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    Evolution of African American Music Essay

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    Throughout the struggles of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation, African Americans were able to remain identifiable as a race by preserving certain valuable cultural elements within their music. The purpose of this research paper will examine and reveal examples of the continuous influence of African culture on the evolution of African American music. Systematically, with each era of societal oppression, each generation of African American musicians, birthed a new genre of musical genius. The correlation between the musical roots and the African heritage of African Americans, defined the artistic foundation of each musical style. So much of the music’s lyrical content embraced change but also expressed the realities of the African American’s life experiences.

    The research in this paper will highlight examples of how the unique choral techniques within Spirituals and Worksongs, the call-and-response verses of the Blues and the improvised melodies and harmonies of Jazz are all distinct characteristics of traditional African music. From Whence We Came Shackled and chained together and corralled on a ship, native Africans watched as the shore of their homeland disappeared into the horizon with each wave of the ocean. Forced to leave behind family and material possessions, they bought with them the one thing that white Americans could not destroy: the sounds of home. They still held onto the sound of an approaching animal’s footsteps, the timing of the wind blowing through the trees but more importantly the sound of the tribal drums. Slave owners removed the drum from the daily lives of these first generation African slaves once “the connection between drumming, communication and resistance was made. The subsequent ban on African drums and drumming contributed to the slaves’ cultural disorientation by weakening ties to the music that had filled their African existence.

    ”[CITATION Sul01 p 22 l 1033 ] The plantations of the South were far from the physical homeland of Africa where drums communicated messages like Morse code. Now, the sounds and rhythms of the drums would have to come from within and begin to communicate a whole new language on this new continent. The ear would become trained to feel as well as hear. It proved more trustworthy than the eye, as the slaves would soon learn and use to their advantage.

    Spirituals and Worksongs “Because of the team-type plantation work of the south, African Americans created many worksongs. Worksongs of the new world preserved many Africanisms. ”[ CITATION Law11 l 1033 ] Some slave worksongs had harmonies almost identical to Congolese and Yoruba traditional music. Lawrence-McIntyre concluded the superb musical quality of the African American slave’s worksong reflected the Mississippi style and true African traits, particularly the rough voice timbre and the overlapping leader and chorus. [ CITATION Law11 l 1033 ] John Henry was another popular worksong that used a “hollar” back response.

    Hollar back worksongs were created for the specific purpose of guiding and instructing a group of slaves to work together, almost in unison, to follow the rhythm of the leader’s hollar and to time the swing of their hammers back and forth. The slaves responded with a grunt as the hammer struck the wood or spike. A version of this song has survived to become the poetic lyrics of an American folk ballad and is often taught as a period piece to many grade school children in music class. A spiritual work-song was sung by everyone in the field like a choir singing a chorus. To the unsuspecting slave masters, slaves working in the fields singing Steal Away held a biblical sentiment but to the slave toiling in the field, the song communicated there would be a planned escape happening that night. In the old Negro spiritual, Go Down Moses, the slaves sang their “African allegories that identified Egypt-land with the South, Pharaoh with the masters, and the Israelites with themselves and Moses with their leader, Harriet Tubman.

    ”[ CITATION Bro53 l 1033 ] Most of the African American spirituals were less about religion and more about freedom, the physical freedom from life as a slave. Using biblical and religious undertones, slaves used the language of spirituals to rebuke the conditions of slavery and in doing this “pass on their beliefs in the ancestral Gods” to their children. Minstrelsy and Ragtime Slaves were forbidden to play traditional African instruments like the drums but their music remained percussive and innovative. “As a result of having to play the European music of the slave masters, two creative patterns emerged: development of neo-African music for themselves and the transformation of European music to their African aesthetic. ”[CITATION Law11 p 38 l 1033 ] At the turn of the century and the end of slavery, some African Americans, as a result of fusing the master’s music with their own style, became very skilled and accomplished artists. Without the audience of the slave owners and their guests to perform for, some slaves, now free, became traveling entertainers.

    The pendulous age of Minstrelsy could literally be called the dark ages within the evolution of African American music. The performances consisted of derogatory songs, coon songs as they were often called, whose theatrical presentation by White actors in black face, mocked the slaves who entertained for the master on the plantation. Black actors were then required to perform in black face, too, adding further humiliation. Black men blackening their face to look like White men blackening their faces to look like Black men.

    ”[ CITATION Law11 l 1033 ] “As certain Black performers gained a substantial degree of fame, they garnered the ability to influence the content of their own show and included their own compositions. ”[CITATION Sul01 p 26 l 1033 ] This distinctive style became known as Ragtime. This derivative of minstrelsy popularized the piano because the artist exploited its keys to sound like the missing instruments. Bands and other instruments would accompany the soloist later as the music style expanded its reach and became more popular.

    “As a by-product of minstrelsy, ragtime was an art form that reflected the forced acculturation of a sector of African-American society. ” [ CITATION Hes00 l 1033 ] Ragtime accelerated the rhythm of the music using original African American syncopations by artists like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. It became one of the first pieces of printed music. Joplin is called one of the greatest composers of Ragtime music.

    The Smithsonian Magazine asserted that “Joplin raised what had been a brothel entertainment into the realm of high art, taking the four-square beat of the traditional march, adding a touch of African syncopation ad throwing in the lyricism of bel canto operas and Chopin nocturnes. ” [CITATION Wal l 1033 ] Joplin’s compositions were used to score the movie, The Sting. The Blues The musical maturation of the African American performer gradually evoked a music style with a lyric that was purposeful and conscious, the Blues. Reminiscent of the slave spirituals and work songs, the Blues, became another musical avenue African Americans developed that allowed them to express their experiences and really reflect on what it meant to be a Black man or woman in America and not a slave. The Blues embodied the African cultural tradition of storytelling. Its very essence, tone, and references delivered a message to its listener’s soul.

