OMNIA Q&A: One Thousand Years of Black Music

We spoke with Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, about his role in the authorship of the book, The Transformation of Black Music: The rhythms, the songs, and the ships of the African Diaspora.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

By Katelyn Silva

Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music

Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., pianist, composer, and Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, dropped everything when asked to write a chapter for his mentor Samuel A. Floyd Jr.’s book The Transformation of Black Music: The rhythms, the songs, and the ships of the African Diaspora. The book, published a year after Floyd’s passing, tells the story of the rich and varied contributions of Black musicians across four continents and over one thousand years. Ramsey’s chapter “Afro-modernism and Music” is a study of Black musicians and academics in the mid-twentieth century and is the result of a 30-plus year conversation between Ramsey and his mentor. The book also features a contributed chapter from Melanie L. Zeck, the Managing Editor of the Black Music Research Journal.

We talked with Ramsey about working with Floyd and how music from Africa and throughout the African Diaspora has traveled, changed, and influenced genres over the last millennium.

How did you get involved in writing a chapter for this book?

Sam Floyd Jr., a professor at Columbia College Chicago who passed away in 2016, was a long-time mentor of mine. In fact, he was responsible for my path. I met him when I was in a master's program studying music education in the mid-1980s. I got to know his work and commitment to black music research. He saw the potential in me to become a music scholar and encouraged me to apply to the music history program at the University of Michigan. Since that time, he became a very strong presence in my life. When he asked me to help him with this book, it was a no-brainer.  I would do anything for Sam.

This book is large in its scope. How would you describe its overarching purpose?

This book shows the movement of Black people and their approaches to sound organization, which were inspired by their home cultures. It's about how this movement throughout the globe, first in ships, and then through phonographs, and finally, through digitized data has shifted and influenced every culture that Black musicians came in contact with.

The book is ambitious, without a doubt. Usually, scholars focus on one tiny aspect of the African Diaspora, whether it's an island, a land like the United States, or a city like London, but Sam tries to account for not only the micro-areas of the African Diaspora, but also for the entire global and historical sweep of the Diaspora. He's tried to understand how the music that travelers brought to the experience changed and also how it changed what was already there.

Why was this book a necessary and important contribution to the field of music?

This book is an important contribution because it's ambitious in its scope, heavily researched, and meticulously detailed.  But, the first and foremost reason, is because of who wrote it.  Sam has been a leading light in American music history for the last 50 years. He has been essential to understanding the impact of Black music, not only in this country, but globally. Sam was concerned that elements of the story of Black music have not been included in standard music histories and he hoped this book would become part of mainstream academic teaching. I'm so happy he was able to finish this twenty-plus-years project before he passed away and that I got to be a part of it. 

Your chapter “Afro-modernism and Music” discusses the contributions of Black musicians and academics in the mid-twentieth century. What was special about this time period?
It was primarily the social context that made it a unique moment in Black music. This was the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and there was a gradual increase of educational opportunities for African Americans at that time. That included people who were trying to get into art and music schools. So, when the educational system opened up for African Americans, this allowed them to expand their ideas about what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to be a musician, and how to go about making their work. When other realms of American life opened up to African American musicians, there were more performance opportunities for them. Americans began to be more open to the idea of African Americans in spaces other than those prescribed beforehand, like concert halls, libraries, art galleries, and so on. These growing opportunities helped shape what people were making with their imaginations.

Your chapter also discusses the rise of Black musicians in academia and music research. Why was this emergence necessary and why did it happen at this point in time?

One of the reasons this is important is because as the perspectives and experiences of African Americans began to be felt in more institutions, it did the same thing that Black music did as it traveled. It influenced what was acceptable and what was possible. In other words, it didn’t just benefit the Black musician, it also benefited the institutions, which had previously cut themselves off from all of these incredible human resources.

There are three powerful themes that are woven throughout the book and in your own chapter: the sailing ship, the Call/Response, and Toussaint’s Beat. What is their overarching significance?

The sailing ship is important because that was the primary mode of movement that connected the continents. It was the seat and center of trade and commerce. The sounds of Africans could be heard around the world as part of this flow of materials and ideas that were circulating during the Age of Discovery.

The Call/Response and Toussaint’s Beat are both ways to organize sound. In the case of Toussaint’s Beat, it's about a certain rhythmic configuration that could be seen, felt, and heard in much of the music that circulated around the globe. It's also a metaphor for everything that Sam Floyd believed about Toussaint’s life and his revolutionary activism. Call/Response operates in the same way, not only as a way to organize music, but also as a way to think about these large patterns of cultural exchange.

You write, “As African-American citizens confronted modernity … music was a reservoir of social energies, a fount of and even a mouthpiece for the palpable aspirations of freedom that define the age.” Can you talk about that?

There’s this set of commonly held ideas that African Americans were outside of modernity, that there's this thing called modernity and modernism and somehow Black people have traditionally supplied it with its spirit or ethos, but not in demonstrable ways. However, the last twenty-five years of scholarship has shown us that, in fact, the Black experience, and that includes slavery, is part of what makes possible the idea of modernity. So, when you think about African Americans and modernity in music, you can see how things were put together, how the music traveled, and how it affected many different cultures. In fact, you can look at the music and understand all of the tension and all of the artistic conversations that were going on within modernity from the African-American perspective. So, this idea of confronting modernity, that might be a misnomer, because, in fact, African Americans have always been part of what we think of as the modern. What I try to get at in my chapter is how the African-American experience both reflected and made modernity, and then, the role that music played in that.

What do you hope readers gain from reading your chapter?

I hope people see the bridge between what was going on in jazz and what was going on in the concert world at the time. I hope they see that these are not separate art worlds, but, in fact, there was a porousness between them, particularly when speaking about African-American musicians. I want people to know more about George Russell, who is an important musician who needs more work done on him. I also hope they see the chapter as an effort to correct the idea that women, like Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane, Rosetta Tharpe, and Undine Smith-Moore, were not part of this narrative. They certainly were and have been there all along.

What are you currently working on?

I'm working on two books. One is called Sound Proof: Black Music, Magic, and Racial Intimacies, which is a history of African-American music that talks about the spiritual elements, particularly as they pertain to how spiritual music functions for African Americans and how music influenced the ways in which race was interacted with in America. I'm also working on a collection of essays that I've been collecting through the years of my work. I continue to be a musician and am completing a new recording and video. I also founded a blog about music at and I’m on Twitter @DrGuyMusiQology.