Black American Music

A 1924 photo of blues singer Bessie Smith. (AP Photo)

Bessie Smith, 1924

Missy Elliott

Missy Elliott, 2016

Recently, a student of mine became interested in the musical history of Black people in America, from the very beginnings of blues in the early 1920’s to modern Hip-Hop and R&B. I put together this list of some influential musicians from a wide variety of genres. It’s not complete; I couldn’t possibly put together a list of every important artist, but I hope this might give you a starting place if you want to know about Black American music and don’t know where to begin. If you’re interested in American culture, I think the importance of these musicians, and people like them, couldn’t be overstated.



New vocabulary

(Though on second thought, it might be better to just skip this section and learn by listening…)

Blues: A style of music that evolved from southern African-American secular songs and is usually distinguished by a strong 4/4 rhythm, flatted thirds and sevenths, a 12-bar structure, and lyrics in a three-line stanza in which the second line repeats the first

Gospel: A kind of Christian music based on American folk music, typically marked by strong rhythms and elaborated refrains and incorporating elements of spirituals, blues, and jazz.

Jazz: Louis Armstrong, a famous Jazz musician, famously said: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Even so…the dictionary defines “jazz” as style of music native to America, characterized by a strong but flexible rhythmic understructure with solo and ensemble improvisations on basic tunes and chord patterns and, more recently, a highly sophisticated harmonic idiom.

Soul: music deriving from the secularization of black American gospel music combined with rhythm and blues and marked by earthy expressiveness.

Funk: A type of popular music combining elements of jazz, blues, and soul and characterized by syncopated rhythm and a heavy, repetitive bass-line.


Definitions courtesy of The Free Dictionary.


Early Blues:


Robert Johnson (1920’s)


Charley Patton; Spoonful Blues (1929)  


Bukka White (Year active: 1930-1977)  



Bessie Smith (Years active: 1913-1937), “Whoa, Tillie Take Your Time.”



Early Rock n’ Roll:


Little Richard (Active: 1947–present) “Tutti Frutti” (1956)


Chuck Berry (Active: 1955-present)  “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)




(also Rock n Roll) Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Active: 1919-1973), “This Train” (1960’s)


Sweet Honey in the Rock (Active 1973-present) “In the Morning when I Rise” (2005)





Billie Holiday (Active 1933–1959) “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1955)


Ella Fitzgerald (Active 1934–1994) and Louis Armstrong (Active 1914–1971) “Summertime.” (1957)


Miles Davis  (Active 944–1975, 1980–1991) “‘Round About Midnight” (1957), “Kind of Blue” (1959), “Sketches of Spain” (1960), “Bitches Brew” (1970)

Charles Mingus (Active 1943–1979)  “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (Album) 1956, “Blues and Roots” (Album) (1960)



Aretha Franklin (Active 1956-present) “Respect” (1967)


James Brown (Active 1953-2006)  “Get on Up” (1970)


Curtis Mayfield, (Active 1960-1999) “Pusherman” (1972)




Gladys Knight and the Pips (Active 1960’s and 1970’s), “Heard it through the Grapevine” (1967)




(also “neo-soul”) D’Angelo (Active 1991-present) “Voodoo” (album, 2000)



Hip Hop:

Public Enemy (Active 1982–present) “Fight the Power” (1989)


Salt n’ Pepa (Active: 1985–2002, 2007–present) “Shoop” (1994), “Whatta Man” (1994)


Nas (Active 1991–present) “Ain’t Hard to Tell” (1994)


Bahamadia (Active 1994–present) “3 The Hard Way.”  (1996)


Lauryn Hill (Active 1993–present) “Lost Ones” (1998)


Missy Elliott (Active 1991–present) “WTF” (2016)