Into The Flow, Part 5 - Africa
The ethnic group that had the most profound affect on the music of the Americas didn’t come here by free will or choice.
The language of music, especially folk music, interprets and communicates the daily lives of its people perhaps even more so than their literature. Music has always been used to pass on tradition, serve as an emotional outlet, and bring a community together. The music of a people is a direct reflection of their daily lives, struggles, joys, and shared values. The story of Africans in America has been accompanied by the most astounding soundtrack.
Europeans had begun taking Africans as slaves as early as the late 14th century. These unwilling immigrants most often were put to work as servants in the homes of the wealthy in Europe. Had it not been for a lifestyle that included domestic animals, the enslavement of Africans for work in the New World might never have happened.
The people of the Old World, from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent, had all domesticated animals for food or to provide work. Living in close proximity with these animals allowed many animal-borne diseases to mutate and infect their human caretakers. Over tens of thousands of years the population of the Old World developed antibodies to combat these inter-species diseases.
As the first wave of European explorers came to the New World they unknowingly brought with them diseases that would decimate the native populations. The people of the Americas had never domesticated animals and had no immunities to the diseases that accompanied them. It is estimated that anywhere from 40-80% of the population of the New World succumbed to the diseases unleashed on their world within one generation.
Europeans established large plantations, at first on the islands of the Caribbean, and enslaved the native population to work the large farms and mines. Soon their workforce dwindled and replacement workers were needed. In Cuba alone, the native population was estimated at over 1.5 million in 1512, within twenty years there were less than 2,000 left alive. The plantation owners found a solution along the coast of Africa. By 1540 an estimated 10,000 Africans slaves were being brought to the New World annually.
The music of the African slaves was as varied as the cultures that they had been taken from, but had several attributes in common. Perhaps most important in the evolution of American music were the call and response and polyrhythmic syncopation. Field hollers and call and response songs were most probably sung to ease the difficult work in the fields. One can imagine that music was used as an emotional outlet at night when the day’s work had been completed. The European overseers introduced Christianity to the slaves, and it soon took a prominent place in their lives and in their music. Many of their songs of struggle and perseverance have become anthems for just about all communities of repressed people since.
The African slaves built instruments similar to ones from their homelands, including a stringed instrument with a skin covered, drum-like body that would become the banjo. Along with their spirituals and work songs, some slaves with musical talents were put into service entertaining their European owners and learned to play European music.
After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation many freed slaves continued to play songs of overcoming and endurance. It was the period of Jim Crow, and most African-Americans still faced many struggles. This was the period that produced one of the most influential of American musical genres, the blues. As African-Americans migrated to the larger cities in search of jobs, their music took on new aspects inherited from the other cultures encountered along the way. The musical stylings of African-Americans were spread to nearly all other musical styles through the swapping of licks amongst musicians on the traveling circuits. The minstrels and medicine shows brought the unique music of black Americans to new audiences across the country. As the medicine shows were replaced with vaudeville, White performers seized on the popularity of African-American music and began performing in Blackface. Vaudeville and the music publishing machine known as Tin Pan Alley helped spread the popularity of African-American music.
By the 1920s there were few musical styles in America that had not been influenced by the many styles of African-American music. Also in the ‘20s, the recording companies discovered a large audience for what they termed “Race” music and each company sent representatives into the South to find the next big hit. At the same time, these record “scouts” found that rural white music also had a potentially large audience and set up recording sessions from Atlanta to Bristol. At first the executives at the record companies didn’t know where to place this white country music in their catalogs. It wasn’t “Race” music and it surely wasn’t “popular”. Okeh Records decided to call it “Old Time” although it had already contained the effects of black musicians.
The mid-20th century saw an explosion of African-American inspired music, from ragtime and jazz, to the beginnings of what would become rock and roll. In 1954 Elvis Presley recorded Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s ”That’s All Right”. Young white folks took to this mediocre remake and the gates were opened for a flood of white remakes of black music.
The Folk Revival of the 1950s and ‘60s brought many blues musicians out of retirement and onto stages at festivals and colleges. The demand for blues musicians was greatest in Europe and many aging blues musicians enjoyed renewed careers touring the coffeehouses of Europe. This wave of blues in Europe inspired such musicians as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and John Mayall.
During the struggle for equal rights under the law, folk singers such as Odetta sang the old songs of freedom and strife. Songs such as ”We Shall Overcome” once again became cries for justice and entered our collective songbase.
With few exceptions, the contribution of African-Americans has left its unique mark on nearly every genre of America’s music. Jazz, country, bluegrass, zydeco, pop, and, of course, rock and roll have all been greatly enriched by the contributions of America’s unwilling immigrants.
I've really enjoyed this weeks look at the influences on American music and hope that you folks on the Bus enjoyed the ride.
Y'all have a good weekend!