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The Roots of Rhythm & Blues

The songs, spirituals, spoken word, and poetics presented in this playlist reflect the mosaic of voices, styles, genres, and cultural influences that have contributed to the popular post-war urban music explosion known as rhythm and blues (R&B). Historically R&B can be traced to the northward migration of southern populations and the movement of rural people to the city around the late 1920s; the unique musical traditions they brought with them merge at a crucial juncture of civil unrest, increasing secularization, and the development of electric instrumentation. Boogie piano music, with its driving rhythm, is energetic and youthful, while the character of lyrical styles derived from field and work songs is secular and playful. Gospel choirs serve a social function by creating community and teaching songs to youth attending church, while protest songs elicit the same sense of liberation and redemption found in sacred settings. The development of spoken word with jazz speaks to the urban experience and the progressive nature of the music.

The growth and evolution of R&B—especially contemporary R&B—has been popular and commercial in nature; nevertheless, the process by which these musical forms have been disseminated and recontextualized by new generations of musicians and audiences represents an essential element of folk expression.

This playlist of tracks is compiled from the Smithsonian Folkways collection.