Despite the fact that we live in one of the world's few truly pluralistic societies, Americans are as prone to pigeonholing as any people. Just look at the way we deal with our popular music, sorting it not only on the basis of function (e.g., "dance music," "easy listening" and the like) but also through arcane notions of style and ethnicity.
Take, for example, the term "black music." Although the styles have changed over the years, moving from blues and R&B; to soul and urban contemporary, the bottom line has remained essentially the same: "Black" music is any music played largely by black musicians. Conversely, most fans take it as equally obvious that any style not dominated by black performers -- country music, for example, or rock and roll -- is not black music.
To its credit, this color-coded approach does leave room for exceptions. Jessye Norman sings at the Metropolitan Opera and Charlie Pride at the Grand Ol' Opry, while Hall & Oates play the Apollo and Lisa Stansfield turns up on "Video Soul," all in the name of "crossover."
In order to cross over, however, there must first be a boundary to cross, something separating black pop from every other kind. And the truth is that there isn't. Because if we ignore pigmentation and instead use "having a strong African-American influence" as our musical definition, then virtually every kind of pop music on the market these days would count as "black music."
Think about it for a moment. Rock and roll's debt to African-American sources ought to be obvious, and the same goes for jazz. But if you don't think country music owes anything, you might want to ask yourself where the blues in Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodels" came from -- or, for that matter, how it was that Hank Williams kept singing songs like "Lovesick Blues," "Moanin' the Blues" and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues." And though Latin music is widely considered to be a strictly Hispanic affair, any sound driven by congas, timbales or other "Latin" percussion instruments has its roots not in Spain but in West Africa.
Indeed, the basic building blocks of modern pop -- syncopation, backbeat, blue notes and soul singing -- are all products of African-American culture. Without them, there would be very little left to make our music seem uniquely American.
To understand how astonishingly pervasive this influence is, think for a moment about the way we keep time -- not clock time, of course, but musical time. Anyone who has ever clapped along with a rock song probably knows that it's the afterbeats that count; if the count is "one-two-three-four," our part goes "pause-clap!-pause-clap!" That's the backbeat, and as Chuck Berry noted in his hit "Rock and Roll Music," we listeners "just can't lose it."
But where did it come from? Most European music puts its emphasis on primary beats (the "one" and the "three" in that four-beat structure). But much African music prefers to imply those beats, placing its stress on the off-beats (the "two" and the "four"). So deeply ingrained is this sense of rhythm that musicologist John Miller Chernoff, in his book "African Rhythm and African Sensibility," tells of watching a group of small children in a Ghanaian village dancing to the sound of a record player. "The smallest of all was so young she could hardly keep from missing her hands while she clapped them and bounced," he writes, "but significantly, even she clapped on the second and fourth beats."
Our rock and roll beat -- boom-thwack!-boom boom-thwack! -- draws from both. We hear the bass drum (the "boom") stating the primary beats in classic Western fashion, but feel the snare (the "thwack!") as it focuses the rhythm, African-style, on the off-beats.
Another important debt we owe to the African influences in our music is syncopation. Ever since the late 19th century, American pop songs have enhanced their rhythmic appeal by letting the melody's accents fall not on the beat, but slightly ahead or behind it. It was this jauntiness that made ragtime seem ragged, that put the swing into the swing era, and gave the jump to jump blues, and it, too, is a reflection of African-derived rhythmic ideas.
Ragtime is widely considered the root of these rhythmic ideas, and though the earliest rags weren't written down until the 1890s, historians believe that the rhythmic ideas date back much further. Music historian Charles Hamm, in his book "Music in the New World," writes that the cakewalk -- the dance associated with most early rags -- is believed by dance historians to be "a descendant of the Ring Shout dance known to have been done by slaves, which in turn traces its ancestry to the African circle dance."
(African rhythmic ideas have turned up, relatively unchanged, in other parts of the American pop landscape, particularly in Latin music. In fact, many of the drum patterns used in salsa and Caribbean music today have easily-recognizable counterparts in African music).
Obviously, the blues sprang out of the African American community, but just how completely it has permeated the sound American music takes some explaining. After all, it isn't all as obvious as hearing similarities between, say, John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen" and Z. Z. Top's "La Grange."
Blues scholar Sam Charters devoted an entire volume, "Roots of the Blues," to finding similarities between African vocal music and American blues, and in the process found influences many listeners would never have suspected. For instance, he noted similarities between older Southern styles of banjo picking and the sort of repetitious rhythmic patterns employed by African griots (singer-storytellers).
What makes this particularly interesting is that even though the banjo is itself an African-derived instrument, all the old-time pickers Charters heard were white. Apparently, rock and roll is not the first seemingly "white" pop style to have deep roots in "black" music.
Perhaps the blues' most deeply ingrained influence, though, is on vocal styles. Traditional Tin Pan Alley pop songs don't leave singers much room to fool around -- the melody sticks either with a major key or a minor one, and the vocalist is expected to be as true to the character of the melody as he or she is to the pitch.
Blues, though, is far more slippery. Instead of holding to the intervals which mark the difference between a major key and a minor, blues singers tend to slip between them, moving freely from the open "major" tones to the flatted "minor" and back. Except that blues singers aren't the only ones who do this -- rockers, jazz singers, and country stars also join in the fun. Indeed, what tends to give country singers that "high, lonesome sound" are blues inflections, many of which date back to the '20s.
Of course, this cross-cultural borrowing was hardly a one-way street. As Hamm's "Music in the New World" points out, the absorption of European elements into African-American music dates back "almost from the time of the first arrival of black slaves in America." Slave fiddlers were in great demand for plantation dances, and black congregations eagerly learned the Methodist hymns they were taught by the circuit riders eager to convert them.
But then, that sort of cultural assimilation is what ultimately gives American music its character. Just as country music sprang from the intermingling of African-American blues and Scots-Irish ballads, or soul from a combination of gospel vocals and a rock and roll beat, so too are newer styles developing even now, like the hybrid of rap and metal hinted at by Ice-T, Faith No More and Anthrax.
All of which makes the notion of "black music" as a separate entity seem ludicrous, if not outright discriminatory. After all, music itself observes no racial barriers; why, then, should its listeners?