LeRoi Jones once said that “if the Negro represents, or is symbolic of, something in and about the nature of American culture, this certainly should be revealed by his characteristic music.”
Music, the center of many cultures, provides an important window into the hearts of the people who produce it. From jazz to techno, all music has meaning. The African Slave Trade has had a vast effect on American culture and music throughout the history of America. Chattel slavery and the torment it caused gave rise to a new type of music. African music, brought with the people from mostly West Africa during the slave trade, has heavy influences on modern American music such as rock.
African Music, an important part of West African Cultures, is used for many different occasions. Similar to today, music commemorated every sort of event, whether good or bad. One important use for music includes the accompaniment of soldiers into battle. Including singing of past victories to encourage soldiers to mirror their ancestors. Other uses for music, usually being accompanied by drums and horns, include an important ceremony where rulers would visit the newly established King in the capital and pay him their respects. “The African expressed all feelings through song, taunting enemies or rivals with song of derision, propitiating the deities with a ritual of sacred songs and dances.” Non Ceremonial music, also very common in West Africa, includes everyday songs for working, hunting, entertaining, or teaching. With music as such an important part of their culture, it was bound to be carried into the new American culture.
Chattel Slavery, the reason African Music was first introduced to America, was the economic basis for the early American colonies. As early as 1619, ships brought Africans to America’s Jamestown colony. From then on, the population of Africans in America only increased. Many Americans turned to Africans as a cheaper and more abundant labor source on cotton and tobacco plantations. By 1727, more than 75,000 Africans had been transported to the British American Colonies, and that number grew exponentially by 1790. The number continued to increase, and by 1800 about 19 percent of the United States population was black, over one million people. With so many African Americans, the black culture started to develop in America.
Having been brought to America for the purpose of enforced labor, Africans worked long and grueling days. Both the journey and the everyday life of a slave was hard. Slave traders, in the interest of keeping as many slaves as possible alive throughout the journey, often forced singing and dancing on the dejected captives in order to increase spirit and morale in the workers. Additionally, the impulse to sing while working overcame many workers, and similar to in West Africa, Africans started using song for many occasions. Whether they were “picking cotton, threshing rice, stripping tobacco, harvesting sugar cane, or doing the endless small jobs on the plantation, such as clearing away underbrush or repairing fence,” singing was used to lessen the tediousness of the work, but also to encourage the dispirited laborers. These songs led to the growth of African American Music and “folksong.”
From the melancholy themes present in slave songs, blues developed with similar themes of loneliness and depression. Developing from blues, the themes of rock change with the style. Stemming from the abhorrent conditions of slavery, songs from African peoples in slavery usually conveyed a melancholy theme. At the end of a long day, African peoples would gather and sing together in the slave quarters. As these songs spread throughout the plantation, white residents could make out the message of “hopelessness and despair,” despite not being able to understand the words. The melancholy themes originate with the early songs of Africans on the journey to America on slave ships. One report says that the slaves are frequently compelled to sing, but “their songs are generally as may naturally be expected, melancholy lamentations of their exile from their native country.” “Songs of Sorrow” emerged from the horrid conditions of slavery as a frequent theme of slave songs, and can be seen.
Another common time for slaves to sing includes religious meetings, where they would sing spirituals. These spirituals, whether sung during leisure time or at a religious service, also contained themes of sorrow and pain. Spiritual verses “express the struggle between good and evil forces that blacks have endured in slavery and in the aftermath of limited freedom.” These themes of sadness and despair can be seen in more modern types of music such as blues and rock, and hint at the connection between the genres.
The themes of hardships and adversity can also be seen through blues music. Many of these themes are directly connected to the torment and grief that the ancestors of many of these blues singers endured. So much so that “for some contemporary black performers and advocates, the blues are a site of memory for acknowledging and mourning the grievous losses wrought by slavery and Jim Crow.” With the grief of blues songs being rooted in slavery, it is clear that blues evolved from some sort of slave song. Even the lyrics of blues music reflect the endurance of pain and hardships that cultivated among the slaves, and their perseverance along with their sadness. Blues music was born through these torments and hardships of the south, which exposes the influence that more traditional African folk songs had on blues music.
Additionally blues music is full of emotion, and frequently involves the artist’s particular response to an event. Similar to the slaves using songs as a way to make their work bearable, “by singing about his misery, the blues singer achieves a kind of catharsis and life becomes bearable again.” The practice of using music as an escape can be found in both blues music and slave songs. Blues music has themes such as the loss of a love, the delicateness of life, and overall misery, these themes are enhanced by repetition, similar to slave songs. Eileen Southern even states in her book The Music of Black Americans that “the antecedents of the blues were the mournful songs of the…slaves, and the sorrow songs among the spirituals.”
Another common characteristic of blues music, with slave song roots, includes the blue note, a note used to strengthen the themes of “loneliness, sadness, loss and depression.” The note “translates the complexities of blues singing into a profitable abstraction.” This note is carried over into rock music as well. Rock artists use this blue note and enhance it with increased volume and distortion, creating “new sonic tropes that would accompany and enhance grotesque depictions of supernatural horror as they modified the old themes to describe new experiences in urban life.” While rock music keeps the underlying themes of sadness and depression, it modifies the methods of displaying this theme. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee,” for example, is a sad song, yet is delivered in an upbeat way. Even artists such as Led Zeppelin, copied blues lyrics word for word, and simply made the same music louder. The use of the same themes, and sometimes even the exact lyrics, illustrates rock’s connection to traditional slave songs. This reshaping of the former blues and slave songs reveals that traditional African folk songs shaped modern American music such as rock.
