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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Rhythm and Blues

The term "rhythm and blues," often called "R&B," originated in the 1940s when it replaced "race music" as a general marketing term for all African American music, though it usually referred only to secular, not religious music. The term first appeared in commercial recording in 1948, when RCA Victor records began using "blues and rhythm" music as a descriptor for African American secular songs. The migration of African Americans to urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest during the early twentieth century helped to bring various regional styles of African American music together to influence one another. The migration also created new markets for these styles of music. Early on the term "rhythm and blues" was used for boogie woogie, African American swing, jazz, and blues. All of these styles influenced the development of what is called rhythm and blues today.

The meaning of the term continued to change over time, and today it is still used as an umbrella term for many different African-American musical forms. Historically speaking, though, "rhythm and blues" as we understand it today most often describes a style of music that developed after World War II that combines elements of pop, gospel, blues and jazz with a strong back beat. The African American styles that emerged in those years were often played by small groups that emphasized rhythmic drive over the instrumental and harmonic complexity of the swing orchestras. Their vocalists often sang in an uninhibited and emotionally direct style. In major cities, teenaged vocal groups with little or no instrumental accompaniment were a growing presence. They took their inspiration from both gospel singers and successful African American pop stylists such as the Ink Spots. The term "doo-wop" is well known now, but it was not applied to these groups until much later, and it refers to the vocables and nonsense syllables these group sang to compensate for their lack of instruments. All of these styles were significant to the development of rock and roll a few years later.

Texas Rhythm and blues singer and song writer Barbara Lynn performs at the Library of Congress, November 18, 2009.

The gospel group the Birmingham Sunlights also presents two religious songs in doo-wop style, "If you missed me from singing" (at time code 5:00), and "We're going to move in the room of the Lord" (at time code 00:20:50), in the video of their concert at the Library of Congress in 2005.

Though it began as a general term for African American music, the synthesis of styles that became what is now called rhythm and blues caught on among a wide youth audience during the post war period and contributed to changing the racial divide in American society and music of the mid-twentieth century. Initially, white artists such as Elvis Presley performed and recorded, or "covered," rhythm and blues works by African American composers in order for those songs to be marketed to white audiences. But the effect was to bring both audiences and artists with an interest in this style of music together. The development of rhythm and blues occurred just as segregation became a growing social issue in American society. Both Black and white young people wanted to see the popular performers of the day, and mixed groups of youths sang doo-wop together on the street corners of many urban centers. This provoked a strong reaction of proponents of segregation and was one reason why rhythm and blues and early rock and roll were often seen as dangerous to America's youth. But with young people of all backgrounds identifying with these new musical styles, a generation was becoming ready for a more equal society.

In the 1960s, a rhythm and blues style known as "soul" emerged in which the influence of gospel vocal style was stronger, though the lyrical emphasis was usually very secular. In this presentation is a video of a concert at the Library of Congress by guitarist, singer, and songwriter Barbara Lynn, a successful soul artists of the mid-1960s, performing her style of Texas rhythm and blues in 2009.