African American Music Survey
African American Music Survey

African American Music Survey

Lead Author(s): Derrick Spiva

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This is a study of selective genres and styles of music originating primarily in the African-American experience.


Chapter 1 

Why Study African American Music?

"12 of the Greatest Gospel Groups." The Birmingham Times. N.p., 09 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2017.​

Chapter 1

Why Study African American Music?

Black music is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people; and it moves the people toward the direction of total liberation. It shapes and defines black being and creates cultural structures for black expression. Black music is unifying because it confronts the individual with the truth of black existence and affirms that black being is possible only in a communal context.

​James H. Cone

"James Hal Cone's Quotes." Sualci Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 July 2017.

-James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation'  

Among the wealthiest of the rich blessings Africa has given to the world is rhythm, the beat.  It’s the sound of wood on wood, hand close by. That indefinable heartbeat that cuts through the noise of oppression, sets blood to dashing and toes to tapping.

It is rhythm that drives the love affair people have with gospel, blues, soul, jazz, and shake and roll. It all began with the spirituals. A mix of spirituality, hop, religious tradition and communication with a beat and a rich dose of heart and soul.

Throughout these pages, we will endeavor to demonstrate the development of a varied musical style where once the genre is established, it evolves yet again. In chronicled terms, black musical forms rose up out of a traditional African cadence, work tunes, and field hollers in a surprisingly brief time, maybe days-after the principal African slaves arrived on American shores in 1619. From the spirituals, sprang their otherworldly beneficiary celebration, as well as jazz, blues and soul. African American music in its current structures transformed from the spirituals, soul, celebration, and obviously African cadence.

What today's African American music is and what it is developing into is a culture and history of a people recorded in song.  African-American music is a hybrid of tradition with musicality.

Still, why trouble with antiquated history? Why think about the superstitious serenades from the darkest time of American history? Why invest in a chronology of this music at all? What do they matter?

“For those of us living just over 150 years after slavery (but not that long after the end of the equally heinous Jim Crow laws, the spirituals are an uncensored, unedited glimpse into the hearts and minds of slaves.” 

Author James Weldon Johnson states that 

"Only in the spirituals was the ignorant slave given the flexibility to dream his (and her) fantasies."
He articulated his misery and forecasted his triumphs; he likewise talked the gathering insight and communicated the gathering logic of life. To be sure, the Spirituals taken in general contain a record and a disclosure of the more profound considerations and encounters of the Negro in this nation for a period starting three hundred years back and covering over two centuries. If you wish to discover their secrets, you will find them in spirituals more so than in any pages of history.

John Wesley (known as the father of the Methodist tradition) once called the foundation of servitude 

"the most contemptible that ever saw the sun," however noticed that bondage did not devastate the slave. Truth be told, John Lovell, Jr., contends that it gave the driving force to unparalleled idyllic expression
What's more, they did it under the very noses and in the most oppressive "Big Houses" of their Slave owners."

We have just the vaguest suspicions of what most spirituals really implied. In an area where reading and writing for slaves was illegal and even the most innocent attempt at literacy was deserving of death, slaves built up an unprecedented mystery dialect, a dialect so rich with significance and complexity that many lyrics are difficult to interpret even today.

Slaves utilized the spirituals to pass on religious truth as well as data imperative for survival and escape in spite of the savage persecution of their captives.

W. E. Du Bois  saw  spirituals as heartfelt expressions of human emotion and reminders of the strength and resilience of the human spirit under extremely hostile circumstances. Slavery reduced individuals to chattel, subjected them to harsh working conditions while separated families. Enslaved black people used spirituals to go beyond the physical world, forging a spiritual universe distinct from this physical world. In the process, black people used music to give meaning to their horrific circumstances. As slaves, African Americans were regarded as non human inferiors. Yet the songs gave them hope as they considered themselves to be  “God's chosen people”. This hope was gained from the example in the Hebrew bibles account of the Jewish people suffering as slaves but eventually gaining freedom.

For example, Gospel music by definition means “good news”.  Gospel music is the primary vehicle for which spirituality and tradition have been handed down from generation to generation in the black church. It has also inspired audiences all over the world.

Through recent history, at the heart of the gospel music tradition is the use of a choir.  The church choir.  Choir members could easily be distinguished from the rest of the congregation because they normally dressed in robes. The gospel choir sings in a call-and-response format.

The traditional structure of gospel music changed in the late 1930s when Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie May Ford Smith.  Dorsey was a former jazz pianist and composer who had worked with famous players such as Ma Rainey and Hudson Tamp Red Whitaker. Dorsey created a new style of gospel music called gospel blues, which infused his study of blues and jazz with traditional gospel music.

"Thomas Dorsey Biography." Inspirational Christians. N.p., 17 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 July 2017.​​

Gospel music continued to evolve throughout the late 1930s. There are four distinct styles of gospel music including, but not limited to, quartet style, traditional gospel, contemporary gospel, and praise and worship.  The gospel quartet style is one in which a small number of male or female vocalists sing music together with tight harmonies. The major difference between traditional and contemporary gospel styles is that while traditional gospel usually features a more basic sound suited for singing by a choir, contemporary gospel places more emphasis on solo artists. Praise and worship is a combination of both contemporary and traditional gospel styles, in that a praise leader has a small group of singers to help lead the congregation into singing gospel music.

