Chapter 5
African-American Traditions

            The first slaves landed on American shores in 1619.  For nearly 300 years thereafter, very little was known about authentic black musical practices.  Fragmentary evidence found in colonial diaries and journals suggests that plantation life was rich in musical occasions.

            While the white community moved toward a commercial version of modified British folk music, the black community sang and danced in a wide variety of bicultural patterns.  The blacks absorbed the ingredients of European music – melody, harmony, rhythm – but reworked each ingredient into a special artistic expression.  The result was a new music, a new language of communication.

            It was not European.  It was not American.  It was not African.  It was African-American – growing out of artistic sensibilities that were absolutely unique in world history.

            Most imported slaves had come originally from the kingdoms and city-states of the west coast of Africa, and these Ashanti, Benin, Dahomey, Gambia, Oyo, and Senegal societies included a rich body of music and dance in all public and private ceremonies, rites, festivals, and celebrations.  All daily activities had musical embellishments – boating, hunting, instruction of the young, planting, cattle raising, fishing, harvesting, storytelling, and even legal proceedings where "the litigants charged or sang their arguments to the accompaniment of drums and occasional singing of the assembled villagers" (Southern 1983, 8).



            These powerful instincts and traditions sustained the slaves in their new environment, and led to a kaleidoscopic array of musical activities: 'Lection Day ceremonies (patterned after the white Election Day), during which the blacks elected their own governors; Pinkster Day (Pentecost Sunday) which sometimes lasted a full week; religious services, sanctioned and unsanctioned; the now famous ring shouts; all kinds of work songs; dance and play songs; field and street hollers; spirituals and poetic forms which eventually led to the blues; and even forced singing and dancing on the auction block.

            Colonial newspapers carried regular advertisements of slaves for sale, and often made reference to the slaves' musical skills.  Town records describe events where black musicians performed.  Court documents show that run-away slaves were more eagerly searched out if they had musical talent.  So valuable were the gifted singers and instrumentalists that their masters put them on display at every opportunity.  Sometimes a slave would be called up to the planter's mansion to perform, and sometimes the slave owner would take his guests down to the slave quarters to watch a particular frolic or ring shout.  Fiddlers led all in prestige and fame.  Solomon Northrup (recently portrayed in the film 12 Years a Slave), Polydor Gardiner, and many others played for their masters' dances and parties, and were also loaned out to neighboring plantation owners.

            Students in the South occasionally took their slaves with them to college.  Since there were no slave quarters on campus, the slaves lived in the same rooms as the students, and often went to classes with their young owners.  Scholars think some of the slave musicians learned many useful things during those music lessons that were required of proper young Southern men and women.

            Five thousand blacks fought in the Revolutionary War.  Drummers and fifers Barzillai Lew, Jazeb Jolly, William Nickens, and Negro Tom carried themselves through many a battle with courage and dignity.  During the War of 1812, musicians George Brown, Cyrus Tiffany, and Jessie Wall served in the navy with distinction.  At first, blacks were not permitted in the military, but General Andrew Jackson gave his permission in 1814.  There must have been a good enlistment of black musicians because, right after the war, a large number of African-American brass bands appeared.  By 1820, black musicians were well established in America as singers, dancers, instrumentalists, and music teachers.

            By the early 1800s, three distinct areas of black music were evident: religious music, theater music, and dance music.  Much of what makes America's jazz and popular music so different and distinctive comes from that special black feeling so evident in each of the above areas.  In the 1970s this unique and hard-to-describe characteristic was called "soul".


Church Music

            As black churches appeared, African-American music began to gain the authority of its own voice.  When they no longer had to modify their musical declarations as a courtesy to the white members of the congregation, the gifted black musicians could follow their own instincts with confidence and emotional conviction.  The result was the real beginning of what eventually led to blues, ragtime, gospel, Dixieland, big band, and all the other styles and periods which make up the world of today's African-American music, and, by extension, rock and roll.

            George Leile was the first black to get a license to preach, and he was largely responsible for the formation of the first black congregation, the African Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia.  Other churches soon followed.  The most important, by far, was the church formed by Richard Allen in 1816 in Philadelphia, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Music historian Eileen Southern describes the immediate effect of these churches:


            The Negro church did more than just provide religious experiences for its congregations.  For black folk – who were denied participation in the social, economic, and political life of the white American community – the church was at once a religious temple, a school for children and adults, and a social center, a training ground for potential leaders of the race, and, like the Catholic Church of early Europe, a patron of the arts, particularly music.

            Significantly, since their beginnings in the eighteenth century, Negro churches have occupied an important place in the lives of black folk; many black leaders have been ministers, and many black musicians have begun their careers in church choirs (Southern 1971, 84-85).


            One of the first things Richard Allen did for his new A.M.E.  Church was to publish a hymnal.  He collected hymns from various sources, as was the custom of the day, and added a few of his own works.  With texts only (many which were not attributed to any composer or writer), the few who could read would guide others through this familiar territory with no trouble whatsoever.  Allen altered some of the hymns, adding a two-line refrain to the basic stanzas of the originals, thus establishing a model for future gospel tunes both black and white.

            As Southern outlined above, the black churches – then, as is often the case today – nurtured most of the strong leaders in African-American life: preachers, of course, but also educators, politicians, doctors, lawyers, business professionals, singers, dancers, and musicians.  Many of the big stars in black music today speak with fondness of their formative years in the church.  Their musical style comes from strong childhood memories.


Camp Meetings

            African-Americans also revealed their musical gifts in the outdoor camp meetings that arose in the early 1800s.  In the sweep of the "Second Great Awakening", thousands of blacks and whites of all religious persuasions gathered periodically in broad fields and valleys to celebrate their communal revivalist passions.  These faithful Christians would often spend an entire weekend in this combined religious and social occasion.

