From slave spirituals to hip hop

AMHERST – Singing and dancing his way through a century and a half of American music, Kevin Comtois recently offered a hugely entertaining Black History Month program at the Amherst Town Library.

Slave spirituals. Late 19th century minstrels. Dixieland. Jazz. Blues. Rock ‘n’roll. Hip hop. Comtois brought them all alive using recorded music, video footage, still photos and especially his own voice and body as he bopped exuberantly around the room.

American music is “probably the most diverse and eclectic music in the world,” he said during his Feb. 1 presentation, because of African-American contributions starting with slavery, so our music represents our best and our worst.

Slaves lost everything when they were brought here, “so they had to create something new,” and used their musical virtuosity and imagination to survive in slavery.

It’s impossible to imagine American music without the drum and the banjo, two instruments that slaves brought from Africa. They also developed a talent for double entendre that they used to hide the real meanings in their songs.

When they were singing spirituals the slaves were actually communicating with each other, Comtois said, offering information and encouragement about escape into freedom.

“The master thinks they’re talking about God,” he said. But in songs like “Oh Lord I’m Waiting on You,” they are talking about “waiting for deliverance – from the underground railroad, from Harriet Tubman.”

“Follow the Drinking Guord,” is not a drinking song, but contains celestial directions, using the Big Dipper and other constellations, for going north. “Wagon drivers would sing it, and field slaves would pick it up,” he said. And slave owners were lulled in the belief that “a singing slave was a happy slave.”

“Go Down Moses,” was not about Egypt, but an “unbelievably profound” song with a hidden prophecy that foretold the death of a half a million American soldiers in the Civil War, Comtois said.

White people who enjoyed watching black people perform invented minstrels, covering themself with coal and singing and dancing. They also invented two minstrel show characters, “Jim Crow” and “Zip Coon” that gave false pictures of African-American culture.

At a time when minstrelsy “became more and more racist,” authentic African-American music was developing into the blues from the Mississippi delta,” from artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson.

Then, “jazz seemingly came out of nowhere,” Comtois said, but can be traced to New Orleans, where for awhile a diverse and integrated population led to black, white and Creole musicians all playing together.

From there, jazz morphed into rock ‘n’ roll.

Comtois played the music of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington, music that white musicians like Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller appropriated, until “jazz became so popular everyone wanted to get into it,” he said, displaying a photo of Frank Sinatra.

Then Jackie Brenston recorded the “Rocket 88,” widely acknowledged as the first rock ‘n’ roll song and labeled as such by disc jockey Alan Freed.

But “Bill Haley was the first rock ‘n’ roll star, not Little Richard,” continuing the tradition of white people co-oping black music. Elvis Presley was a white man with a black sound, but “Chuck Berry was the true King of rock ‘n’ roll … then James Brown took it to another level,” said Comtois, whose dancing took him to the floor, James Brown-style.

After the Beatles had an unprecedented five songs on the top of the charts in 1964, black artists decided they needed a message in their songs, and Aretha Franklin came out with “Respect,” Marvin Gaye with “What’s Going On,” and Jimi Hendrix did his electrifying version of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

By the 1960s, Comtois said, kids who loved the music of African-Americans, who read books like “The Catcher in the Rye,” and who saw movies like “Blackboard Jungle,” were ripe for rebellion as they watched the civil rights movement unfold on TV.

“White people love black people’s music and they also steal it,” said Comtois, who teaches at Northern Essex Community College and was a recipient of two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, one to study jazz at Washington University in St Louis, and the other to study the Industrial Revolution in Lowell.

In 2015 he published his first book, “Troubadours & Troublemakers: The Evolution of American Protest Music.”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.