZZ Top sound might not exist as such if not for the blues guitarists who came before them.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to come up with even one genre of music in the past few hundred years in which Black musicians weren’t originators or at the very least, influencers, even if only indirectly. Starting in 1619 when Black slaves were first brought to Jamestown, Black work songs, dance tunes, and religious music became mixed and intertwined with American music, eventually influencing all of it.

Aside from genres like blues, R&B, ska, and hip-hop, where most of the artists are Black, you can find examples of Black influence in pretty much any genre of music imaginable. Even in country music and other musical genres that aren’t heavily populated with Black artists today, the influence is undeniable. For example, the banjo was most likely based on West African lutes.

It’s not just Americans who were influenced by Black musicians either. American blues artists had a huge impact on the young Rolling Stones. The Beatles were greatly influenced by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, then they went on to influence everyone from ABBA to Black Sabbath.

Yet, even though Black innovation and creativity is woven throughout American music, so much of it was stolen and/or uncredited. The theft of Black creativity started practically at the very beginnings of the recording industry.

One of the first rock & roll musicians, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was popular in the 30 and 40s, but hardly anyone today knows how important she was to the development of rock & roll. Elvis Presley was massively influenced (to put it nicely) by artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, both of whom were influenced by Sister Rosetta. Almost everything that makes Elvis Elvis was taken from Black progenitors.

 

Soooo much music is the result of Black creativity. I’d like to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU. Thank you to the Black artists I’ve already mentioned as well as Big Joe Turner, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sam Cooke, Toots Hibbert, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Nina Simone, James Brown, the Holland brothers and Lamont Dozier, Grandmaster Flash, and many, many others for creating, innovating, and influencing the music I love.