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. I think it is a great idea to honor Black History Month through African American Music. Like it was stated in the article, “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.” This is so true and I didn’t realize some of my favorite songs are written by African Americans, and are on this list. So much of this music is considered to be “classics” and people don’t even realize.

  2. I think that black music artist has been shaping and molding many artists that we see today and that we have seen in the past. George W. Johnson was one of the first people to record music back in 1890’s. Elvis was influenced by black artist in his moves and the rhythm of his music. Then you have the great (and late) Whitney. No one will ever compare to her. Along with Michael Jackson. These artists should be taught and celebrated in the classrooms. Example: You have white rappers today due to the influence of the black artists that came before them. When I was in my music appreciation class it was one of the topics that we discussed.

  3. Music is often created by past lives or experiences so it is really just another way of telling a story. The different examples of styles put on the article also was fun and showed that every song can have a story if dug deep enough.

  4. I find it how a story they were not allowed to write or read about they took it and made music. I also like how music tells a story that is often invisible to the naked eye.

  5.  Before reading this article I knew about the stereotypical “black music” which I thought was jazz. After reading this article I realize music started with the slaves and they would sing while they work and create folk songs. This was a very interesting read.

  6. The passage is telling us how African Americans were part of the history of America and also how African Americans influenced musical culture.

  7. I appreciate this compilation of knowledge a whole lot. But to be frank, I was very surprised that it in your lesson plan for the Blues it’s through the words of Barbara Dane that you choose to define the genre. As articulate and legitimate as she might be, there are Black musicians closer to the root of the genre that would most certainly be more appropriate to use as definers of the Blues.

    In the eve of the Black Lives Matter movement, centring black voices when teaching black genres should be a priority.

    • Dear Miss Villarroel. Did you read the entire article? Respectfully, it seems like you did not based on your comment. I could be wrong. I am surprised that out of all of the resources devoted to African Americans and from African Americans you went to a lesson plan (Created by the Smithsonian, not by me) and pointed out the one time they referred to a White musician. As an African American myself it is my utmost goal to center Black voices. However, it seems that no matter what Black folks do there is always someone there to be critical of our work. Respectfully, I really do not need a lecture on Black Lives Matter. So please be respectful to me and support Black scholars like myself and send a note of encouragement. How about highlighting the things that I got right. Feel free to email me or check out my other work on this site. I would love to chat more. Here is my LinkedIn page (

  8. As a music education major, I really enjoyed this article. African American music is huge and I think more teachers (not just music teachers) should talk about it in class. It would be easy for a social studies teacher to do part of a lesson on jazz or gospel music when they do their unit on African American history. Music is a big part of any culture and it is certainly a big part of African American culture that should not be overlooked in education. Spirituals are one of my all time favorite choral genres personally, and students love them too. When discussing any culture I think it’s always good to mention music. African American music is so distinct and has so many sub-genres. There is so much there for teachers and students. It is something I love to teach and something most students love to learn about. I hope more teachers cover this topic inside and outside of the music classroom.

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