- Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music
This is a welcome and useful book. Burton Peretti has written a compact overview of African American music that reflects a changing culture's expressive commentary over time. While specialists will understandably want more (Eileen Southern's detailed survey of African American music down to the mid-twentieth-century, The Music of Black Americans: A History, remains quite valuable), Peritti has created in a short text (170 pages) an interpretation that is both informative and pointed, as well as an accessible introduction for students and the general reader.
The book begins with West Africa and discusses the complex evolution of that music, through the trauma of captivity, the middle passage, and enslavement, to the New World. The music could not remain unchanged, for to remain viable it needed to address these dramatic new experiences. Mixing traditional structures with elements found in their new environment, African Americans created for themselves a music that spoke to their evolving cultural needs. And "spoke" is the right metaphor for Peretti who stresses the importance of the West African oral traditions in African American music from slave work chants down to hip hop. Almost every form of African American music is represented in this volume: spirituals as well as the classical concert tradition; blues, gospel, and rhythm & blues; jazz in most of its forms; Motown and soul, "pop" and funk, rap and hip hop. But this is not simply a narrative, although it is that too. Rather, Peretti's emphasis on the music's social and cultural meaning as well as the musicality itself enables him to present a clear yet sophisticated analysis.
Peretti's fundamental theme follows, with some critical corrections, the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's famous 1892 observation that in "the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble [American] school of music." (41) Peretti accurately notes that it would be through popular music, and not the classical tradition as Dvorak thought, that African American music would eventually permeate American musical culture. Further, in grounding that music in its broader cultural context, Peretti reveals its impact on Americans, black and white. Within the African American community, the music evoked a racial pride that sustained, encouraged, and proclaimed [End Page 272] a black consciousness across many centuries. Nor did the varieties of African American music live in sustained conflict with each other. The work songs and spirituals sung by generations of enslaved people could also find expression in the majestic classical singing of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marion Anderson, and Jessye Norman; and, despite initial negative reactions from some black church congregations, the creative mixture of blues, gospel, and R&B in the work of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin awed most critics.
Among white Americans, Peretti suggests, imitation often suggested the depth of this music's influence. At times, whites were simply impressed by the music's polyrhythmic power; often, however, white artists, perceiving the commercial possibilities of African American music's appeal after 1920, "co-opted" it, creating a stylized version of the original. This latter response, particularly in jazz, had a complex effect on the music itself. During the 1930s, Peretti explains, the musicians of "the jazz age"—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, for example—created a music that marked the start of "popular music's role as a weapon for community pride and activism among urban blacks" (93). The music itself raised a new sense of the possible and, with the echoes of Marcus Garvey's oratory still powerful, encouraged more public assertions and demands for equality and justice. With notable exceptions (Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa, and Benny Goodman), white musicians quickly realized the commercial possibilities and created "tamer" versions of this jazz that were nonetheless new and vibrant among whites. This, in turn, propelled younger black musicians—Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis among them—to reach for a more complex, demanding, and innovative jazz that transcended both accepted norms and a...