African-American Musical Pioneers

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Image of Scott Joplin. Public Domain

 Musician Scott Joplin is known as the King of Ragtime.   Joplin perfected the musical artform and published songs such as The Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainerand Please Say You Will. He also composed operas such as Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. Considered one of the greatest composers of the early 20th century, Joplin inspired jazz musicians.

In 1897, Joplin's Original Rags is published marking the popularity of ragtime music. Two years later, Maple Leaf Rag is published and provides Joplin with fame and recognition. It also influenced other composers of ragtime music.

After relocating to St. Louis in 1901, Joplin. continues to publish music. His most famous works included The Entertainer and March Majestic. Joplin also composes the theatrical workThe Ragtime Dance.

By 1904 Joplin is creating an opera company and produces A Guest of Honor. The company embarked on a national tour that was shortlived after box office receipts were stolen, and Joplin could not afford to pay the company players. After moving to New York City with the hopes of finding a new producer, Joplin composes Treemonisha. Unable to find a producer, Joplin publishes the opera himself at a hall in Harlem.

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 William Christopher Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues” because of his ability to push the musical form from having regional to national recognition.

In 1912 Handy published Memphis Blues as sheet music and the world was introduced to Handy’s 12-bar blues style.

The music inspired New York-based dance team Vernon and Irene Castle to create the foxtrot. Others believe it was the first blues song. Handy sold the rights to the song for $100.

That same year, Handy met Harry H. Pace, a young business man. The two men opened Pace and Handy Sheet Music. By 1917, Handy had moved to New York City and published songs such as Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues, and Saint Louis Blues.

Handy published the original recording of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Saxophone Blues,” written by Al Bernard. Others such as Madelyn Sheppard wrote songs such as “Pickanninny Rose and “O Saroo.”

In 1919, Handy recorded “Yellow Dog Blues” which is considered the best-selling recording of Handy’s music.

The following year, blues singer Mamie Smith was recording songs published by Handy including “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”

In addition to his work as a bluesman, Handy composed more than 100 gospel composition and folk arrangements. One of his songs “Saint Louis Blues” was recorded by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong is considered one of the best of the 1920s.

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Thomas Dorsey: Father of Black Gospel Music

Thomas Dorsey playing the piano. Public Domain

Gospel music founder Thomas Dorsey once said, “Gospel is good music sent down from the Lord to save the people…There is no such thing as black music, white music, red or blue music…It’s what everybody needs.” 

Early in Dorsey's musical career, he was inspired to infuse blues and jazz sounds with traditional hymns. Calling it "gospel songs," Dorsey began recording this new musical form in 1920s. However, churches were resistant to Dorsey's style. In an interview, he once said, “Several times I have been thrown out of some of the best churches...but they just didn't understand.” 

Yet, by 1930, Dorsey's new sound was becoming accepted and he performed at the National Baptist Convention. 

In 1932, Dorsey became the musical director of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. That same year, his wife, died as a the result of childbirth. In response, Dorsey wrote, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The song and Dorsey revolutionized gospel music.

Throughout a career that spanned more than sixty years, Dorsey introduced the world to gosepl singer Mahalia Jackson. Dorsey traveled greatly to spread gospel music. He taught workshops, lead choruses and composed more than 800 gospel songs. Dorsey’s music has been recorded by a wide variety of singers. 

"Precious Lord, Take My Hand" was sung at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. and is a classic gospel song.