Solo gospel, a style of sacred singing marked by an upbeat tempo and by intense rhythms generated through percussive instrumental accompaniment, holds particular resonance for this endeavor. In the first half of the twentieth 'century this music emerged from a group of small churches on the margins of black religious life to became the most popular form of sacred music in the country as well as a huge commercial success. With these developments came new burdens and new possibilities. As a black religious music that enjoyed great commercial acclaim, gospel came to inhabit multiple worlds, serving as a meeting point for sacred and secular concerns and four local black communities, civil rights events and mainstream popular culture. As a result gospel became a critical arena in which African Americans contended with questions about the nature of faith, as well as the shape and meaning of racial identity.

Beginning with descriptions of African music-making during the seventeenth century recorded by casual observers, the study of African-derived musics in the United States has evolved into a dynamic area of scholarly investigation. The proliferation of methods from various disciplines of scholarly engagement has changed and enriched this field over the centuries. Many students of African American music, for example, employed the tools of Western-derived musical analysis, which emphasized the study of music as sound, focusing on elements of structure and technique. Historical musicologists approached their study largely through the exploration of primary documents such as newspapers, manuscripts, organizational records, personal letters, and diaries, which they combined with secondary sources and musical analysis to produce descriptive and analytical narratives on this tradition. In contrast, scholars from fields such as anthropology, ethnomusicology, sociology, cultural studies, and history, to name only a few, employed models that acknowledged the importance of the cultural, social, and political milieux in determining the character of musical traditions. In ethnographic-centered studies, scholars collected field research data as a method for establishing music-making as a process grounded in culture-specific meaning. Still another approach to the study of African American music combined components from anthropological and musicological models, employing a qualitative framework to interpret quantitative data. In the last decade of the twentieth century, many scholars expanded these models to include methodological and analytical approaches from various other disciplines.

As the breadth and depth of scholarship in African American music evolved, so did the focus of study and their underlying assumptions.  While issues of race, culture, and class were recurrent themes in narratives on African American music, such diverse topics as origins, representation, identity, aesthetics, commodification, and appropriation, as well as gender, diasporic connections, and the politics of music, became standard subjects of scholarly inquiry in the late twentieth century.  Yet in virtually every instance, both the character and content of writing on African American music reflect the dominant perspectives characteristic of the given historical period and socio-cultural context. 

As the overall scope of scholarship in African American music became more inclusive, the hierarchy of musical values that ranked African American music as inherently inferior to musics of European descent was, in large part, dismantled. As new genres of Black music emerged, an accompanying domain of scholarly inquiry soon followed.  Although some genres received attention more readily than others. As the movement of African Americans within the larger American society became less circumscribed, as the presence of African Americans was more strongly felt in the United States, and as African American voices assumed greater acceptance and prominence in articulating their own perspectives in writing, the spectrum of scholarship on African American music consequently broadened.

Music-making by people of African descent became a subject of interest beginning with descriptions of the Middle Passage.  To keep their slave cargo fit, ship crews "danced the slaves".  Naturally the slaves performed their native dances, sometimes using their own musical instruments to accompany them.  Shipboard accounts helped document the transfer of African instruments and musical practices to the New World.  By the third decade of the seventeenth century, accounts of New World music-making by African slaves as observed by slaveholders, travelers, and missionaries began to surface. Sources such as diaries, journals, reports, and memoirs provided firsthand documentation of the activities of Blacks.  Noting the use of antiphony as a recurrent musical structure, the importance of dance in African music making, and the ubiquitous circle that served as a contextual frame to organize those present at musical events. Almost uniformly, early European observers commented on the profound distinctions between their own musical values and those of the slave populace. Equating slave practices with "uncivilized" African rituals, Europeans most typically interpreted the music-making of Blacks with such pejorative terms as "barbaric," "wild," and "nonsensical." Other important sources documenting 

In the course, we will continue to discuss:

• Why African Americans have been such an important part of our modern society?

• Is there a scientific connection to the passion, emotion and jubilance that the music evokes in so many?

• What can a deeper understanding of African American culture teach us about African American music and it’s influence on today’s diverse society? What is the connection?

• We will discuss the musics African roots.

. African American Music's role in Civil Rights.

.The role women played in the development of African American music. Many of the significant contributions of women to black music genres such as "Jazz" are overlooked in many studies.

• We will explore the music industry. There has been a significant influence the music industry has had on African American music and by vice versa.

• Spirituals formed the bases for today’s African American music.

• The role the music genres such as Jazz, Blues, Musical Theater, R&B, Soul, Rap and Funk and others have played in music and world as a whole.

Works Cited:

1. Jackson, Jerma A. Singing in my Soul: Black Gospel in the Secular Age. Chapel Hill The University of North Carlonia Press, 2004. Print

2. Darden, Robert. People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, New York Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2004. Print