By Nicole McCray
Black History Month coincided with the release of the new compilation, Birthright: A Black Roots Music Compendium (Craft Recordings, 2023). Listeners who want to learn about Black music history can enjoy and rejoice in Black artists’ impact on American music throughout history.
Some of the recordings are old, and others are new, so you have an excellent mix of artists and a range of styles, including gospel music and blues. Artists themselves range from smaller-time musicians or newcomers like Ranky Tanky to more iconic, well-known performers like Odetta and The Staple Singers. There are forty tracks across two compact discs. Music historian and Grammy nominee Dr. Ted Olsen and renowned Grammy-winner songwriter, author, and performer Scott Billington produced the compilation.
The music offers a wide range of American Black roots music and showcases the influence of these musical styles in popular culture. The album pays solid tribute to its historical beginnings, with essays included from musicians and scholars Corey Harris and Dom Flemons, who also contributed music to the album.
The Essays Tell the Story
Harris wrote, “When our captive ancestors were driven off the slave ship on to the shores of a strange land, they had these songs with them…..Stringed instruments and household items like jugs, spoons, bones, and washboards became our weapons of circumstance.”
Foundational recordings were critical, giving Black music roots the ability for artists to “speak for themselves,” as Flemons put it. “The performance could in essence reflect the inherent value of a unique ‘Black’ culture. This early documentation is an essential resource for our understanding of Black roots music of the past.”
Gospel made a significant breakthrough during the rise of the music record industry for Black music, paving the way for rock n’ roll, soul and, eventually, hip hop. Many of these songs are used by those rooted in Black music today, and can be incorporated, with Track Club music licensing, to create videos, podcasts, radio shows, and more. Their influence spans lifetimes.
The Musical Artists
“There has been wave after wave of Black roots artists who have built a new bridge to the past,” Flemons writes. “No matter the era, the musical innovations of the African and Caribbean Diaspora are still prevalent in the hands, feet, instruments, and voices of each of these artisans, no matter how refined or down-home they may sound.”
You can hear it in The Staple Singers’ “Motherless Children,” a timeless gospel image for many. The song was originally recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in the late 1920s. It was autobiographical since his mother had died when he was young. Its original title was “Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time,” and the struggle is heard within the lyric line, “Well we don’t have anywhere to go / Wandering ‘round from door to door.”
Odetta’s vocals and guitar expertise sail confidently and powerfully in the song “Special Delivery Blues.” Within this 1920s gem, she tells the story of a woman whose man leaves, saying he would write to her. Unfortunately, the song doesn’t have a happy tale to tell, as she never receives any letters and has the “special delivery blues.”
Musical Traditions in Birthright
The tracks throughout Birthright also contain elements of the gospel from mid-twentieth-century field recordings. Many of the musical traditions from Black music culture are showcased, such as Bessie Jones’ “Yonder Come Day.” Jones was a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, a group founded to preserve the music from the Southern coastal Gullah culture.
Another tradition preserved is the Creole tradition, which can be heard in the song “Eunice Two Step” by the duo Bois Sec Ardoin (accordion) and Canray Fontenot (fiddle). It reflects the sounds heard in rural Louisiana before the “more modern Zydeco genre” came about, Ted Olsen notes.
In an interview, Flemons plainly said, “When I was first approached to be a part of the Birthright album, I knew that I wanted my essay to unravel the strange and twisted journey and history of Black American Roots Music. There has been a staggering amount of music left behind, ranging from the legitimate Euro-classical arranged Jubilee groups of the late 19th century to the down-home field recordings of the mid-to-late 20th-century blues singers and songsters.”
Listening to the artists within this compilation gives you a solid glimpse into the lives of those growing up during difficult times. Black roots music gives hope to people who know that when they are downtrodden or coping with anxiety, falling on hard times, or whatever the burden, they can find it within themselves to rise above it and keep going.