Since the National Museum of African American Music opened its doors to the public in January 2021, perhaps the most common question on social media–amidst the enthusiastic posts from people sharing their excitement about visiting–is, “Why Nashville?” Comments range from “this museum should really be in [Memphis], [Detroit], [Chicago]” to “no one important to Black music really came through Nashville.”
It’s an understandable debate; Nashville is known all over the world as the home of country music. In a recent conversation, NMAAM’s curatorial director, Dr. Dina Bennett, pointed out that James Brown, Linda Martell, and the Pointer Sisters are just a few of the African American artists to perform at the Grand Ole Opry (Brown notably at the invitation of country music star Porter Wagoner). As early as the 1920s, blues greats such as Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters were performing at Nashville venues such as the historic Bijou Theater, which, at the time, drew frequent comparisons to Harlem’s Apollo Theater. At the end of WWII, Nashville’s R&B music scene gained tremendous momentum thanks to local record labels like Bullet Records (B.B. King, Rufus Thomas) and WLAC, the city’s R&B radio station, and live music clubs attracted acts like Ray Charles.
And yet, Music City is virtually synonymous with artists like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Charley Pride. Still, country music–which shares its roots with African American musical traditions, is just one aspect of Nashville’s music scene, and unearthing the forgotten and unknown history of African American artists and the music they created in the city is an important part of reclaiming the narrative and resisting erasure.
From its earliest inception, NMAAM’s mission has been to “educate the world, preserve the legacy, and celebrate the central role African Americans play in creating the American soundtrack.” And while cities such as Memphis, Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans boast well-documented and widely recognized connections to Black music, Nashville has its own unique position in the complete history of genres and styles that grew directly from the African American experience. Throughout NMAAM’s six galleries, we connect Music City’s role in the evolution of Black music with all of the other cities– from Wade in the Water, which traces the earliest roots of African American musical expression back to the 1600s, through The Message, which brings us into the present day via the global phenomenon known as hip hop.
Earlier this month, NMAAM’s president and CEO, H. Beecher Hicks, III, positioned the question of “why Nashville?” another way, “Why NOT Nashville?,” in a conversation with The Tennessean. To understand why Nashville is home to the National Museum of African American Music, and what we mean when we say, “Black music has a home,” we have to start at the beginning.
Nashville’s Early Black Music Pioneers
It’s impossible–and ahistorical–to talk about Black music in Nashville and not discuss the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Founded by George L. White, treasurer of Fisk University and a music professor there at the time, the goal of the group was to help raise much-needed funds for the school. When the group made its performance debut in 1871 at Oberlin College, all but two of the singers were formerly enslaved African Americans. It was Ella Sheppard, an African American soprano and pianist known as the matriarch of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, who arranged spirituals and hymns into concert pieces that would become staples for choral groups for generations to come. According to Fisk Jubilee Singers alumni association founder, Geo Cooper, it was the Fisk Jubilee singers who brought Black music to the masses. “When you think about Black music, what do you think about as roots? A lot of people would say New Orleans’ Congo Square or Memphis’ Beale Street. Then I would ask them who were the first people to bring that music to the mainstream, and most people wouldn’t know. And that’s when I would tell them about Fisk Jubilee Singers, the first global superstars in America. The Negro spiritual is the mother of all the American musical genres. Fisk is the birthplace of African American music.”
Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Wade in the Water”
Fisk played a pivotal role in shaping Nashville’s Black music community. Acclaimed jazz musicians such as band leader Jimmie Lunceford, a contemporary of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and Lil Hardin Armstrong, noted as one of the first and most important early Black women composers and pianists (who also happened to be married to Louis Armstrong) are among the school’s illustrious graduates. Opera singer Roland Hayes also performed with the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
One of the most well-known figures in Nashville’s music history is DeFord Bailey. Born in Smith County, TN in 1899, Bailey is cited as the first African American artist to record music in Nashville. Known for his virtuosic harmonica playing, Bailey made his way to Nashville in 1918, supporting himself through a variety of odd jobs while studying everything from jazz to the popular music of the day. He became a featured performer on the city’s WDAD radio program, and debuted his most famous song, “Pan American Blues,” on WSM’s legendary “Barn Dance” program after auditioning at the request of Dr. Humphrey Bate. Bailey rose to become one of WSM’s most prominent performers, and is credited with inspiring the radio program’s name change to “The Grand Ole Opry,” thus, becoming the first African American artist to perform on the show. He was a staple on the show until the early 1940s. In 2005, DeFord Bailey, who died in 1982, was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Another significant artist in Nashville’s African American music history, according to NMAAM curator Dr. Steven Lewis, is Ironing Board Sam. The South Carolina native, now in his 80s and still performing and recording, moved to Nashville in the 1960s. The electric blues artist got his name early on, when he attached his keyboard to a legless ironing board. His innovative, high-energy style of playing made him a draw at the famed Club Del Morocco on Jefferson Street, where a young Jimi Hendrix was part of the house band. Ironing Board Sam augmented and enhanced his instruments to cultivate a distinct sound, and was a regular performer on Nashville’s Night Train to Nashville, the groundbreaking local television program that pre-dates Don Cornelius’ Soul Train, which aired on WLAC. One of his signature keyboards is among the artifacts featured within NMAAM’s galleries.
The heart of Nashville’s African American music community is Jefferson Street, located in North Nashville. Three renowned HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), the aforementioned Fisk University, Tennessee State University, and Meharry Medical College, were established within a stone’s throw of Jefferson Street, which contributed to it emerging as both a cultural center for Nashville’s Black community and a bustling creative and entertainment space that attracted a variety of Black musicians over the years. Churches and businesses sprung up along Jefferson Street in the 1920s and ‘30s, and by the 1940s, the area had evolved into a mecca of sorts for blues, jazz, R&B, and early rock n roll acts. Clubs such as the Del Morocco, home to Johnny Jones and the King Casuals (originally formed by Hendrix and Billy Cox), and Club Baron, which saw the likes of Otis Redding and Little Richard and for whom NMAAM’s Baron Society is named, gave rise to myriad local bands and hosted some of the biggest touring acts of the era.
Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, “Purple Haze,” 1968
The Jefferson Street district was home to a number of live music bars and clubs whose patrons and stages welcomed African American musicians during its heyday. Spots like New Era, Maceo’s, Deborah’s, and Ebony Circle are but a few of the venues that once stood as beacons of African American cultural exchange. Native Nashvillians like Earl Gaines, Christine Kittrell, and Roscoe Shelton made names for themselves along Jefferson Street and recorded for independent local labels. Like so many other neighborhoods and areas populated predominantly by African Americans, Jefferson Street was more or less displaced when, starting in the early ’50s, redevelopment initiatives aimed at cleaning up presumably “seedy” areas of the city got underway. Over the next few years, the clubs and businesses that were once the soul of the vibrant community and its surrounding areas disappeared.
The Jefferson Street Sound Museum, founded and curated by Lorenzo Washington, preserves the history of this critical link in Nashville’s Black music legacy.
NMAAM is the brainchild of Francis Guess and Dr. T.B. Boyd, Jr., two of Nashville’s most influential civil rights and business leaders. In the late ‘90s, the pair began developing an idea for an institution celebrating African American culture, and that initial idea morphed into the National Museum of African American Music, Art, and Culture after a proposal from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce in 2002. As stakeholders refined the concept for the project, they narrowed its focus to music. Even back then, as plans began to take shape for the museum, people challenged its location, insisting that Nashville had nothing to do with Black music. Jefferson Street was the original location for the project, but was moved to the old convention center site, where the museum is open today.
Nashville’s music scene continues to flourish, as Nashville-born and based hip hop artists like Young Buck, Lovenoise, and Starlito helped put the city’s rap artists on the global map. Award-winning producer and executive director, creative of BMI Nashville, Shannon Sanders, calls Nashville home, as do GRAMMY Award-winning artists and NMAAM National Chairs India.Arie, CeCe Winans, Keb’ Mo, and Darius Rucker.
Bizz and Everyday People at Legends Corner
Still not convinced that Nashville makes sense as the home of the National Museum of African American Music? Then come see for yourself. Plan your timed, self-guided tour of NMAAM at blackmusicmuseum.org/tickets. After a day immersed in gallery exhibits and interactive experiences chronicling the history of Black music in America, we hope you’ll understand why Music City is home to this one of a kind museum.