Essential Works of the African American Vernacular Culture
When thinking of musical genres such as jazz, blues, and hip-hop, most Americans do not realize that they are the essential components to the evolution of African American Vernacular Literature. In fact, it is the key factor that brought African American culture into the limelight in America. Since the first black peoples in America were slaves, and were not allowed to read or write, the African American Vernacular Traditions began as completely oral communications in the form of church songs, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and hip hop. The African American Vernacular began as Spiritual and Secular works, which portrayed the struggles of the slaves and black population over the centuries. Through the years, African American Vernacular has advanced into the most widely listened to musical genre in America’s youth today.
The African American vernacular “consists of forms sacred—songs, prayers, sermons—and secular—work songs, secular rhymes and songs, blues, jazz, and stories of many kinds It also consists of dances…” (Gates, McKay 6). Traits that suggest that a work is of African American culture consist of : Call-response patterns, dance-beats, and most importantly, improvisation. (Gates, McKay, 6).
The earliest form of these spoken traditions are known as spirituals. African American slaves are reported to have sung these religious songs since the beginning of slavery. Slaves sang these tunes all throughout the day to provide a mental escape from their current state and to explain their sorrows and hardships (Gates, McKay, 8). The slave masters thought the slaves were singing these songs through their forced belief in the Christian religion, but they actually contained codes that referred to the slaves obtaining freedom. “I’m tryin’ to make heaven my home” is a common phrase in spirituals, as in City Called Heaven (Gates, McKay, 11).
After Spirituals came Gospels, which were nearly the same as Spirituals, but more geared to the acceptance of Christianity. They are so similar that some songs can be considered both Gospel and Spirituals. Gospels were very specific toward Jesus rather than broader like Spirituals, almost like a communication with God. Gospels became popular in the 1930’s and introduced the usage of instruments. They were the first to be marketed and are still being written and composed today in modern churches. Gospels also heavily influenced the development of the blues.
“…to term a poem or work of fiction a ‘blues piece’ or to note blues influence within it is to associate it with modern black American vernacular expression at its finest” (Gates, McKay, 49). The blues originated in Louisiana at the beginning of the 20th century. Although they were derived from Spirituals and Gospels, only one person sings, rather than an entire chorus. An interesting aspect of the blues is the call and response between either the singer and the chorus, and the singer and an instrument. During these call and response sections with an instrument, the instrument tends to mimic not only the tune, but also the tone of the vocalist. They do not mention anything sacred; therefore they are secular, unlike gospel and spirituals. Instead, it explains earthly troubles and hopes for better days. It is a way for the singer to portray his personal pain lyrically (Gates, McKay, 48). W. C. Handy is considered the father of the blues because he compiled the first idiomatic pattern for a blues song, which consisted of 12 bar forms, three lines and four beats in each. The first and second lines were identical, with the third line completing the thought.(Gates, McKay, 48). Although this is a common pattern, it is not required in a blues song, nor does it define a blues song. The blues also has a great deal on improvisation, which gives it an important African American characteristic. Blues was also one of the major genres that inspired the works of jazz to be born....
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