How African-Americans pioneered popular music

By John Hamlin
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE

The world knows American popular music well, and North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar Billy Stevens knows why.

Beginning in 1986, the State Department sent Stevens to 60 countries to perform and lecture on the history of blues and rock ’n’ roll. During his decade of cultural exchange, it struck him how well international audiences already knew American songs.

Billy Stevens performs "Oh! Susanna," the first popular song to sell 1 million copies. His banjo, which is totally handmade except for the strings and head, replicates that of a minstrel. (Staff photo by John Hamlin)

“I really wanted to investigate why our music is so popular all over the world. What is it that makes it so different and so interesting to people in other cultures?” he said. At first, Stevens suspected the United States’ massive entertainment industry, but others put it differently. “Mostly what people would say is, ‘There’s always something new coming out of America,’” Stevens said.

Stevens traced that innovation to the contributions of black musicians in a presentation that combined scholarship, music clips and live performance. He delivered “Sincere Forms of Flattery: Blacks, Whites, and American Popular Music,” to an audience of 50 at the Durham County Library on Sunday, March 20.

Studying bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Stevens found one major similarity. “What’s the common thread here? It’s pretty obvious: white folks playing black music,” he said. “What I didn’t realize until I went and did a master’s degree at the Univerity of Mississippi, is that this tradition goes back 150 years before Elvis Presley — this is actually the roots of all American popular music.”

African-Americans naturally led innovation because their traditional music, unlike that of any other ethnic group, was outlawed in America, Stevens said.

With Irish fiddles and an instrument of their own, the precursor to the banjo, slaves learned they could earn tips by entertaining the bored, isolated plantation owners. They played European songs but retained two key elements of African music, layered rhythms and blue notes, that gave rise to the first truly American music.

“It was very clear. Every time you gave an African-American musician a new instrument, they would pick it up, they’d start playing it and, bam — something new would happen,” he said. Then entrepreneurial white musicians, from 19th-century minstrels to 1960s rock bands, would hear these songs and adapt them for profit.

Stevens, also detailed Durham’s rich and unparalleled history of African-American music.

“Durham in the ’30s and the ’40s and into the ’50s was unique in terms of what kind of a black culture was here,” he said. That’s because Durham was a hub of working black people, thanks to the tobacco and hosiery industries, who had the money to demand music.

Interested in selling record players to black people, white entrepreneurs recorded the blues musicians who played in Durham’s streets, Stevens said.

J.B. Long, manager of the United Dollar Store in Durham, discovered Fulton “Blind Boy Fuller” Allen and “Reverend” Gary Davis in the mid-1930s and took them to New York City for recording.

Doletha Blake, who was born in Durham in 1931, said Stevens’ account of Durham was spot-on.

“It was excellent. You see, Durham’s my home — I could acknowledge everything he said about it,” she said. “I was quite young, but I remember it.”

Blake said she recalled the segregation at black musicians’ concerts at what is now the Civic Center in Durham.

“When they would bring the entertainers in, which was a big thing for black people then, the white people could come,” Blake said. “They had a certain section in the balcony where they could sit, but they could not come down on the floor and dance like we could.”Police patrolled to keep white people off the dance floor, she said.

“They’d walk up and tap them on the shoulder and send them back upstairs.”

Lynn Richardson, library historian of the North Carolina Collection, organized the event and said she plans to invite Stevens back. “I’ve known him for a while, and he kept saying, ‘Lynn — when are you going to invite me to speak at the library?’”

And Stevens, a Durhamite himself, said he appreciated the opportunity.

“The funny thing is, this is the first time I’ve ever given it in Durham, and I’ve been all over the state, all over the world.”

Commenting on more recent history, Stevens said no major new genre of African-American music has emerged since hip-hop developed in the late ’70’s.

“The interesting thing is that, in the history of African-American music, there has not been a significant new form of music created in two generations,” he said. “And that is a complete break in the historical continuity. Before that, you could pretty much say every generation had a personality, had a sound.”

Stevens said he plans to publish his research but still needs to find a writer and decide whether he wants to publish to a scholarly or general audience.

“I’ve got all the research. I’ve got a thesis. It really just needs to be edited,” he said.

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