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Newson: Negro Spirituals and the Blues influence American music
Kesha Williams
January 29, 2013

Dr. Roosevelt Newson Dr. Roosevelt Newson, chairperson of the ECSU Music Department, presented the fourth in his Americana Music Lecture Series on Sunday, Jan. 27, in the auditorium of the Mickey L. Burnim Fine Arts Center.

“The Negro Spiritual and the Blues” was the final lecture in the series presented by Newson, the Spangler Endowed Professor in ECSU’s School of Arts & Humanities. The series chronicled the musical contributions of African slaves as they became African-Americans.

Newson’s previous lecture titles follow:
  • “The Invention of the Negro” and the evolution of his music, presented March 8, 2011
  • “The Era of Ragtime – A Lecture-Recital,” presented March 29, 2011
  • “Jim Crow & Minstrelsy,” presented on Oct. 23, 2011
The Negro Spiritual and the Blues played a critical role in the creation of America’s unique musical language. From a purely historical point of view, they represent the first recorded utterances from a people in bondage. The era of discussion illuminated a slow evolutionary process that covered nearly 250 years. This lecture probed the sociological and political circumstances that gave voice to America’s first indigenous music. The lecture also offered an important historical, and sometimes overlooked or misunderstood, perspective on how this unique music came into existence.

Newson’s audience was spellbound as he recounted the trail of two forms of music that relayed so many emotions for vocalists and the musicians who accompanied them.

“I believe that the heart of the blues is imbedded in the delivery of its lyrics by the performer. While the sociological significance of the blues resides in the composer’s ability to capture the state of mind of a repressed race of people, it is the challenge of the performer to make the music live,” Newson said.

“While the Negro Spirituals preceded the blues, both date back to the first generation of Africans on these shores. Without Negro Spirituals, there would be no blues. The blues continued to gain momentum among African-Americans as they transitioned from a life of slavery to a life of freedom.”

Newson discussed the radically different messages relayed by the two forms of music. The blues, he said, can be described as lamentations of the hopeless while Negro Spirituals can be described as cries of hope from the faithful.

“The clear message in most early Negro Spirituals was that the reward for a good Christian life was the promise of eternal joy—a reward that could only be realized after death.”

While both forms of music eventually gained public acceptance, both met resistance and criticism for their difference to other forms of music that was influenced by European standards.

Newson hopes a recording of the series eventually will be available for check out at the G. R Little Library. The series results from years of experience and research by Newson, a concert pianist and academician. Featured as a soloist with the Charlotte Symphony, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Philharmonic, and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, Newson also has presented solo recitals at Diligentia Hall in The Hague, The Mozarteum in Salzburg, Wigmore Hall in London, Town Hall in New York City, as well as The Kennedy Center and the National Gallery of Art, both in Washington D.C. For a brief period, Newson was listed on the artist roster of Perotta Management in New York City.

The Louisiana-born pianist graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and continued his formal studies at The Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and The Juilliard School in New York City.

With a second career in higher education, Newson has served as dean at three institutions and as provost at two others. Having served two terms on the board of directors for the Council of Colleges of Arts & Sciences, he subsequently was elected as president of CCAS. Newson has served as chairperson of the ECSU Music Department since 2010.

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