Slave Singing/Music Making

views updated


Although slaves entered the mainland colonies in 1619, very little notice was given to their music before the late eighteenth century. Much of the early commentary emphasized the religious nature of black folk song, but in a sense the sacred music traditions of African Americans was not made manifest until the late eighteenth century. Prior to the American Revolution, blacks, although usually assigned to segregated pews, generally worshipped in the same churches and sang the same songs as whites. After the Revolutionary War, some slaves were released for participating in the military action; others escaped. Then, beginning in 1778, Northern states initiated laws that within fifty years effectively confined the "peculiar institution" to the South. These changes resulted in blacks forming their own organizations that were not controlled by whites. By the late eighteenth century, several black churches, some of which became well known for their musical performances, were in existence. European tourists who traveled to the United States in the early nineteenth century made black churches and camp meetings essential stops, where they expected to hear and see exotic singing and dancing.

What was the singing that the tourists would hear? There was a great deal of improvisation with considerable use of call-and-response patterns, both features of much black music, such as jazz, blues, and work songs, even in the early 2000s. Religious songs were often sad and concerned with death. "Shouts," sung while a group shuffled counterclockwise in African fashion, were much more lively, but generally were allowed in churches only during Sunday services for blacks. Religious slave songs were further distinguished by the creation of tunes, themes, and words. Despite frequent mention of black sacred song during the antebellum period, it was not until the post-emancipation years that the first collection, Slave Songs of the United States, was published.

Work songs appealed to white planters and visitors to the plantation. The songs assured planters that their slaves were busy, and visitors found the songs picturesque; some even found such singing as evidence that slaves were happy and content with their lot. Even so, work songs existed for other reasons. Emphasizing the call-and-response pattern with the leader outlining the song's theme and the rest of the crew responding, work songs guaranteed a steady rhythm, resulting in the work proceeding at an even pace. Also when axes and hoes were being used, the call-and-response of work songs lessened the possibility of accidents by coordinating movements.

Field hollers were work songs that were sung solo, although they might be echoed by other workers, or passed along from one person to another. Most often associated with cotton culture, field hollers were also utilized in other types of work. They were characterized by a loud, long musical sound, making great use of falsetto. Some hollers were wordless, while others were made up of improvised lines embodying the singer's thoughts, while extensively employing elaborated syllables and melisma. Beginning in the mid 1930s, the first recording of hollers occurred; the impetus for collecting them probably was that they were believed to be a precursor of the blues.

In addition to their singing, slaves played a variety of instruments, including drums, musical bow, quills or panpipes, and a xylophone called a balafo. These African instruments did not have the widespread impact that another African instrument, the banjo, did. In its earliest report, in 1653 in the West Indies, the instrument was called the banza or the strum strum. According to a comment by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), it was later known as the banjar. Despite a persistent claim that Joel Walker Sweeney (1810–1860) invented the five-string banjo, that, too, probably originated in Africa; at least, existing evidence points in that direction. The most telling is a late-eighteenth-century painting of a scene on a plantation in the South that shows slaves dancing while another one plays a five-string banjo. The instrument became widely popular after the arrival of the minstrel show, which was America's most popular form of entertainment from 1843 to 1883. These black-face programs featured a banjo player performing in a down-stroking style in which the thumb and nail of the index or middle finger strikes downward on the strings. This is in contrast to the "Scruggs style," which has a performer picking up on the strings in a three-fingered syncopated roll. This later development is the style of banjo playing most often heard today.

Slaves also played non-African instruments, the most important of which was fiddle. Indeed, black fiddlers became as commonplace as black banjo players. Slave fiddlers were sometimes used to accompany convoys of slaves on the march to another locale. Most, however, played for dances just like their white counterparts. Often, they took the place of white fiddlers and performed music for white visitors and dancing parties.

See also: African American Leisure Lifestyles, Colonial-Era Leisure and Recreation, Early National Leisure and Recreation


Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. New York: A. Simpson and Company, 1867; reprint, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1995.

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

Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. Revised edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1983.

W. K. McNeil