Black History Series Part 1: Learning Black History through Music

Original Temptation Album Cover- 1965

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

A critical component in the success of the American democratic project is to embrace the diversity within the United States and its history. In this way, we can celebrate our differences, seeing diversity as a strength and an asset. Black history month is an opportune time to do so, in that it is a time to reflect upon and celebrate the complex history of African Americans in the United States. The study of Black history is a multi-faceted, varied and deeply complex subject. African American history is American history, in the sense that Black folks have been an integral part of United States history from its inception. One of the most commonly explored and researched aspects of African American history is slavery in America. Another topic that is explored often is the Civil Rights movement. Even though these aspects of Black history are of the utmost importance and have played a critical role in shaping history, other aspects of African American history must also be explored. A major back drop and cultural thread through every era of Black history has been music. It is important to understand how it has shaped Black culture and also how Black culture has been shaped by music. Music created by African Americans (Black music) is varied and complex, coming in many shapes and sizes. Indeed, African American music is a very broad phenomenon that describes a wide range of musical styles and genres.

Black music was shaped by historical conditions that was a response to a variety of emotions including happiness, joy, suffering, disappointment, despair, exhilaration and pain. Early black music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was shaped by the terrible conditions and hardships brought on by slavery. The songs that were birthed from slavery were spirituals, work songs and folk songs. After the Civil War many African Americans became employed as musicians playing European classical music. When black musicians blended African culture and rhythms with the European classical music they developed the ragtime style of music. Ragtime would eventually become jazz; both forms of music are distinctly American, but specifically African American. Other styles of music stemming from African cultural roots included the blues and gospel, which led to more contemporary genres such as soul, rock and roll, rhythm and blues and hip-hop. Historic music from certain eras help us understand the way of life during the time it was developed.

Classrooms can come alive when teachers incorporate the rich reservoir of African American music that can now be easily accessed via a computer and the Internet. Below we share a wealth of musical resources that allow readers to explore the wide variety of music genres in black cultural history. We also include lesson plan ideas on how music can be incorporated into classroom curriculum in creative, effective and meaningful ways.   

Lesson Plans

Lesson Ideas

  • Using spirituals to teach about African American slavery and the Civil War
    Teachers can use Negro spirituals to teach about the challenges and hardships of slavery. Teachers can use the Internet to locate the words to the songs to accompany the videos, allowing students to do a text analysis of the lyrics. Students can write about the mood and tone of the songs, the religious themes, historical content, melancholy subject matter and even double meaning of the songs. Students can identify the time period in which the song was written and situate it historically, to tie it in to lectures, text book readings and primary source documents.
  • Hip-hop and the urban Black experience
    Students can use various hip-hop songs to highlight the struggle of the urban poor and African Americans in the late twentieth century to present. Thousands of song lyrics are readily available for free on the Internet to supplement the music videos to allow students to take a closer look at the meaning behind the songs. Hip-hop is a great resource for language arts and social studies teaching because many artists address complex social, political, economic and historical issues such as poverty, abortion, racism, drugs and broken families.  
  • Using the blues and gospel music to teach Black history
    Teachers can use the blues and early gospel music to teach about southern rural black culture from the early twentieth century. Classrooms can address all sorts of topics such as the share cropping system, rural poverty, racism, southern cuisine, black families and even popular music as it relates to black musicians in the early twentieth century.

Sample Lesson Plans
Lead Belly and His Legacy of Southern Song- Lesson Plan
Blending African and Irish Sensibilities in Virginia’s Music
Songs, Sounds, and Stories from the Georgia Sea Islands A Smithsonian Folkways Lesson
The Vocal Blues: Created in the Deep South of the United States A Smithsonian Folkways Lesson
African American Music: Let’s Sing and Play Clapping Games A Smithsonian Folkways Lesson
African-American Gospel Music Lesson Plan
The History of Hip-Hop: Fresh Air Features Interviews with Some of the Greatest Names in Hip-hop

Please click on any of the links below to explore the various song selections in each genre.