            Witnesses were stunned by the expressive lamentations of the blacks who identified with Old Testament tales of captivity and with New Testament promises of freedom and salvation.  As they sang these poignant songs – some stately and majestic, some brilliantly syncopated – they would shift weight from one foot to the other, producing an audible sound which was then further embellished by hand clapping and thigh slapping.  Since they often formed a circle, these activities came to be called ring shouts.  The repetition of memorable melodic fragments and the punctuation effect of exuberant "Hallelujahs" and "Amens" created an emotional experience of great depth and beauty.

            The blacks would often sing far into the night, long after the whites had retired for the evening.  And they sang their own permutations of the familiar hymns, freely modifying the melodic and rhythmic components to suit their needs.  They invented new texts for old tunes, and new tunes for old texts, and completely new texts and tunes of their own.  They also might keep the old text and tune, but break it up in question-and-answer form to give it a more potent emotional thrust.

            At sunrise on the last day of the camp meeting, the blacks would tear down the wooden fences that separated the black and white participants, and then perform a kind of ritual conclusion to the festivities, the "grand march".  It was, obviously, a rich experience to live through a camp meeting in the 1800s.  Generations later, jazz musicians Fletcher Henderson (in the 1920s) and Charlie Mingus (in the 1950s) would put camp meeting titles on some of their compositions.  They were obviously acknowledging the strength of those collective memories in their family histories.

            Late in the 1800s, several performing groups took this great body of black religious music, reworked it a little for concert presentation, and set out to bring it to the attention of the world.  The most famous were the Fisk Jubilee Singers who raised $150,000 for their school in six years of touring.  For a short time near the end of the 1800s, "Jubilee song" almost replaced "spiritual" as the generic term of choice, but "spiritual" soon regained its favor.

            The difference between a spiritual and a gospel tune is not clear in American historical research.  Suffice, at the moment, to suggest that spirituals are more likely to be for several voices in conception and execution, and tend to be offered and received in a concert-like atmosphere.  Gospel tunes tend to be geared more toward a solo singer (or a small group of singers), and feel more like the pop tunes of their day.  This is oversimplified, however, and the line between a spiritual and a gospel tune is not clearly distinguished in many cases.


            For all the ugly and inhuman things that occurred during a typical week on a plantation in the South, there were times when the slaves were allowed to pursue their own social and recreational desires.  Most of Saturday night and all day Sunday, the slaves engaged in a great deal of singing, dancing, and performing on fiddles and banjos.  The plantation owners would encourage these traditions, ostensibly because it made the slaves more manageable during the week.

            In time, these slave get-togethers would be parodied by white performers in blackface in the minstrel shows that became prevalent in the 19th century.  (See Chapter 8.)



            A full treatment of what is essentially the black character of America's popular dance forms would surely fill several volumes.  It is sufficient at this time to observe that African body language permeates American pop culture, and the tradition is evident in the earliest jigs, breakdowns, buck-and-wing steps, cakewalks, corn husking jigs, reels, jubas, and all the other forms which the slaves had created or been handed down through history from their ancestors.

            All societies dance, of course.  Dance is one of the great non-verbal communication systems and a pleasurable release of physical needs.  The special appeal of African styles over European styles is hard to explain.  But somehow the traditional folk dances of France, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain – polkas, waltzes, schottisches, gavottes, bourrees, and the like – began to recede in favor of the black-derived forms.  Only the Latin dance forms (tango, mambo, rhumba, cha-cha, bossa nova, samba, and such) ever held their own with the stimulating physical sensations of the highly syncopated African American styles.

            From the late 1800s to the present, black forms dominate the field of social dancing.  The historical line is nearly continuous – first the slave styles (mentioned above), then various ragtime dances, then specific dances by the dozens.  The list is long: the Charleston, the fox trot, the turkey trot, the Lindy Hop, the grizzly bear, the bunny bug, the shimmy, the Hoochie-Koochie, the Black Bottom, the Sugar Foot Strut, the Jitterbug, the Twist, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, Walking the Dog, the Frug, the Limbo Rock, the Waddle, and the Shake.  And then more - right up through James Brown's moves, disco, break dancing, Michael Jackson's unique style, and finally the hip-hop body moves that accompany rap.

            Back then, as today, adolescents love, and their parents fear, any new dance craze.  By the early 1900s, dancing had moved across American society.  Restaurants created hardwood floor space for diners who wanted to dance between courses of a meal, and soon the "nightclub" was born.  Big department stores had afternoon dance teas, and some factories even had dancing during lunch hours.  John D.  Rockefeller took private dance lessons, and wealthy ladies would sometimes commission a special dance for a particularly important cocktail party.  Marathon dance contests and "cross country" dancing enjoyed brief but intense popularity.

            Tap dancing, too, has a long and complex history.  Although it probably evolved from Irish step dancing, English clog dancing, and African-American juba dancing, it seems to have only gained popularity with the rise of minstrel shows.  Some scholars believe that secret messages were communicated by tap dancers – messages about escape trails, times and locations of uprisings, and similar information of importance to the slave community – but the certainty of this is not clear, as it is uncertain how much tap dancing actually occurred on plantations.  It is true, though, that some that slave owners would not allow drumming to accompany dancing and singing because they feared that the drumming would send hidden codes to other slaves – either as a warning, an "all clear" that it was safe for fugitive slaves to come into the open, or as signals for the start of an ever-dreaded (by the slave owners and overseers) slave uprising.



            The evidence is abundant and clear.  African waters were deep at work in the American soil, delivering unique nutrients to the transplanted European culture, changing forever the character and development of religious music, theatrical entertainment, and dancing styles.