Influential African American composers

With such a historical inauguration behind and the month of February before, it’s time to look a little more closely at those who contributed to classical music.

Though classical music is typically associated with dead white males (i.e. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms), not every faces was Caucasian. From afrocubanismo to “The Charleston,” classical music is full of contributions from African American composers and musicians.

Important African American Composers: George Walker, R. Nathaniel Dett, Amadeo Roldán, James Price Johnson

Take George Walker (b. 1922), for instance. This 20th century composer and pianist won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his composition Lilacs. Premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Lilacs is a work written for voice and orchestra. Walker also studied under the prestigious Nadia Boulanger, a piano teacher famed for her even more famous students Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson and Elliot Carter.

R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) greatly contributed to choral literature and is perhaps best known for directing the Hampton Institute Choir. Composing several oratorios and Biblical vignettes, R. Nathaniel Dett drew inspiration for his music from the deep spiritual lives of men and women long subjected to oppression.

Where would the avant garde percussion ensemble be if Cuban composer Amadeo Roldán (1900-1939) had not written his Rítmicas (No. V and VI)? Considered a pioneering composer in the afrocubanismo compositional style, Roldán relied on polyrhythmic motives that gave his music a pulsing energy. Roldán also wrote a ballet, La Rebambaramba, which was based on the sounds of 19th century Havana.

Finally, James Price Johnson (1894-1955) helped to give the 1920s the music that would define the decade. As a prolific composer of musicals, James Price Johnson co-wrote the 1923 Broadway production Runnin’ Wild. Though the rest of the musical didn’t survive long, the tune and dance for “The Charleston” became a smash hit.

AfriClassical’s Black History Quiz: Introduction to African American Composers

The four composers featured here were simply a small taste of the many ways in which African Americans have influenced classical music. The website AfriClassical provides an interactive experience for those wishing to learn more about African American composers. Not only are audio clips of select performances available, but short synopses of recommended albums also direct the novice towards a sampling of diverse styles and periods.

Now it’s time for a test. Who was the black trumpeter for King Henry VIII? Which conductor received the National Medal of Arts in 2005? Who was the first African American woman to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra? Who composed Negro Folk Symphony?

What is Americana Music

Americana Music is defined by the (AMA) as American roots music, based on traditions of Country and R&B. The music can be traced back to R&B mixed with (Elvis) Hillbilly or Rock & Roll, in this century. Americana in the radio format was developed in the 1990’s.

The concept was that some Artist and music did not fit comfortably in any certain genre of Country or Rock, so thru the efforts of Bob Bleetstein of San Francisco and Jon Grimson of Nashville, a radio format called Americana was developed. The Americana Music Association (AMA) was established later to expand the idea.

Americana music can be an amalgam (combination) fused by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions of what makes up American music. Specifically the sound that make up Folk, Country, Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll with some other external influential styles this according the Americana Music Association ( AMA).

Americana is sometimes referred to alt-country. The genre is also referred to “insurgent country, rockabilly, cowpunk, progressive country, regressive country, roots rock and many others. Whatever it is called the New York Times refer it as “the coolest music in the world today” Some of the most significant artist in Americana are the most significant artist in other genre.

Artist like Steve Earle, John Prine, Neil Young, Charlie Daniels, The Band, Lyle Lovett, Son Volt and Wilco, artist of today were influenced by the artist of yesterday like Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, and Eddie Arnold, Lester Flatt and Ernest Tubb, T- Bone Walker, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to name a few.

Country Music

Genres of music that artist and music are considered Americana are: Traditional Country- is raw and unadorned (Hank Williams) the time period is from 1930’s-50. Jimmy Rodgers Classic Country-(George Jones, Loretta Lynn) more modern style of Traditional Country (1960’s -70’s) Buck Owens Honkey Tonk- fun blend of Classic & Traditional with up tempo (Merle Haggard).

Country Western- is a blend of old country folk tradition and Western expansion. Western Swing- Originated by Milton Browne and popularized by Bob Wills. Associated with dance like polka and waltz- Asleep at the wheel. Cowboy Country- Gene Audrey (Ghost riders in the Shy). Gospel-Part of Folk, Bluegrass and Blues tradition.

Folk Traditions

Traditional Folk-Early Culture music that was handed down through generations. Mountain Music- related folk music from the mountains. Hillbilly-Mountain music mixed with traditional folk dance. Cajun- Music from the decedents of French speaking Catholics from Acadiana Canada living in southwest Louisiana. Zydeco- Evolved in Southwest Louisiana from Blues forms combined with Creole, French Cajun, African and Caribbean. New Folk- Singer-Songwriter Folk Rock- Rock & Folk mix.


Traditional- created and popularized by Bill Monroe Hard driving traditional acoustic-high vocal harmonies. Classic style- Earl Scruggs brought his 3 finger banjo picking to Bluegrass and created the sound that most people associate with today Dobro/acoustic style- a more modern sound with resophonic guitar. (Alison Krauss) Gospel- country, blues and folk tradition-bill Monroe Newgrass- derivative style based on improvisation.


Country Blues-James Cotton-Ernie Hawkins Delta Blues-Robert Johnson Chicago Blues-Buddy Guy Gospel – also part of country and bluegrass-the Blind Boys of Alabama Blues Rock- Cream -Yardbirds Jazz–Charlie Parker Traditional– Red Nichols Dixieland– Louis Armstrong Swing- important here being the roots of Western Swing Benny Goodman-Count Basie.


Rockabilly-mix of early rock and country for jump-step and swing Carl Perkins, Elvis Roots Rock- stray cats Classic Rock–60’s -70’s Boogie-Woogie–Jell roll Morton WC Handy AAA- Adult album alternative -pop music sophisticated.


Author: knowledge herald

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