The early growth and rapid expansion of popular American music in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America had widespread and irreversible effects on not only the growing black population, but also on America as a whole. The growth and evolution of music in this period, though fraught with racism and obstacles for the black performer, prepared the nation for the cultural revolution that allowed for the improvement of race relations and, ultimately, the gradual acceptance of a multi-racial national identity.
Certainly this change did not come about easily, overt racism dominated the minstrel show even as it provided employment opportunities for black performers; revisionist histories abound, especially in the development of jazz music, as the invaluable contributions of the black artists preceding the jazz movement often had their story rewritten to assert the development of jazz music by white artists instead. Despite these challenges, the growth and spread of music in this era was ultimately a positive influence on black culture.
In addition to priming the nation for the eventual slow acceptance of race, music afforded blacks opportunities to earn a living, facilitated dispersion and growth of communities and also served as a sort of emotional release and expressionism. Almost undoubtedly, early popular music, that of minstrel shows, had a negative impact on the black community. With racist depictions of slaves as bug-eyed, ignorant and worthless these minstrel shows served to spread these racist ideas, and as they grew in popularity, to embed them in the national idea of black culture.
Further, preformed by white men in blackface, acts such as Jim Crow (a character based on a crippled black man, taken to extremes) came to symbolize black culture for decades to come. These racist depictions and justifications of slavery continued on throughout the 1880s, it was not until after this time that the music really began to develop an artistic side and began to tone down the racism. After this time minstrel shows began playing to black audiences and eventually began to hire black performers, even if they did have to apply blackface and perform a version of a black man playing a white man playing a black man.
Such changes first came about in well known fashion in the Christy Minstrels put on by Edward Christy. Christy hired black performers and developed the narratives in the shows a bit further than the simple racist depictions of Jim Crow. In spite of these opportunities for employment, minstrel shows did little to reduce racism and, in fact, only served to embed these racist ideas in popular culture.
Though the obvious racism and segregation is inescapable throughout the history of minstrel shows, the gradual acceptance of black actors and audiences presaged later developments of acceptance and expansion of black culture throughout America and provided black entertainers with the best opportunity available to them. The emergence of Tin Pan Alley and the commercialization of sheet music and recordings greatly expanded popular music in America and set the way for the development of jazz music in the following decades.
Though most of the successful songwriters in Tin Pan Alley were white, there was a significant black presence, especially early in the development of the industry. Fletcher Henderson, who later achieved much success in the jazz scene, got his start there. Other black artists such as Bob Cole and Chris Smith along with W. C. Handy saw some early success in selling their music to Tin Pan Alley [Jazz: the first 100 years, Martin, Waters 85].
George Washington Johnson also realized early success selling his tunes to Tin Pan Alley, and for the first time it became apparent that there were growing opportunities for black artists to earn higher wages and advance their place in society [Constructing Tin Pan Alley: From Minstrelsy to Mass Culture 17]. Despite these early successes, as was the case throughout the development of popular music and culture, the songs selected were made with a white audience in mind and sung by mostly white singers, highlighting the slow crawl of racial equality.
Again, though faced with a variety of obstacles and racists views, Tin Pan Alley afforded an opportunity for some black artists and served to spread the cultural developments of black performers, especially in the popularity of ragtime, allowing for future expansion and development in the years to come. As black artists merged the rhythms and feelings of West African music with the emotions of blues and ideas of ragtime and new type of music began to emerge from the South. With an eclectic mix of races, class and urban and rural environments, New Orleans came to be the center of early jazz development.
The eventual explosion of jazz in the 1920s was foreshadowed by the quick rise to popularity jazz experienced in the city. Jazz music provided black artists with a possibility of relatively steady employment and eventually facilitated the dispersion of black culture throughout America. As jazz rose to popularity there was certainly a great deal of resistance on both musical and racial levels. Fearing perversions of moral and musical ideals, many whites resisted jazz initially. Once jazz experienced an increase in popularity revisionist histories appeared, removing black contribution or playing up white roles in the development of jazz.
Segregation still appeared frequently as black bands could not get jobs playing to white audiences and it wasn’t until the late 1930s that Benny Goodman’s band, featuring both black and white performers played to a white audience . Regardless of the racial and social obstacles faced by black jazz musicians, jazz also presented a new path of development. The growing popularity of jazz coupled with technological innovations spurred the expansion and spread of black communities and culture across America.
Cities such as Chicago, New York and to a lesser degree, Los Angeles saw huge growth the size and culture of black populations. This growing cultural acceptance of jazz, even if popular jazz bore only a cursory resemblance to traditional jazz served to entwine black and white society, paving the way for acceptance and a re-evaluation of racist ideals and thoughts. As was the case in minstrel shows and Tin Pan Alley, the most successful jazz musicians were white, but this truth could not escape the fact that American popular culture was firmly rooted in the development and advancement of black culture.
Throughout the development of popular American music, an inescapable current of racism ran through almost every step. From minstrel shows based on Jim Crow and performers in blackface to the co-opting of black artists songs for white men to the revisionist history of jazz, black culture was continually diminished. In spite of theses hurdles, the development of music also afforded the black artist, and by extension, the black community previously unheard of opportunities for advancement.
Weather acting in minstrel shows, recording for Tin Pan Alley or leading a jazz orchestra, black artists were able to take advantage of these new developments for earning. Further, the combining of cultures between black and white served to help along the gradual acceptance of the black community as an equal part of America. Finally, because of the technological and musical explosions occurring, black communities were able to branch out and establish new opportunities for cultural development, education and earning across America, fueling a growing black middle-class.
Clearly not an easy transition, the growth of popular music in America served to expand the opportunities of black communities while priming white America for the gradual steps of acceptance and equality.