Marion Williams – Mean Old World
Jubilaires- Noah
Black Delta Religion
Hold On” (Negro Spiritual)
Been In The Storm So Long [Full Compilation]

Maple Leaf Rag Played by Scott Joplin
Ragtime Piano : Scott Joplin “The Entertainer ” (1902)
The Definitive Jelly Roll Morton – Ragtime & Early Sounds from New Orleans
Scott Joplin – Ragtime (Full Album)

Louis Armstrong – West End Blues 1928
Charlie Parker – I’ve Got Rhythm (Best jazz ever)
Charlie Parker – Anthropology
Miles Davis – So What
Blue in Green by Miles Davis
Herbie Hancock – Cantaloupe Island
John Coltrane – Equinox (Original)
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme [Full Album] (1965)

Work Songs
Negro Prison Songs / “Rosie” 1947
Work Songs in a Texas Prison

Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind
Etta James – At Last
BB King on Ralph Gleason’s Jazz Casual 1968 Part 2
Howlin’ Wolf “Smokestack Lightning” Live 1964 (Reelin’ In The Years Archives)
Mississippi John Hurt – You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley (Live)
Lonnie Johnson – Another Night To Cry
Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Willy Dixon, Otis Spann et al – Bye Bye Blues
Leadbelly – House of the Rising Sun
Lead Belly – “The Gallis Pole”
Lead Belly – Midnight Special
Leadbelly – Three Songs 1945 – The Only One Video File with Leadbelly
BB King Called This His Best Performance
Skip James- Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues
“Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James
Lightin’ Hopkins pt 1
Soundies: Black Music from the 1940s
Robert Johnson- Crossroad

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – This Train
Five Blind Boys of Mississippi “Lord, You’ve Been Good To Me” 1965 (Reelin’ In The Years Archives)
Mightly Clouds of Joy- I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long
The Soul Stirrers – “I’m a Soldier”
“Something’s Got a Hold of Me” (1959)- James Cleveland
The Swan Silvertones – Saviour Pass Me Not
The Swan Silvertones – Only Believe (Live)
Mahalia Jackson ~ How I Got Over
Donnie McClurkin- I’ll Trust You

Early Twentieth Century African American Music
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come (Official Lyric Video)
Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode (Live 1958)
Little Richard Long Tall Sally – Tutti Frutti
Chubby Checker – Let’s Twist Again (lyrics)
Harry Belafonte – Banana Boat Song (Day-O)
Stand By Me, Ben E King, 1961
Little Eva – Loco-motion (1962)
Jimi Hendrix Experience – Hey Joe Live
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Foxey Lady (Miami Pop 1968)
Jimi Hendrix Live Full Concert 1969 Amazing Clear Footage
Jimi Hendrix “Wild Thing” 1967-05-11

Female Black Groups
Be My Baby – The Ronettes – 1963
The Shirelles Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Ray Charles
Ray Charles – Hit the Road Jack!
Ray Charles – (Night time Is) The Right Time
Ray Charles – What’d I Say Pts.
Ray Charles – Unchain My Heart HQ
Ray Charles – Drown In My Own Tears
Ray Charles – Drown In My Own Tears
Ray Charles – Hard Times
Ray Charles – I Believe to My Soul

Temptations – I wish It Would Rain
Temptations – My Girl & Get Ready – (1965-66)
The Temptations Papa Was A Rolling Stone 1972 Single Version

James Brown
James Brown – Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag Live 1965 (Remasterted)
Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud-James Brown
James Brown – Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud / If I Ruled The World (1968)
James Brown- The Famous Flames 1964
James Brown performs “Please Please Please” at the TAMI Show (Live)
James Brown – “Cold Sweat” (part 1 & 2)
 James Brown – Out of Sight 1965 (Remastered audio)

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean Live First Time Moonwalk
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (Official Music Video)
Michael Jackson – Beat It (Official Video)

Funk Music/Early R and B
The Chi-lites “Have you seen her”
George Clinton – Atomic Dog [Atomic Mix Long Version]
One Nation Under A Groove – Funkadelic (1978)


Early Hip-Hop
Sugar Hill Gang- Rappers Delight
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message (Official Video)
RUN-DMC – King Of Rock (Video)
Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick-The Show
KRS-One – South Bronx (BDP)

Christian Hip Hop
Lecrae – TELL THE WORLD Feat. Mali Music
Bizzle – No Hate (feat. Bumps INF) – Official Music Video
No Malice – So Woke (Official Video)
Reconcile – Catch A Body ft. No Malice
Sevin Feat. H.U.R.T. – Somebody Lied To Us

R & B/Soul
Aretha Franklin – Think (feat. The Blues Brothers)
The Fugees (Lauryn Hill) – Killing Me Softly
The Fugees – Ready or Not
Lauryn Hill-Sweetest Thing
Lauryn Hill – Nothing Even Matters feat. D’Angelo
Wyclef Jean – 911 ft. Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige – Reminisce
Alicia Keys – You Don’t Know My Name (Official Music Video)
Alicia Keys – If I Ain’t Got You (Official Music Video)
John Legend – Ordinary People (Official Music Video)
Whitney Houston – I Have Nothing (Official Music Video)
Whitney Houston – Run To You (Official Music Video)
Whitney Houston – You Give Good Love (Official Music Video)

