Evolution of African American Music

Topics: Blues, Jazz, African American Pages: 9 (3387 words) Published: January 18, 2014
Evolution of Music
Music and literature have always helped shape civilization. People have always written and sang about the times. Socio-political conditions have always had strong effects on people. This is especially so with African Americans. African Americans have been through some rough times, dating back to when they were torn from their homeland of Africa to become slaves, all the way up until the present where African Americans are still somewhat oppressed in some areas. However, many African Americans found music and literature as an escape. These medias allowed them to express themselves and say what was in their hearts in minds without the fear of being blasted for it. While of course throughout history there have been some things that are controversial, music and literature have become the ultimate forms of expression.

An original form of black music and literature truly began to arise when the blacks were oppressed into slavery. Many of them were uneducated, illiterate and weren’t allowed to communicate with others. However, they did have a great sense of oral tradition. African Americans found the oral tradition to be very functional, because it was the only way for them to communicate with each other. Means of communication included works songs, courting songs, folk tales, and riddles. These methods date back to Western African tribes, who spoke different languages and were not always able to verbally communicate, but one tribe would pick-up the music of another and adapt it to make it their own. This was the music that became the foundation of American music. We would never have any drums had it not been for the Africans. While many slaves were considered uneducated, they made up for it by being innovative. Eventually, the drums were taken away from the slaves because owners finally caught on to the communication patterns that the slaves used the drums for. However, that did not stop them.

It was around this time when the work song truly began to arise as the dominant form of African American music. The purpose of work songs was to both communicate with each other and to pass time. Work songs were often antiphonal (call and response), where one person would begin a song and another person would respond to it. However, these calls and responses were actually hidden messages for the slaves to share with each other. During this time, many -Africans were polytheistic. Singing songs were sometimes life-saving to them, because it was a way to get through the day. They believed that eventually salvation would come as long as they remained hopeful and believed. Eventually, they were right.

Another type of song that was very functional during this period was the signal song. Signal songs were songs that sent coded messages to other slaves. Signal songs often used biblical references, because in the Bible there are similar stories of oppression. In these songs there were certain code words. The words “Promise Land” referred to the North. “Babylon” referred to the South. Any reference to a chariot or wheels meant it was time to move, and the word “home” came to mean Underground Railroad. One of the best examples of a signal song is Paul Robeson’s “Go Down Moses”, which is a song about Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt towards salvation. This song was important, because Robeson compared Moses leading the Hebrews to salvation to the blacks one day being led towards salvation.

W.E.B. DuBois was an African American scholar who has done many great things for the black community. DuBois made a claim about sorrow songs saying that it is the only authentic American music. An important note to that statement is that DuBois meant that it is the only authentic American type of music, not African American, because these people were no longer African Americans but in fact born and raised in America. All other types of music during that time were imported. African Americans were as American as their music. However,...
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