Leading historian on Black music at Maxwell Mansion


How can anyone condense the 400-year history of African American music into two hours or less? Germantown resident Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., Ph.D, a Guggenheim Fellow and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and one of the nation's leading historians of African American music, plans to do just that on Friday, June 23, 7 p.m., and Saturday, June 24, 7 p.m., at Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, 200 W. Tulpehocken St.

Ramsey, whose doctorate was in music history and musicology from the University of Michigan (1994), was a professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2021 and prior to that, a visiting associate professor at Harvard University and Princeton University. He is a music historian, pianist, composer, maker of documentaries, exhibition curator, museum/gallery consultant and author of numerous much-admired books such as “Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip Hop” and “Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Past and Present (University of California Press),” which was  named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.

“I have been teaching this material for 35 years,” he told us in an interview last week, “so I know how to be selective, how to tell the overall arc of the story and leave the audience wanting more. This is not just a lecture. It will be a multimedia musical presentation, including narration, singing and instrumental music.”

Guthrie has identified the evolution of Black music from the beginning of the African American diaspora by force to the development of jazz in all its forms; blues to bebop, R&B to rock, funk and hip-hop.

Ramsey's Philadelphia-based band, Dr. Guy’s MusiQology, released a CD titled “Y the Q?” in 2007 and in 2012 released “The Colored Waiting Room.” The sextet produces original music in a sound blending jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, neo-soul and classical. Ramsey is also the founder and editor of the popular blog, Musiqology.com, which has been shelved for now.

His Ebenezer presentations, in celebration of African American Music Appreciation Month, will start with the classical compositions of Francis Johnson (1792-1844), of Philadelphia, the first Black American composer to have his arrangements published as sheet music and the first African American bandleader to conduct public concerts. 

“Francis Johnson was an exceptional composer, a real pioneer,” said Ramsey, a Chicago native and ethnomusicologist. “It all comes back to a love of music, which can convey feelings that words cannot express.”

Ramsey, who said he “loves Germantown, especially the trees and public transportation,” plays all forms of music, from classical to hip hop, but mostly his own compositions and arrangements. Regarding his books, “My own favorite book is always the latest one or the one I am currently working on. Although I am retired (from teaching at Penn), I have dedicated myself to performing, film and recording. And I have started a music media company that provides services to musicians.”

Ramsey's favorite quotation, from music scholar Christopher Small, is: “Why are these people listening to this music in this place at this time?”

“This quote sums up my approach to my research, teaching and other activities,” Ramsey said. “It provides me with a framework for understanding the important cultural work that music does in societies at different historical moments and locations. As a musician, I’ve long been aware that certain styles and gestures speak to people profoundly. I see a big part of my work as trying to understand how music achieves this powerful effect and sharing what I’ve learned with others, both inside and outside of the academy. Audiences decide what music means, and I enjoy teaching and writing about this process as well as participating as a performer.”

For more information about the June 23 or 24 events, visit benezermaxwellmansion.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com