When I teach about music in my African American Studies classes, I often use a framework articulated to me by one of my friends and mentors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Craig Werner. It is very useful in helping students, many of whom are not used to listening deeply to music and/or who might not be familiar with African American culture, hear "black music" in new and constructive ways.
Craig's framework starts with an assertion:
“African American music and African American history are deeply rooted in what the great novelist Ralph Ellison called the underlying ‘impulses’ of African American culture: blues, gospel and jazz.”
Here are the three impulses and Craig's descriptions:
The Blues Impulse: “The blues confront the suffering at the center of [African American history] and articulate the isolation an despair, the sense that black people have been cast adrift in a world where the devil has taken control. Rather than giving in to those feelings, blues artists ‘finger the jagged grain’ of the ‘blues experience’ and tell their stories in voices that walk the line between despair and laughter, asserting black humanity in a world predicated, as Martin Luther King, Jr., observed, on the ‘thinginfication’ of human beings.”
The Gospel Impulse: “The gospel impulse bears witness to the burdens of life, often the same experiences that gave rise to the blues. But where the blues celebrate survival, gospel seeks redemption with both individual and communal dimensions. Whatever its specific form – traditional gospel, reggae, soul, the celebratory moments of disco and house music – gospel reconnects individuals with powers larger than themselves: God and a community committed to, as Mahalia Jackson sang, ‘moving on up.’”
The Jazz Impulse: “Where both blues and gospel are grounded in the ways things are, the jazz impulse imagines what might be. Jazz impulse artists, many of whose records will never be filed in the jazz section of the record store, assemble pieces drawn from a limitless range of traditions into models of a new world. New combinations of sounds imply new ways of thinking about self, community, and their role in what Ellison called ‘link[s] in the chain of tradition.”
Now, when you listen, try to seek out these impulses...
Here are a few of Craig's books, if you are interested:
• A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America
• Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul
• Up around the Bend: The Oral History Of Creedence Clearwater Revival