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The Rich Legacy of African-American Musicians

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Prodigy. Genius. Icon. We’ve all heard these attached to our musical heroes. In The Song of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness (BR19079), author and professor Terry Rowden explores how the amazing talent, careers, and lives of blind and visually impaired African American musicians and singers have reflected and often influenced the changes in the lives of African Americans and people with disabilities over the last one hundred years.

To honor African American History Month, we are delighted to share some information about some of the African American composers, musicians, and performers we have come to know better through our services from the NLS Music Section, attendance at performances, word-of-mouth, and Professor Rowden’s important book.

Combining the terms “blind” and “African American” in a search of the music world, two names come to the forefront: Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles had a large following with his devotion to the blues and love of country music standards. Our audio collection talks about him in the story of “Jump Street” (DBM00715) and he is included in Bill Irwin’s “A Light History of Jazz Piano” (DBM03681). His autobiography is also available from the braille collection, “Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story” (BR16278) and on BARD.

Ray Charles, half-length portrait, seated at the piano, facing right

The mention of Stevie Wonder in any conversation elicits excitement. The Library of Congress awarded this talented composer and musician the Gershwin Prize in 2009, and, as a bonus, witnessed the premiere of a commissioned work, “Sketches of Life.” The NLS Music Section has a number of Stevie’s hits in the collection: “Sir Duke” (BRM24701), “Songs in the Key of Life” (BRM26034), and “Lately” (BRM36194). We also have a number of his tunes in Popular Music Lead Sheets 101, 103, 104, 105 and 106.

Henry Butler (1948-2018) was born in New Orleans and attended the Louisiana State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge. He studied piano, drums and trombone and learned to read braille music for his classical studies, while learning popular music by ear. He earned a master’s degree from Michigan State University in 1974 and returned to New Orleans to teach at the Performing Arts High School of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He recorded as a jazz musician and continued his teaching career as well. In 1993 he started a series of jazz camps and workshops in different cities to teach blind and vision-impaired musicians. The Music’s Gonna Get You Through (2010) is a documentary of such a camp in New Orleans, which provided instruction in performing and adaptive technology. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina wiped out Mr. Butler’s home and collection of original compositions (in braille) and archives of live recordings. The Library of Congress hosted Henry Butler and Allen Toussaint in concert November, 2007, and provided interviews.

Marcus Roberts is known to the NLS Music section as a patron, and the world knows him as a leading jazz composer and musician. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Roberts studied classical piano at Florida State University. His performances range from jazz to classical. He performs and tours with his trio, the Marcus Roberts Trio, comprised of Marcus with Rodney Jordan (bass) and Jason Marsalis (drums). In addition to performing, the group has engaged in mentoring younger jazz musicians with the group The Modern Jazz Generation since 2013. He has also received multiple commissions from Chamber Music America and Jazz at Lincoln Center. As an educator, he is Associate Artistic Director at the Savannah Music Festival and Director of the annual Swing Central Jazz programs for high school students. He is currently an associate professor of music at the School of Music, Florida State University, and holds an honorary Doctor of Music degree from The Juilliard School.

The Blind Boys of Alabama are a beloved vocal ensemble, founded in 1939 and continuing to the present day. There have been personnel changes during its tenure, but the emphasis of their music has remained on gospel. They have resisted the commercial lure of secular music and have collaborated with many artists. To date, they have won six Grammy awards and four Dove awards, in addition to being nominated a number of years. A particular album they recorded caught my attention: God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson is a tribute album to gospel musician Blind Willie Johnson.

One final and very important mention: Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime, who almost single-handedly created a new musical genre with syncopated rhythms and lively melodies. How can you not feel better after hearing a lively ragtime tune? In audio format for the piano, we have “Maple Leaf Rag” (DBM02825), and “The Entertainer” (DBM02310).  For guitar instruction,  “Maple Leaf Rag”  is (DBM02841) and “The Entertainer” is (DBM02936.) In braille, the “Collected Piano Works” (BRM32027) is a five-volume work for ragtime enthusiasts, bar-over-bar format, as well as the “Complete Piano Rags” (BRM35569), also in bar-over-bar format. For the violinists, we have “Ragtime for Violin” at BRM32863.  And for the new ragtime player, there is the “Ragtime Piano Solos: Easy Piano” in bar-over-bar format at BRM28569.

We are fortunate these artists chose to share their gifts with the world.


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