Setting the Record Straight on American Music's Black Roots

Composer, writer and speaker Mark Montgomery French shines a light on the black roots of all American popular music with his Feb. 1 talk at the Alameda Free Library, "All Your Favorite Music is Probably Black." (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Before David Guetta and Tiesto became some of the world's most famous electronic music producers, Frankie Knuckles and Derrick May perfected the art of club beats in Chicago and Detroit. Led Zeppelin took some of their best-known lyrics directly from a nearly forgotten Mississippi bluesman named Robert Johnson. And even though Elvis Presley got all the credit for being the King of Rock 'n' Roll, it was Big Mama Thornton who first performed "Hound Dog," and Otis Blackwell who wrote several of his other big hits.

If you haven't picked up on the pattern here, it's that, throughout popular music history, white artists have become the faces—and highest earners—of genres with overlooked, underpaid black originators. San Francisco native Mark Montgomery French wants to correct the record with his lecture, "All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black," which he brings to the Alameda Free Library on Feb. 1 and the San Lorenzo Library on Feb. 23.

French, a composer, writer and speaker, was a young musician when he realized that black artists' outsized contributions to rock and other genres were often relegated to footnotes in the history of music. He got his start in the prog-funk band Endangered Species in the '90s, and remembers awkward conversations with venue staff who were often incredulous at the idea of a black-led rock band. French would often have to explain that, no, they weren't playing blues or reggae even though the lead singer had dreads.

"After a while it was like, would you ask any white guys this?" he recalls in a recent interview. "And San Francisco is accepting compared to the rest of the nation."

French's research led him to realize that the erasure of black people from rock 'n' roll history wasn't accidental, but a deliberate and systemic process. Since the rise of the recording industry, which began during segregation, labels sidelined black artists while promoting white ones who borrowed their sounds and aesthetics. In "All Your Favorite Music is (Probably) Black," he points out that in 1986, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame debuted, 60% of inductees were African American—and included pioneers of the genre such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Little Richard. In contrast, only one of 2019's inductees was black: Janet Jackson.

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French was surprised to learn that even genres widely believed to be the domains of white people have black roots. Take goth, for instance: the campy-horror aesthetics of bands like Bauhaus and The Cramps borrow from the playbook of "I Put a Spell On You" singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins. (In the 1950s, Hawkins set aside his ambitions to sing opera and made a rock career out of a creepy shtick that played on white audiences' fear of voodoo.)

"He had the skull on a stick, he wore rubber snakes, he had bones and he sang about love in a tortured way—it started there," French says. "Goth is really old if you think about it."

Not to mention, the reverb-heavy guitars and echoing drums of early goth bands drew from dub music in Jamaica. "You have Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby doing effects, and that's what they're listening to in England at the time" of goth's inception in the '70s, French says.

A similar pattern can be traced in country music: pioneering group the Carter Family got some of their best-known songs in the 1930s with the help of black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who accompanied A.P. Carter on folk song-collecting trips across the country. "He barely got any publicity, he didn't get any money—maybe they paid him, but he didn't get any copyrights," French says. (As Ken Burns' PBS documentary Country Music points out, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe also had unsung black collaborators who helped them become famous.)

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These white artists may not have thought of themselves as thieves, but the racist structure of the music industry enabled them to profit at black innovators' expense. Between the 1920s and '40s, blues, jazz and gospel recordings by black artists were pigeonholed as "race records," which were rarely played on large radio stations. Yet—much like today—black slang, music and dances were trendy among white young people of the 1920s, who dabbled in these forms of expression to rebel against their parents' Victorian-era customs and beliefs.

Mark Montgomery French browses the shelves at Econo Jam Records in Oakland.
Mark Montgomery French browses the shelves at Econo Jam Records in Oakland. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

This structural inequality was only magnified during the Great Depression, historian William Barlow explains in his 1995 paper "Black Music on Radio During the Jazz Age." The race records industry withered during the financial collapse, and major radio stations opted to hire white artists to cover black songs on air for a majority-white audience.

Barlow writes, "The African Americans who created these art forms and styles in the first place were not only victimized by the theft of their material, but were often forced to compromise their art, and even their integrity, in order to gain entrance into the entertainment industry, which was white-controlled and racially segregated."

This practice is alive and well 100 years later, with white pop stars like Justin Beiber, Ariana Grande and others continuing to mine black music, slang and fashion for its cultural cachet.

But the dynamics are also shifting. The Billboard charts now factor in numbers from YouTube and Spotify, and rap, a genre born of black struggle, is the most popular and best-selling style of music in the United States. Meanwhile, white rappers like Post Malone and Iggy Azealea have enjoyed major chart success, and accusations of cultural appropriation have done little to get in the way of their profits. Are these indications that rap is in danger of becoming white-washed, as rock was?

French isn't convinced. After all, rap has been around for over four decades, and the majority of artists shaping the culture are black. White executives still control much of the music industry, but streaming puts more power in the hands of listeners to determine an artist's success on the charts.

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"I think they're hitting hard cultural barriers that will prevent hip-hop from being driven out racially," French says.

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