Music: African American

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Music: African American

The student of African American music of the early national period is immediately confronted with two fundamental challenges. First, compared to many other historical subjects, there is a significant dearth of evidence describing black music of the era. Much that does remain was recorded in passing by white observers who may not have understood or cared about what they heard. Therefore, conclusions about the sound and scope of African American music often must remain speculative. Second, a tension exists within the phrase "African American music." Scholars have used the phrase to describe music that is unique to, and shared by, the African American population. This definition enables scholars to identify a strong musical tradition and heritage maintained by African Americans, yet it can obscure both differences within the African American population and the extent to which black artists were integral to the development of all aspects of American music.

african tradition

Many of the unique aspects of African American music derived from the instruments, attitudes, and styles that enslaved Africans preserved across the Middle Passage. African music was very diverse, boasting sophisticated traditions featuring drums, stringed instruments, horns, solo or group vocal performance, and dance. Despite such diversity, African music often shared some conceptual characteristics. First among these was a tendency to understand music as a process rather than a product, a verb rather than a noun. The broad participatory experience of music could foster commonality among participants and blur distinctions between performers and listeners. Often African music emphasized functional purposes, likewise diminishing the division between performance and everyday life. Specific songs or styles often were associated with work, child rearing, festivals, worship, or other activities. Scholars also have argued that African music often displayed a number of aural characteristics that distinguished it from the musical cultures of Europe. They emphasize the common appearance of rhythmic contrasts and complexities, call-and-response patterns between groups of participants, a valuation of improvisation, and the use of a pentatonic scale in which some pitch values (particularly thirds and sevenths) are ambiguous, falling between the major and minor tonalities common in European tradition.

maintaining tradition

North American slave communities maintained African music traditions to varying degrees, depending on several factors: the number of newly enslaved people arriving from Africa or the West Indies (particularly prior to the 1808 ban on the transatlantic slave trade but continuing afterward); the variable strength of oral traditions; the ratio between African and European residents; the level of repression of slave musical practices (including the banning of drums, dancing, or religious services); and amount of exposure to European or Native American repertoires and instruments. Compelled by personal determination or the violent demands of owners, some slaves learned and excelled at the composition and performance of European-derived music, even participating fully in the diverse musical world of the colonies. Yet slaves also fostered a collective memory of African music (and other cultural forms) to articulate a common heritage, to counteract slave owners' attempts at cultural deracination and assimilation, and to resist the institution of slavery as a whole.

the revolution

The era of the American Revolution (1775–1783) was a watershed for African American music. Paradoxically, it saw both a growing African American exploration of European musical forms and the institutionalization of distinct African American musical practices. During the Revolutionary War approximately five thousand black soldiers fought against the British, most in integrated units. A common designation for African American soldiers was that of drummer, and many contributed to the martial drum-and-fife music that led the Continental Army into battle, celebrated its victories, and mourned its fallen. Black soldiers sang many of the same songs popular within the white ranks and introduced many white soldiers to African American singing styles.

the decline of northern slavery

With the gradual decline of slavery in the northern states, music flourished among free African Americans, who now found somewhat improved access to musical instruments, education, and professions. Some became featured church organists or prominent conductors. Others were in demand as private teachers. Many more fostered a love for the hymn tradition of the major Christian denominations. The era also witnessed the proliferation of institutions founded and supported by African Americans. Black Christian congregations (including Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal) increased in number during the early national era. Often African American churches fell under the governance of local white congregations and ministers. Nevertheless, separate services enabled black congregations some autonomy to worship and sing as they pleased. Many used the same denominational hymnbooks as white congregations, and a significant overlap existed in the songs sung in white and African American churches. This shared tradition expanded with the interracial worship common at camp meetings during the early years of the Second Great Awakening.

new repertoire and styles

Yet African American congregations developed a new religious repertoire which differed significantly from that of white congregations. At the center of this new repertoire was the spiritual. The spiritual tradition that developed in the early nineteenth century combined expanded themes from the Bible and denominational hymnbooks with the tradition of the ring shout. The shout, descended from African traditions, was a religious service featuring singers intoning repeated refrains while dancers moved around a ring in a slow shuffle. Shouts could last a long time, moving participants into a state of religious devotion and excitement. Spirituals, while devotional, could also be used to communicate coded messages among the slaves about plans for secret religious services or even escape from bondage.

African American slaves developed a number of secular styles. Slaves performed dance music for each other—and often for slave owners—using the fiddle and predecessors of the modern banjo, as well as by patting their own bodies in rhythm with the dance. They also developed unique calls and hollers as methods of singing greetings, news, and other information loudly across farms and fields as they worked.

African Americans, in slavery and freedom, established rich musical traditions in the early years of the American Republic. Even as historians struggle to determine the specific sounds of the era's music, most agree that those years witnessed the concerted preservation of African elements; the emergence of new African American styles; an increasing integration of African, European, and American music; and a significant African American participation in the musical life of the new nation.

See alsoAfrican Americans: African American Life and Culture; African Americans: Free Blacks in the North .


Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Radano, Ronald. Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997.

Karl Hagstrom Miller

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Music: African American

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