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George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2006

IU professors' new book charts African American music's many rhythms

Looks at every musical genre, women who helped create them

Feb. 14, 2006

EDITORS: Mellonee Burnim and Portia Maultsby will be among several IU authors signing books at the African American Arts Institute's "Grand Nites in Grand Hall" on Thursday (Feb. 16) at 7 p.m. in the Grand Hall of the Neal-Marshall Black Culture, 275 N. Jordan Ave. on the IU Bloomington campus.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Hip-hop, the cultural movement that began in the 1970s among African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Latinos in New York, is a soundtrack for many Americans in 2006. It's being embraced by almost everyone and is being used to sell nearly everything from cars to clothes and hamburgers. Hip-hop artists have some of the most popular sounds downloaded into MP3 players.

"There is a tendency now to look at African American music as simply 'American music' because of its pervasive influence, particularly in popular music," said Portia Maultsby, an Indiana University professor of ethnomusicology. "Once black music leaves its original context, it begins to take on different meanings and serve different functions, and it is interpreted very differently."

"For example, the controversy around hip-hop occurred when it left inner-city communities and moved into the mainstream. The music has been repositioned and redefined and thus it's misunderstood," added Maultsby, who directs the Archives of African American Music and Culture at IU Bloomington.

Mellonee Burnim, also a professor of ethnomusicology at IU, offered another example. "Even though jazz was a music that evolved in the context of African American culture, the people who later came to be known as the kings of jazz -- Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman -- were white," Burnim said.

Maultsby and Burnim hope their new 706-page book, African American Music: An Introduction (Routledge, 2006), will create greater awareness about the music and its origins, as well as issues distinctive to each genre. They wrote several of the book's 30 essays, along with 24 other authors, in what they believe is the most comprehensive examination of African American music -- sacred and secular -- from the days of slavery to the present, representing a wide array of perspectives.

Among Maultsby's many classes on popular music of black America and the music industry, she created the first for-credit college course on hip-hop music and culture in the United States. She has researched the industry since the late 1970s. Burnim specializes in African American religious music and music of the African diaspora. A Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music in 2004, she has done field work across the United States and in Cuba, Liberia and Malawi. Both also hold adjunct appointments in the IU Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies.

Photo by: Chris Meyer, IU University Communications

Portia Maultsby (left) and Mellonee Burnim

Print-Quality Photo

The book offers 14 chapters on musical genres, including secular folk music, spirituals and gospel music, blues, ragtime, jazz, classical music, rhythm and blues, soul, disco and house, funk and rap. Nearly 100 pages are devoted to the popular and gospel music industries, including profiles of record labels such as Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International. Another 100 pages are devoted to women and the music.

Contributors to the book include Bernice Johnson Reagon, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock; Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records; John A. Johnson, author of A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul; and David Evans, professor of music at the University of Memphis and producer of more than 40 blues and folk albums.

Several IU alumni scholars and faculty members also provided chapters, including Susan Oehler, education programs manager at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Eileen Hayes, assistant professor of music at the University of North Texas; and Charles Sykes, director of IU's African American Arts Institute.

An early review from the Association of College and Research Libraries said of African American Music, "No other publication on this subject is as intensive or inclusive as this one."

Burnim and Maultsby said the book is not simply a history of the development of African American music. It brings to the foreground the voices of those who created the music, who lived it and who continue to live it. Unlike previous scholarly works on the subject, particularly Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans: A History (W.W. Norton, 1971), this new book is largely based on field research and interviews with performers.

Maultsby spoke with the original drummer for Little Richard, who described what influenced the performer's shift from the shuffle pattern of R&B to what came to be known as the rock and roll beat.

"He explained that Little Richard wanted to bring a new kind of energy to rhythm and blues music," Maultsby said. "He took his drummer outside his home in Macon, Ga., as a train approached and said, 'Listen to the train. That's the kind of sound I want -- choo-chi-choo-choo, choo-chi-choo-choo," she recounted. "He called it 'choo-choo rhythm.' He said that was the beginning of his new style of rhythm and blues, which then was marketed to white teenagers under the rock and roll label. The roots of rock and roll rest within R&B, yet the person named the king of rock and roll was Elvis Presley, and such innovators as Little Richard were virtually ignored."

Five authors, including Burnim, look at the challenges faced by female artists. They present how the experience of black female musicians in gospel, blues, rock, jazz and women-identified music each shared a common experience, regardless of the style they performed.

Burnim cited one of her personal musical heroes, singer Mahalia Jackson, who sold the first million-selling gospel record in the 1940s and who was a beloved performer in Europe as well as in the United States.

"Behind the scenes, Mahalia Jackson was fighting battles with her husband," Burnim said. "He gave her absolute grief because she was committed to singing gospel music exclusively. She had substantial offers from recording companies to sing secular music as well as offers to go into secular contexts, and she always refused to do so. It was her husband's belief that gospel music was substandard and that she was wasting her voice by singing this form of music ... Eventually the cost of her choices was her marriage.

"When she went into recording studios she had constant challenges," she continued. "She talked about going into a recording session once -- it was a television program in Chicago -- and she was accustomed to singing in her own style with piano and organ accompaniment. She went in and started to sing a song that she had chosen, and after the first take the producer stopped her and told her that she was not singing the song the correct way.

"She said, 'How could he tell me that I was not doing the song correctly, when I was born with this song in my mouth,'" Burnim related. "Here was someone who was outside the tradition, was not an African American, but who because of his position of power and authority felt he had the right and the knowledge to instruct her on how to perform the music."

Other women faced challenges performing on certain instruments because they weren't seen as feminine. "It is important to see what the women went through and what they accomplished in spite of the odds ... not only race but gender," Burnim said.

The book concludes with a section on African American music as resistance and chronicles the strategies musicians employed to protect and negotiate control over their own cultural products.

"During slavery, blacks resorted to practices such as double meanings in songs, ones which only they understood, in order to assert their collective voice," Burnim said. "By the 20th century, black musicians raised their voices in opposition to drug addiction within black communities and apartheid and famine in Africa. The music of African Americans then and now has been music of both celebration and critique. The spirit of resistance is alive and well."

For interviews with Burnim and Maultsby, please contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or