The format of traditional call and response songs and spirituals can be traced all the way through blues and rock music. The basic three chord 12 bar blues format and the call and response of spirituals appear in rock music as well as blues. Slave songs, in the call and response format, sung for all types of occasions, typically have no set pattern. The lengths of the lines and the connection between the solo and the refrain lines are always changing. It is really up to the leader to decide the details and format of the song. This almost freestyle type of music emerged from Africa, where “almost all songs were constructed in this manner.” While having many styles, slave songs predominantly had a four line stanza: three repeated lines followed by a refrain. Later, they merged into three line stanzas, which points to African tradition as well.
While slave songs, such as spirituals, have no set pattern, blues music follows a familiar, 12 bar I-IV-V chord pattern.” These formats often mirror traditional slave songs in the call and response pattern, with repetition of a statement and an “ironic turnaround at the end of each verse.” Similar to slave songs, blues music traditionally follows an AAB form: two repeated lines followed by a varied line to bring a particular message. This familiar twelve bar, AAB form has been in blues music from an early time. This is seen in most blues songs including “Levee Camp Blues.” Blues’ format mirrors the format of slave songs in that both typically have repetition of important lines. This reveals the impact slave songs had on blues music.
Rock was built from the groundwork of blues and slave songs, by combining the open ended nature of the call and response style with the traditional blues format. Similar to blues, it follows the “basic I-IV-V, three-chord, twelve-bar blues format and the call and response structure of lyrics.” Like most rock songs in the late 50s, “Memphis Tennessee” was built in the typical twelve bar, three chord pattern with “sparse, clear instrumentation and compelling syncopated rhythm.” With the same structure and format, it is clear that rock developed from a combination of blues music and the call and response format of slave songs, portraying African music’s influence on modern music.
The distinct melody and sound of slave songs, with the modulation of major and minor key, can be heard through blues and rock music. Contrary to typical European style music, African music frequently contains modulation, or variation, of tone or pitch. This was at first seen as ‘weird’ to many others who were not familiar with the practice. At first it was believed that these slave songs were strictly in the minor scale due to the melancholy sound, however it is more likely that the major scale was used, but with variation. It was left to the artist to decide whether to slide up or down, but the final note was usually a downward slide. These variations were usually found on the seventh tone of the scale, and frequently altered to a lower pitch. The variation of the traditional major scale caused the music of African peoples in slavery to be seen as weird, but also impacted the sound of blues and rock music.
This bending of the major and minor key, originally seen as strange, can clearly be heard in blues music as well. In fact, as one of the most important characteristics of blues music, the singer “bear[s] down on the third and seventh tones of the scale, slurring between major and minor.” A common practice in blues music, using slurs and sometimes grunts, can be seen in a version of the song “Levee Camp Blues” sung by Robert Pete Williams. Each line begins with a long drawn out cry, also a custom of African and African slave music, and the end of the lines often end with a downward slide. This sliding up and down from different notes has come to be called the “blues scale.” This key piece makes clear the legacy African music had on blues music.
Additionally, this practice can be seen in rock music. Songs such as Stevie Nicks’ “Rhiannon” and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” also contain this modulation between major and minor key, typical in blues songs, enhancing the feeling of “confusion, doubt, and frustration.” The distinguishable sound of traditional African music can also be seen in rock music, illustrating that the foundation of rock is in African music and blues music.
Another common practice in traditional African music includes the use of several rhythms at one time. Every African song contains the fundamental trait, containing two or three rhythms, or even four or five, at the same time. In both African music and music of the slave-trade period, songs are full of rhythmic complexities. All of the sources showing music from these periods show that a normal song at the time contained “two or more rhythms simultaneously,” frequently being seen with different instruments. The custom of using many rhythms at once can also be seen in blues music, which tends to have “duple rhythms and have syncopated melody.” It is common for rock songs to have this same syncopated rhythm, or a disturbance of the regular flow of rhythm. Songs such as “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley illustrate this syncopated rhythm. The similarities in the rhythm of African folk songs through rock music illuminate the connection between the two.
Beginning with the African slave trade, the music of black Americans has undergone changes and continuities. The evolution of African music can be traced through blues music all the way to rock. The melancholy themes present in African music, blues music, and rock music reveal the connection African music has to and its effect on modern American music such as rock. The themes of the music of the African peoples in slavery typically reflected torment and sorrow, revealing the pain they were experiencing. These themes are carried over into blues music and are further developed in rock music. Another important characteristic of African music includes the format of the songs. The format and repetition of lines in African songs is in slave songs as well as blues and rock, with some adaptations. Finally, the sounds and melody of traditional African folk songs, with the shouting, sliding, and modulation from one note to another, are seen in both blues music and rock music. The similar characteristics of African music, slave songs, blues music, and rock music unearth the reality of the effect African people had on American music.
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- Gussow, Adam. ‘W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues.’ Southern Cultures 24, no. 4 (2018): 42-68. JSTOR.
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- Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971.