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How the Great Migration transformed American music

How the migration of 6 million Black Americans from the rural South to cities in the North and the West transformed the sound of America

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Between 1910 and 1970, about 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to cities in the North, the West and other parts of the United States. It’s known as the Great Migration.

Musicians who moved to these cities became ambassadors, says UC Berkeley history professor Waldo Martin, not only for the music of the South, but for the culture from which the music emerged. And the music was made and remade, and continues to be today.

On Feb. 17, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and jazz pianist Jason Moran — and an all-star roster of jazz collaborators — will perform their remaking of the music in Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration for UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances.

a colorful illustration of a person singing and another person playing the piano

Mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and jazz pianist Jason Moran — and a roster of collaborators — will perform Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration for UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances on Feb. 17. (Credit: Neil Freese/UC Berkeley)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode “Making and remaking music of the Great Migration.”

Intro: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music: “Louisiana Blues Strut” by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, performed by Curtis Stewart]

Narration: Between 1910 and 1970, about 6 million Black Americans moved from the rural South to cities in the North, the West and other parts of the United States. It’s known as the Great Migration.

Waldo Martin is the Morrison Professor of American history and citizenship at UC Berkeley. He says that people saw the American North and West as beacons of hope.

[Music fades]

Waldo Martin: When I think about the Great Migration, it’s hope, it’s aspiration, it’s a sense of possibility. And that’s what people — all people — want, right? And especially oppressed people, trying to figure out, well, how do we negotiate the world that we are in, to move forward?

Narration: Martin says the Great Migration is one of the major stories of the African American experience, indeed the American experience and 20th century world history.

Waldo Martin wears a black beret posing in front of a photograph of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton

Waldo Martin is the Morrison Professor of American history and citizenship at UC Berkeley. (Credit: Courtesy of Waldo Martin/UC Berkeley)

Waldo Martin: The Great Migration is transformative. It not only helps to remake Afro America or African America or Black America, but it helps to remake America.

Narration: When people move from one place to another, he says, they transform the places they go — and they’re transformed by their new environments.

Waldo Martin: Not only do people move and circulate, but culture and cultural practices move and circulate. And one of the things that the Great Migration teaches us is the people carry that (their culture with them). They carry that. And then, when they get where they are, then they remake it.

One of the ways to illustrate this, to me, is to think about the music as a key constituent element of African American culture. You can’t understand the culture, you can’t understand the history, you can’t understand the experience, unless you understand the centrality of music.

Narration: Martin grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1950s and ‘60s, during what he calls Late Jim Crow.

Waldo Martin: What this means, essentially, is that whites and Blacks still lived in separate worlds, more or less. For the first 12 years of school, for example, I went to all-Black schools. I did not really sit in a classroom with a white student until I went to Duke University as a freshman in 1969.

And so, that’s one aspect of it. I think another aspect of it was that even within Greensboro, the world within which I moved was essentially all Black: church, school, stores, visiting friends, networks.

Narration: As a kid, he spent hours glued to the radio listening to music by Black artists, many of whom had left the South, or had families who had left the South, for cities like Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco. These cities were transformed into epicenters of explosive creativity.

Waldo Martin: Just thinking about how the blues starts off as a very rural music, and then it moves to the city. And in the city, especially in the 1940s, it becomes electrified. And then, as you move forward, the technology of the music helps to shape and remake the music.

a person dancing

Martin, as a teenager in Greensboro, North Carolina, dances in the kitchen — probably to James Brown, he says. (Credit: Courtesy of Waldo Martin)

Narration: Martin loved it all — R&B, rock and roll, soul, gospel, jazz. He listened to Nina Simone sing “Mississippi Goddam.” “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thorton. Little Richard belting out “Tutti Frutti.” Ray Charles. Chuck Berry. Aretha Franklin. James Brown. The list goes on.

As he got older, he began to more deeply appreciate the jazz greats, including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Here’s Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five playing “You Made Me Love You,” recorded in 1926:

[Music: “You Made Me Love You” by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five]

Martin says these musicians became ambassadors, not only for the music of the South, but for the culture from which the music emerged. And then, the music was made and remade when it got to the cities during the Great Migration.

[Music fades]

And the music of the Great Migration is still being reimagined by musicians today.

[Music: “Two Wings” by James Cleveland and Frazier Cleveland, performed by Alicia Hall Moran and the band Harriet Tubman]

[Singing: “I want two wings. I want two wings…”]

Mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and jazz pianist Jason Moran are the producers of Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration.

[Music fades]

Two Wings is a concert that explores the Great Migration through music, from Harlem Renaissance-era jazz tunes, gospel hymns, bebop standards and Broadway show tunes to classical and chamber music and the Morans’ own compositions.

On Feb. 17, Alicia and Jason will perform the West Coast premiere of Two Wings at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances. It’s part of Illuminations: Place and Displacement, a Cal Performances series that explores the effects of migration and gentrification on individuals and communities through performances, public programs and academic encounters.

The concert will be tailored for Northern California audiences, with an all-star roster of jazz collaborators, some of whom hail from the Bay Area, including the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church Ensemble, saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire. Donna Murch, a Rutgers University history professor and UC Berkeley alum, will also read from her book, Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.

