Today, African American culture is considered a major part of the America’s musical heritage. From blues to jazz to gospel to rap and hip hop, African Americans have had a significant impact on the “Music That Shaped America.” But what of the music that shaped Colonial America? Exactly how far back does African American musical tradition go?
Tracing this meets many of the same challenges as tracing Amerindian music. Perhaps moreso: White Americans regarded their slaves as inhuman, and usually would reject any cultural self-expression from this group. Of course, expression did take place, and African American musical culture took its first steps out of the slave culture. Early records of this, however, are few and far between.
The Meaning of the Music
Records do exist suggesting that slaves occasionally joined in worship or even sang hymns and psalms on their own accord after being introduced by their owners. These records are rare and diverse, coming from both the North and South. Based on these, we can note the beginnings of African American spiritual music in colonial times. Slaves often developed “Work Songs” with spiritual themes as well–Biblical imagery was common in music, regardless of the music’s purpose (often, to help through work). Although non-religious folk and work songs probably existed, there is no documentation of any black music before the mid 19th century.
Work songs were vocalic in nature. Later, handmade string instruments (fiddles, banjos) would come into play, especially during the early days of the Blues. This does not occur for quite some time, however; In the Colonial Era, slaves would be limited to their voices and perhaps an organ in church, if their owner were Anglican.
“Lining out” (the process of reading aloud a sacred song line for line, and having the congregation repeat it) is still a common practice in many African American churches to this day. This tradition began in New England, and was maintained by the black community due to their high rate of illiteracy. The colonial beginnings of work songs also set the stage for the African American folk tradition, which later developed into the blues movement.