    Lyrical coordination of a bluesman’s vocals wailing and professing of a love lost “hold sound patterns that resembles Negro speech”[ CITATION Sul01 l 1033 ]. The use of guitar chords as a “percussive instrument, playing or singing around the beat and displacing accents to create cross-rhythms between voice and instrument are all African traits. ” [ CITATION Law11 l 1033 ]. The relevance of the music’s content to what was happening in America during the Great Depression, made it relatable to all races.

    This is when “America’s musical trends went from Ragtime’s “Happy Days are Here Again” to “Brother Can You Spare a Dime? ” [ CITATION Low08 l 1033 ] One of the most influential and creative Blues artist was Robert Johnson. His style was emotive. “As one of the few country bluesmen recorded in his prime, his style of rough playing and gut-wrenching, howling vocals became a standard that many who followed would build upon. Johnson’s lyrical content was the dark musical underbelly of American experience. ”[ CITATION Low08 l 1033 ]. “It is African tradition that a crossroads, an intersection, is a place of magical and transformative power.

    In African American folklore there are tales of meeting the devil at the crossroads and making a Faustian bargain, trading one’s soul for consummate artistic talent. [CITATION McN14 p 216 l 1033 ] It is believed by some that Johnson received his talents in a deal much like the one described in the lyrics of his famous song “Cross Road Blues”. Dennis McNally believed the song has more to do with a black man needing a ride than anything to do with the devil. It is just a song sung so powerfully, “it invoked the supernatural”[CITATION McN14 p 216 l 1033 ] Jazz The turn of the century, 1890s to 1900s, along with the Great Depression would usher in a cohesive suite of music called Jazz. Decades of evolution within the Jazz genre would transform and solidify the way music was created, how it was played, what demographic listened to it as well as the measures to which one supported it. “The Negro had created a music that offered such a profound reflection of America that it could attract white Americans to want to listen to it for exactly that reason.

    ”[ CITATION McN14 l 1033 ] The evolution created: a. New Orleans Jazz – Louis Armstrong b. Stride Piano Jazz – James Johnson c. Big Bands Jazz– Jelly Roll Morton d.

    Swing Bands Jazz –Duke Ellington & Billie Holliday e. Bebop Jazz – Dizzy Gillespie f. Hard Bop Jazz– Art Blake g. Cool Jazz – Miles Davis The Great Migration of African Americans from the oppressive south to the Northern New York Jazz scene, later known as The Harlem Renaissance, or Midwest to Chicago, propelled the new African American musicians into the mainstream. This generation of African American musicians were renaissance men who did it all: They were intellectual enough to compose and produce original compositions, schooled and technically trained enough to play several instruments and poised and talented enough to direct and lead an orchestra.

    There would be no “fight or flight” or “survival of the fittest” within this genre. The different musical styles co-existed, blended, and intermingled with each other; at times offering a bar here or a stanza there to create yet another complex riff or unique sound. Alan Locke, a Howard University professor, believed that the improvised interval break of the Blues represented the cradle from which Jazz originated. He further claimed, it “reflected a fluctuation of speed within musical phrase against a steady rhythmic beat that is a peculiar characteristic of African American music, a secret they kept for years.

    ” [ CITATION Law11 l 1033 ] Jazz artist Ornette Coleman’s first album, Free Jazz, boasted such an innovative, unrestrictive musical delivery that allowed each player to ad lib while still playing together as a band, gave this style of Jazz its name-Free Jazz. Because of the many eclectic forms of Jazz, it is the best known and one of the most appreciated styles of African American music. In conclusion, African American’s “improvisational tradition combined with a propensity towards innovation” (Sullivan, 2001) created a musical culture that would influence and give rise to some of the world’s greatest music. According to James L.

    Conyers Jr. , culture is the totality of values and behavioral preferences that make up a people’s lifestyle and approach to the activities of everyday life. “One’s culture and the influences upon one’s culture are extremely important because culture determines the destiny of a people. [ CITATION Con01 l 1033 ] Images in American history are frozen in time and even remembered by the genre of music reflective of those events.

    On this evolutionary journey, one form of African American music seemingly never completely abandoned the previous form while undergoing subtle metamorphoses. The Spirituals, Worksongs and the Blues were like the African tribal music. The music became a representation of the formation of the New African American race. The similarities to African culture remained evident with each new musical emergence.


    Brown, S.

    (1953). Latin American Studies. Negro Expressions: Spiritual, Secular, Ballads and Worksongs in Phylon. , Vol 13. Conyers, J.

    J. (2001). African American Jazz and Rap: Social and Philosphical Examinations of Black Expressive Behavior. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. Hester, K. (2000).

    From Africa to Afocentric: Innovations Some Call Jazz. In K. Hester, From Africa to Afocentric: Innovations Some Call Jazz (pp. 2-3).

    Ithaca: Herteric Records and Publisher. Lawrence-McIntyre, p. J. (2011). African American Contributions . Portland: PPS Geocultural Baseline Essay Series.

    Lowance, H. (2008). The Great Depression. Retrieved from History Magazine: https://sites.

    google. com/site/thegreatdepressionblues/McNally, D. (2014). On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Berkley: Counterpoint.

    Sullivan, m. (2001, March). African American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip hop. The Knight Institute at Cornell University. Walsh, M. (2010, June).

    A Year of Hope for Joplin and Johnson. Smithsonian Magazine.

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