Two Wings is named after a hymn written by Rev. James Cleveland, who was known as the “King of Gospel.”

portrait of two people looking at the camera with serious expressions

Jason Moran (left) and Alicia Hall Moran (Credit: Courtesy of Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran)

Jason Moran: This was a Negro spiritual that Alicia sang on her last record called Here Today. And on that record, Alicia actually documents part of her family’s relationship to the Great Migration. And in that telling, we started to see that we had been marking the ways our family had moved throughout the country through the Great Migration in our songs that we had written. So, that’s why the piece is called Two Wings.

The concert gathers together not only this sonic history, but the literary histories that mark what Chicago felt like when the Great Migration was happening, what New York felt like, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Charleston. And now in Oakland, in Berkeley and the Bay Area, what it felt like for families to arrive in search of something new and away from the terror of the South.

[Music: “Believe Me” written and performed by Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran]

[Singing: “The air is dry and skies or blue. You don’t need me to tell you. Ooh, the things one can do in sunny California.”]

Narration: Alicia’s family moved from Oklahoma to California, where she was born, then to New York City, where Alicia and Jason eventually met and still live with their teenage twin sons.

Alicia says that in researching her family’s journey, she realized how similar her family’s experiences were to the experiences of so many other Black Americans.

Alicia Hall Moran: What they were doing wasn’t making independent choices to find work or to get to a better legal setup or for more educational freedom.

For instance, in Oklahoma City, my father was denied being the valedictorian of his high school because he was Black, and he was just frankly told so by the principal. So, going from a place where that’s the norm and that’s OK to a place where you have some access to law and process has changed the face and shape of my family in every way. But to learn that it had a blanket term and a blanket experience was really an epiphany for me.

Jason Moran: My family comes from Louisiana and Texas. A lot of my father’s side, from Louisiana, really came straight to Texas in search of work. But some of them moved north to Chicago. And that part of the family — two musicians came out of that family: Tony Llorens and Mike Llorens. They ended up playing with Albert King, the great, great blues guitarist. And I would say they are one of the main reasons that I became a musician.

We always acknowledge our family in the work that we make for the stage, in the songs we’ve written, in the concerts we’ve produced. Because families teach you how to learn. Families teach you how to listen. And as a musician, you have to be keenly aware of who and how you listen to people so that you understand how to make sound yourself and how to listen to other musicians on the stage.

So, we’ve always been writing songs about our family and our family histories, and also acknowledging other histories of musicians that we also fall in love with.

Alicia Hall Moran: One of my favorite songs in the show, because I really sit back and relax and get into it and wait, is when Jason goes to the piano for “Carolina Shout.” Jason, can you tell us about “Carolina Shout?”

[Music: “Carolina Shout” by James P. Johnson, performed by Jason Moran]

Jason performs “Carolina Shout” at the Kennedy Center in 2020.

Jason Moran: Well, you know, we chose songs that we thought were important parts of the canons that we study, but also a part of our own personal composition canon, too. But “Carolina Shout” was a song that Harlem piano players played in the 1920s and ‘30s, and it was a battle song. It was a song you battled each other with.

Everybody had to have their version of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout.” James P. Johnson is also Fats Waller’s teacher and mentor. So, Fats Waller plays James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout” really, really fast and flawless. Duke Ellington had a version. Willie “The Lion” Smith had a version. Everybody has a version of “Carolina Shout.”

It’s not necessarily a song that people battle with anymore, but I also knew that what James P. Johnson was noting in the music was a way to shout back down to Carolina. So much so that when he was at rent parties, Harlem rent parties, playing, people would ask him, “Take us home, take us home.” And then he’d play “Carolina Shout.” And there are parts in the song that are just that actually do make the piano shout.

So, I have made a version that I give to the gods of the piano up above, my version of “Carolina Shout.” And it’s really the only time I play it is in this concert because it is a real hallmark, I think, of the Great Migration, a song that gets passed along with so much context and history and overlay.

And maybe that’s the important part of this concert for us, is that you start to relisten to the songs that you may have heard for decades and decades. And now, overlay the Great Migration on top of that.

[Music fades up, then down]

musicians stand on stage smiling and holding their instruments

Imani Winds will perform “Cane” by Jason Moran in Two Wings at Cal Performances in February. (Credit: Fadi Kheir)

Narration: Performing at Berkeley with new collaborators, says Alicia, is exciting because each person will bring their own histories and experiences with the Great Migration to the performance, guiding and shaping a recreation of Two Wings.

Alicia Hall Moran: I think the collaborators, you know, we are choosing worlds of sound whose voice in the Great Migration must be present for the story to be true. So, we’re preparing something that is deeply meaningful to us, and we’ll only know what happened once it has happened.

[Music: “Two Wings” performed by Alicia Hall Moran and the band Harriet Tubman]

Narration: For Waldo Martin, being in the audience of Two Wings will be an opportunity to listen to a new imagination of the music of the Great Migration.

And, he says, migration throughout the country — and across the globe — continues. And this movement, this act of making community in new spaces, makes the world a richer and more vibrant place as a result.

[Singing: “I want two wings to veil my face, Lord. I want two wings to fly away. I want two wings to veil my face and I want two wings for to fly away… fly away. Music fades down.]

Outro: To learn more about the upcoming Two Wings performance at Berkeley and to buy tickets, visit

I’m Anne Brice, and this is Berkeley Voices, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at UC Berkeley. The Illustration for this episode is by Neil Freese.

You can follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. If you like what we do, follow us and leave us a rating and review. New episodes come out every other Friday. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at

[Music fades up]

[Singing: “If these two wings fail me, just give me another pair.”]

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