TWINSBURG — Calling music “central to the cultural lives of black people and others,” Dr. William T. McDaniel explored periods of black history by focusing on the music of each era, during a Feb. 10 talk at Twinsburg Public Library.

“It’s impossible to talk about black history without talking about black culture, and music is a big part of it,” he said. “Music has helped to tell the story of African Americans throughout the years.”

McDaniel traveled from Columbus on a drizzly mid-winter day to present “Understanding Black History Through Black Music,” as part of the library’s Big Learn! “Twinsburg Makes Music” series in 2018 and Black History Month programs.

He is a professor emeritus of African-American studies and music at the Ohio State University. The program was made possible in part by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

McDaniel, who has been at OSU since 1981 and is a specialist in African American music, began by discussing work songs and spirituals of the slavery era and progressed through the jazz, rhythm-and-blues and Motown eras to today’s rap and hip-hop.

He points out that the latter two genres have overtaken rock ’n’ roll as the top musical style in America in terms of total consumption, according to Nielsen Music's 2017 year-end report.

Along the way, he played a handful of tunes to highlight the deep meanings of black music and how it brought about social change.

McDaniel said work songs and spirituals were popular during the slavery period as blacks expressed their feelings about economic and social exploitation, and attempted to take their minds off the tyranny of their masters.

McDaniel credited Christianity with having a lot to do with getting black people through slavery as they found faith in God. “They were forced to learn their master’s language, so they learned their master’s religion,” he said.

“Sometimes spirituals might seem like worship songs, but their point is to chronicle the lives of slaves, the hardships they endured and the opportunity for freedom,” McDaniel added.

Minstrels began with white folks in blackface making fun of African Americans.

“Later, blacks performed in the shows under the direction of whites, often imitating white people in blackface,” he explained.

During the period of Ku Klux Klan terrorism, McDaniel said some black songs focused on the fear blacks had of whites, such as a song by Bessie Smith with the lyrics “I hate to see the evening sun go down.” 

McDaniel said blues perhaps influenced 20th century music the most, because of its ability to tell a personal story.

The civil rights movement brought forth new opportunities for blacks to express their feelings musically. McDaniel cited Sam Cooke’s 1964 “A Change Is Gonna Come” as an example.

“I was born by the river in a little tent

“Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since

“It's been a long time, a long time coming

“But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Another example is James Brown’s “Say It Loud.”

“Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud

“Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud

“Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud

“Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud, oh!”

However, McDaniel noted some of the black songs were considered too political to air on radio.

"Strange Fruit" was one of those. Recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans.

“She took an incredible risk recording that song,” said McDaniel. “She put her life on the line, and many radio stations refused to play it.”

McDaniel said the Motown era was essential in helping black musicians explode onto the American scene.

“It was an extremely important era in the history of black music,” he said. “There was no other company like Barry Gordy’s Jr.’s Motown label.”

McDaniel said Gordy wanted to see black artists on American music’s top 40 charts — not just the R & B charts — so he signed talented people such as the Four Tops, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye.

McDaniel said rap and hip-hop music also became an opportunity to promote social change through music. 

“It’s like the performers are saying ‘I’ll say it the way I want to say it, so deal with it,’” he noted. “It’s a way for young people to say things in their own way.”

McDaniel said black music is a treasured art for choirs at primarily black colleges such as Fiske, Morehouse and Tuskegee. It was noted that the latter choir will perform March 9 at Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland.

McDaniel told the audience there are several places where Americans can learn more about black music such as the Motown Museum in Detroit, Funk Music Hall of Fame & Exhibition Center in Dayton and National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of African American Music is scheduled to open in 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

McDaniel has lectured extensively throughout the U.S., directed the Ohio State Jazz Ensemble, is affiliated with several organizations, has written several works, is a music arranger and has earned countless awards.

Other Black History Month presentations at the library last week were “Breaking the Brick Wall: Researching the Slavery Era” by Dr. Deborah Abbott and “Carl and Louis Stokes: From Projects to Politics” by the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400 ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com.