Black history explored through music
WARREN — Growing up with a father who was a band director and in a family that enjoyed music led William McDaniel to pursue a career as a professor of African-American music for 35 years at The Ohio State University.
McDaniel was the keynote speaker as part of the third annual “Nurturing Pathways to Freedom” lecture series presented by the Sutliff Museum. He spoke on “Understanding Black History through Black Music” as part of Black History Month.
More than 45 people attended the program.
McDaniel utilized recorded music to explore various aspects and periods of black history by examining the music of each era.
The songs he discussed range from the work songs and spirituals during slavery through the rap of modern times.
McDaniel, who retired 15 years ago after teaching classes on jazz studies and other music, had just returned to the United States after spending time in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa.
“Black History Month affords me the opportunity to speak about a subject that is near and dear to my heart which is black music,” McDaniel said.
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., near the Mississippi River, McDaniel said music was a part of his life
“Music was a part of my entire life and a reflection of my roots,” he said, recalling he took piano lessons and wanted to study music because his father was a high school band director and jazz musician.
He said his father was a trumpet player and often took him as an eighth-grader to gigs.
“I got bit by the street music and all the sounds around me. I got influenced by the street music. Memphis is where the rhythm and blues was big,” McDaniel said.
He said while many people use their eyes to see things around them, he tells people to use their ears to hear all the sounds around them.
McDaniel said when growing up during the civil rights movement, he often marched and once went to jail his freshman year of college.
“Those organizing the marches did not ask many adults because they knew they had other responsibilities with jobs and families. They came for the young people in the schools and colleges because they knew we would take the risks,” McDaniel said.
He said he remembers marching down the streets and worrying he and his friends would end up on television and upset their parents.
“Our parents would be worried if they knew for our safety,” he said.
While in college, McDaniel continued playing the horn and writing music.
“Black History Month is important to recognize the accomplishments of black people. The black teachers I had in school provided the grounding I needed. All the teachers I had in school were black until I went to college. The milkman, the grocery deliverer, the dentist, insurance agent were all black,” he said.
He said the music he recalls is the work songs of the slaves, which had a rhythm and beat.
“The slaves defined their own music. They helped the economy by building railroads and working in the cotton fields,” he said.
There also was music for the worship styles in churches, for mourning the deceased, for protesting, and for day-to-day life.
“Christianity in songs taught lessons and how the slaves had overcome by learning to read and the language,” he said.
McDaniel said Black History Month is held in February because of the births of Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, and Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, were both born in the month.
McDaniel said he learned more about European history than he did African history because that was what was taught to students.
He said what he learned from Africa often was what was shown on television such as “Tarzan” or the movies, which often used black people as humor.
McDaniel said it is important that black culture and history be taught including history of Africa.
Additional lectures for the “Nurturing Pathways to Freedom” lecture series will be held 2 p.m. March 21 on the Underground Railroad and and Abolitionists in Oberlin and April 4 on modern day slavery.
Programs are at the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library. For information visit www.sutliffmuseum.org, call 330-395-6575.