90’s and Contemporary Hip-hop
2Pac – I Ain’t Mad At Cha [High Quality]
2Pac – Dear Mama (Official Music Video)
Nas- If I Ruled the World ( Imagine That)- Dirty
The Firm – Firm Biz
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Juicy” (Official Video)
JAY-Z – Song Cry
Drake – God’s Plan – YouTube
J.Cole “Love Yourz” (Official Video)
J.Cole “No Role Model”
Humble – Kendrick Lamar (Clean)
Missy Elliott – Gossip Folks [Video]
Da Brat – Funkdafied (Video)
Childish Gambino – Feels Like Summer (Official Music Video)
Childish Gambino – This Is America (Official Music Video)
A.D.H.D. – Kendrick Lamar
50 Cent – In Da Club (Int’l Version)

20/20 Michael Jackson Interview (1980)
The Evolution of Michael Jackson’s Speaking Voice | 1970-2009
James Brown interview and live clip (1969)
American Bandstand 1968- Interview James Brown
Tupac Shakur – Words From A Prophet
Ray Charles talks about his blindness

The History of African-American Folk Music Understanding the Multi-genre Influences to American Folk Music
History of Ragtime
African-American Music
 History of Jazz
Roots of African American Music
The Evolution of African-American Music
Howling Wolf Biography


  1. Music and art created by African Americans has had a key role in the development of all genres of American music historically and presently and has major influence in the music of other cultures around the world. This art is derived from a pain that is so prevalent it has come to define this social group even after overcoming so much, yet still endure endless suffering and discrimination. There is still so much for students of all backgrounds to learn and appreciate. I like your lesson plans- I think students can gain so much and their individual perspectives can grow and mature greatly from this, especially comparing and contrasting early musical lyric to that of the present.

  2. I wish more educators would incorporate music in their social studies units. Music is something that EVERYONE can connect with. I truly believe that students would love to dig deeper into the lyrics of their favorite songs, or older songs so that they can truly understand the meaning of the songs. Often times, educators focus more on slavery, and civil rights but fail to mention that music had a large impact on these times. I believe that all students, no matter their ability, would be able to succeed at an assignment like this. I will definitely be using music to explore Black History in my future classroom.

  3. This article is very helpful. I had teachers in the past who actually used the technique of incorporating music into our curriculum to help us try to relate with the information. When you can use music or really anything that can relate students to what they are trying to learn there is always better understanding they can come away with. I enjoy the topic of music in teaching with Black history and even today because through lyrics you can gain knowledge of views and life experiences that have led people to certain places.

  4. It is important to understand American history from all points of views and cultures. Music is a great way to express and learn diversity and I believe using music in the classroom is a great technique. With Black History month now underway in 2019, this is something I was excited to read and think it is an effective tool to use when explaining diversity in American culture and history.

  5. I love this article, expresses the good thing about diversity and the strengths and assess that come with it. I love how this article also provided detailed information on lesson plans and ideas that can be used when educating. Music is a very good tool that can be used to influence the students inside and outside the classroom.

  6. Music was greatly influenced by African American when it comes to the Blues and Jazz. They put so much feeling into the music whether they be singing or playing, it is really awesome. Also, giving resources for different lesson plans is a great tool for teachers who are teaching music or Black History.

  7. All different types of music has a meaning or story behind it, especially black history music. This music tells different stories such as, sadness, defeat, joyfulness and despair. You can really get a feel for what the music is trying to tell us when listening to it. I especially liked this article because it gives different lesson plan samples that teachers can use to help teach their students more about black story music.

  8. I believe that music tells the most stories with the strongest message. With African American music it definitely tells stories that talks about despair, social, and political view. With older African American music such as jazz and blues, these songs talk about the hard time they faced in that era, which is why a lot of them are sad. I personally feel that these types of music can definitely be learned from for historic purposes.

  9. Music is an integral part of both the human experience and cultural experience. Songs have been created since the beginning of time to express emotions, ideas, and feelings on the current struggles and triumphs of the time. For the African American community, music began as an outlet for those manacled in slavery. Since then, Black music has been shaped by the creativity and emotion of the Black American community. It is important to listen to this music with both open minds and open hearts to feel the beauty of the music and the underlying messages of the souls creating the music. Learning about Black music is a key part of learning about Black history.

  10. Musical lesson plans are a win for everyone! We all know music affects our lives on many levels, and especially music contributed by African Americans. In particular, old negro spirituals and gospel music compel deep emotion and feelings that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be found. There is found in African American music, no matter the genre, a genuineness that every person can find a connection to. I was so glad to see Mahalia Jackson on the list because her voice is a real gift to humanity. I think studying African American music can teach many things like empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence. Hopefully lesson plans like this one can be promoted throughout public schools.

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