African-American Music

African American Music, music of the African natives sold into slavery in the Americas, and of their descendants. Early African American music in the United States accommodated African musical practices with the vocabulary and structures of Euro-American music. Comprising work songs, calls, field and street cries, hollers, rhyme songs, and spirituals, this music provided the slaves with a means of effectively pacing their work, with a form of sung prayer and praise, with a means of surreptitious intragroup communication, and with psychic relief from the degradation of bondage.

Many of the work songs used the African call-and-response form; a lead singer gave the line of melody and the others joined in for the refrain. This pattern, as well as a number of actual African tunes, was also carried over into the African American spiritual. Both the spiritual and the later blues, a form of secular solo folk song, incorporated the African freedom to improvise variations in the melodic line. Also derived from African heritage was polyrhythmic drumming, simultaneously combining several different rhythmic patterns of different meters. The interplay of contrasting rhythms was eventually carried over into a later African American musical style, jazz.

Although sacred music—the spiritual—was the most ubiquitous African American music in the early 19th century, secular music also existed. Like the spirituals, the work songs, calls, and cries were performed a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment); some of the other secular songs were accompanied by instruments. The earliest slave instruments included drums and an African transplant, the banjo; later, the flute, violin, and guitar were also used. Guitar, violin, and banjo frequently constituted the string bands that provided music for the African- and Euro-American social dances of the 19th century— jigs, reels, the buck-and-wing, cotillions, and quadrilles. Makeshift instruments such as quills, gutbuckets (bass fiddles made from washtubs), and jugs were also employed in string bands.

II. Jazz and Its Predecessors

Following the American Civil War, rhyme songs and ballads became plentiful, and the blues began to take on its modern forms. The music of the black minstrel shows, the string bands, the brass bands, and the honky-tonk pianos became increasingly influential, and such genres as the cakewalk and ragtime gradually emerged. Having originated in the southern and midwestern United States, ragtime reached its classic form in the 1890s in the St. Louis, Missouri, school of ragtime pianists led by Scott Joplin. In the first decade of the 20th century, the musical practices of black Americans syncretized to form a new American music called jazz. It first flourished in New Orleans, Louisiana, then spread to cities all across the country. Among the most important jazz innovators in the first half of the 20th century were Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie.

III. Mid-20th Century

In the 1940s, rhythm-and-blues (R&B) music emerged as a combined product of rural blues and black-oriented, big-band swing music, performed by small ensembles with a lead vocalist or instrumentalist and rhythm and backup sections. The pioneers and popularizers of R&B included the following: T-Bone Walker, Little Walter, Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, James Brown, Ray Charles, and Ruth Brown. Since the 1950s R&B has been the generic source of black music, as well as of American pop music.

Soul music was a further development of R&B. Essentially, it combines the R&B sound of the 1950s with techniques, effects, and performance practices borrowed from black gospel music. It has two main substyles: the polished, sophisticated Detroit style, featuring such artists as Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and The Temptations; and the earthier, more gospel-oriented Memphis, Tennessee, style, exemplified by Otis Redding and by Booker T. and the MG's. The black gospel movement had its beginnings in the early performance practices of the black Holiness churches and in the published songs of the Philadelphia minister Charles A. Tindley. Using the resources of work songs, hollers, cries, spirituals, blues, and jazz, black gospel music was fully developed by the hymnodist-composer Thomas A. Dorsey and the singer Roberta Martin, gradually becoming an important part of black worship among some denominations. Famous performers of gospel music include Mahalia Jackson, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, James Cleveland, and Andrae Crouch and the Disciples.

In the 1970s a new musical form called rap arose on the streets of New York City. The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" (1979) was the first rap hit record. Using bits of funk and hard-rock records, plus a miscellany of sounds, as background, rap performers chanted rhyming couplets, generally about ghetto life. In the 1980s the music spread across the United States as young audiences responded to the rap performers' angry words about social injustice, racism, and drug abuse. Late in the decade and into the early 1990s, controversy surrounded some artists accused of rapping racially and sexually inflammatory lyrics.

IV. Latin American Influence

The relationship of Latin American music to black music in the United States is most evident in the offbeat accents that are common in both. Between 1900 and 1940, Latin American dances—the tango (Argentina), the merengue (Dominican Republic), and the rumba (Cuba)—were all introduced into the United States. In the 1940s a fusion of Latin and jazz elements began, stimulated at first by the Afro-Cuban mambo and later on by the Brazilian bossa nova. The late 1960s brought a mingling of Latin and soul music—notably by Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo—and the recognition of the Cuban-Puerto Rican salsa as an important genre. Reversing the direction of influence, African American music of the United States also affected musical fusions in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, giving rise to Jamaican reggae and its predecessors, ska, rocksteady, and African highlife.



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