In episode 3, media critic Wesley Morris explores the Black roots of American popular music from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century, tracing the ways that musical expressions of Blackness became "the sound of complete artistic freedom"-- and the ways that those same expressions have been appropriated for White entertainment, from the caricatured depictions of Black Americans in blackface minstrel shows, to the smooth 1970s stylings of yacht rock.
Read the accompanying essay by Wesley Morris in The 1619 Project for more exploration of these issues:
Interested in the music discussed in Episode 3? Explore a century of Black music, from spirituals to disco, in this streaming playlist.
The many styles and genres of Black music form the bedrock of American popular music. From rural to urban, sacred to secular, acoustic to electric, and folk to commercial, Black musicians have drawn on musical roots stretching back to West Africa, while constantly synthesizing new influences to create new and daring musical innovations. Black music has been a means to express joy, anger, pride, and sorrow, often with virtuosic skill.
Yet, as Wesley Morris describes in this episode, Black music has also been appropriated frequently by White musicians for White audiences, often due to segregation and systemic racism that allowed those White musicians to profit off of Black music in ways that the Black musicians who originally created the music could not. One such example is the concept of cover songs in popular music, which arose in the 1950s, when White artists would "cover" songs by Black artists in order to market them to White radio audiences; often the White artists would become better known for performing those songs than the Black artists who first recorded them, largely because the White artists could get wider airplay and media coverage. One of the best known covers from this era is the song "Hound Dog", which was a hit for Elvis Presley in 1956 and is still one of his most iconic pop hits-- but it was first recorded as a blues song by Big Mama Thornton in 1952.
The following popular songs from early 20th-century America exemplify the type of racist caricaturing of Black musicians and culture in popular American minstrel songs discussed in Episode 3 of the 1619 Project podcast. Before the rise of the recording industry, buying sheet music to play a song at home was the primary way that most middle-class Americans consumed popular music. The cover art was designed to catch a potential buyer's eye and tell them about the content or theme or the music; it might also feature photos of the songwriters or of performers who were known for singing that particular song. Often the back covers contained ads for other songs of a similar type or by the same songwriter. Click on each cover image below to view the full piece of music.
Content note: These items contain racist images and words, including exaggerated and stereotyped depictions of Black appearances, speech dialects, and behavior.
Like the minstrel songs discussed in the podcast, this song attempts to portray life for poor Black Americans in the rural South in a carefree, pastoral light. The cover image depicts a racist caricature of a Black man (or possibly a performer wearing blackface), juxtaposed upon a banjo, an American folk instrument with African roots. In the lower left corner of the cover is a small photograph of a White man, J. Russell Powell, who was known for performing this song.
This song's lyrics are written in the type of broadly exaggerated dialect used by minstrel show performers when portraying Black characters. Although the main character is ostensibly the protagonist of the song, he is nonetheless associated with stereotyped behavior such as gambling, violence, and public drunkenness. The fact that this song is set not in the rural South, but on Broadway in New York City, the heart of the American entertainment industry in the early 20th century, demonstrates just how central minstrel songs were to American pop culture at this time.
You can explore more early American sheet music like this, as well as many pieces by Black songwriters, in the UO Historic Sheet Music Collection, an archive of over 23,000 pieces of popular music from 1820-1970, held in the UO Libraries Music Collection. Approximately 1,100 pieces from this collection have been digitized and are available to view and download for free in our online archive, Oregon Digital.
In Episode 3 of The 1619 Project, Wesley Morris describes the impact of early films like Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Jazz Singer (1927) in codifying blackface performances and racist portrayals of Black characters in American pop culture. Director Spike Lee tackled the harmful legacies of blackface minstrel shows in his 2000 film Bamboozled, about a modern-day television minstrel show with Black performers that becomes a runaway hit.
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Wesley Morris is an American journalist and media critic who currently writes as critic-at-large for The New York Times. He previously worked as a film critic for The Boston Globe, where he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism "for his smart, inventive film criticism, distinguished by pinpoint prose and an easy traverse between the art house and the big-screen box office." Morris also co-hosts the podcast Still Processing, along with culture writer Jenna Wortham.
Learn more about Still Processing and other related shows on the Additional Resources page of this guide.