The Ring Shout

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The Ring Shout

The Ring Shout has its origins in a dance form indigenous to much of Central and West Africa, in which the dancers move in a counterclockwise circle. "Wherever in Africa the counterclockwise dance ceremony was performed," Sterling Stuckey wrote, "the dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods, the tempo and revolution of the circle quickening during the course of the movement" (Stuckey 1987, p. 12). In some cases leaping was associated with the dance, and this was sometimes true of the North American variant as well.

The ring shout as practiced by slaves was a religious activity, with Christianity augmenting the African elements. Participants moved in a circle, providing rhythm by clapping hands and patting feet. One individual would set the tempo by singing, and his lines are answered in call-and-response fashion. In some cases, another individual rhythmically beat the (usually wooden) floor with a broomstick or other piece of wood. The dancers achieved a sense of euphoria.

One white witness to a Civil War-era ring shout described it thus:

The "shout" is a peculiar service in which a dozen or twenty jog slowly round a circle behind each other with a peculiar shuffle of the feet and shake of arms, keeping time to a droning chant and hand-clapping maintained by bystanders. As the exercise continues, the excitement increases, occasionally becomes hysterical. Some religious meaning is attributed to it (Stuckey 1987, p. 85).

The fact that white observers would call the ring shout hysterical and vaguely note that some religious meaning is attributed to it may help explain why the shout was rarely performed in front of outsiders. In fact, ring shouts were often performed, semi-secretly, after regular religious services had been conducted (especially in denominations where dancing was frowned on).

Another white Civil War witness to a ring shout, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), described it in his memoirs:

All over the camp the lights glimmer in the tents, and as I sit at my desk in the open doorway, there come mingled sounds of stir and glee. Boys laugh and shout,—a feeble flute stirs somewhere in some tent, not an officer's,—drums throb far away in another … and from a neighboring cook-fire comes the monotonous sound of that strange festival, half pow-wow, half prayer-meeting, which they know only as "shout." These huts are usually enclosed in a little booth, made neatly of palmleaves and covered in at top, a regular African hut … This hut is now crammed with men, singing at the top of their voices, in one of their quaint, monotonous, endless, negro-Methodist chants, with obscure syllables recurring constantly, and slight variations interwoven, all accompanied with a regular drumming of the feet and clapping of the hands, like castanets … Then the excitement spreads: inside and outside the enclosure men begin to quiver and dance, others join, a circle forms … some "heel and toe" tumultuously … others whirl, others caper sideways … and still the ceaseless drumming and clapping, in perfect cadence, goes steadily on (Higginson 1870, pp. 17-18).

Calling it "an essential ritual of enslaved Africans," historian Jonathan David notes the ring shout's role in "validating a group solidarity in the face of enormous oppression" (David 1999, p. 565). Samuel A. Floyd Jr. asserts that all forms of African American music and performance, and culture in general, are present in the ring shout—especially in call-response, "this master trope, this musical trope of tropes" that makes essential the conversational and performative elements of black culture (Floyd 1991, pp. 53 and 61).


David, Jonathan. "Shout Because You're Free (review)." The Journal of American Folklore 112, no. 446 (1999): 565-567.

Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. "Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry." Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 2 (1991): 49-70.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Osgood & Co., 1870.

Rosenbaum, Art. Shout Because You're Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

                                         Troy D. Smith

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The Ring Shout

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