MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

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Roots of African-American Music from 1800
With this unit we are going to leave Europe and look at some of the most important developments in American music. As we did at the beginning of the semester, we'll start with a sort of "origin story" that will hopefully help explain how everything developed up to the present.

As usual, Assignment #50 asks you questions about all of this. The questions mostly follow the sequence of the material, with some light shuffling.

Overview: African and European Influences

In the next few sessions we will look at African-American musical history, focusing in particular on the artform called Jazz. We will take the concept of "African-American" culture very literally, looking at it as a blend between African influences and European ones.

So, let's start by reviewing some basics of American history (which I trust everyone is at least a little bit familiar with.)

There are, of course, few historical events that have had a greater impact on American life than the forced relocation of people from Sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. for the purposes of forced servitude (i.e. the slave trade.) This brutal process is sometimes referred to as "The Middle Passage," and it moved millions of people into North and South America. In the 1770s (the beginning of the United States as an independent nation) our population was 20% African-American.

infografic on atlantic slave trade

African Musical Influences

The hypothesis of this unit is that there are certain African musical traits that were able to survive the Middle Passage and take root in North America. Africa is, of course, a massive continent with hundreds of distinct cultures, and in some ways it is a gross oversimplification to speak of "African musical culture" as though it is one thing. However, it does seem possible to find some very general traits that many of these specific traditions have in common.

It is also somewhat necessary to look for these vague, general characteristics, because specific African cultures were intentionally disrupted by the slave trade -- slave traders would mix people from different places together so that they would not have a common language and identity and would thus be easier to control.

Oral tradition, music as a participatory phenomenon, improvisation, and call-and-response structure

The first semester I taught this class I made everybody buy the "extended" edition of our textbook. It turned out to be kind of disappointing, but it did have one page in it that I really liked, called Western Classical Music: The Odd Man Out. Basically, what it argued is that the norms of European-style music are actually very abnormal when compared to the way most of the world does things.

So, one of the main characteristics of Classical music is that it "lives on paper" - it uses a notation system to communicate very detailed instructions to a performer, and thus it is possible for someone to use the sheet music left behind by a long-dead composer and perform the piece with some confidence that they are honoring this person's intentions.

Most other cultures transmit their musical practices through oral tradition, in which each generation simply teaches the music to the next, in person. Working in an oral tradition allows for certain interesting musical aspects that are difficult or even impossible to notate, so we can look at notation as both a powerful tool and a limitation.

Also, the concert format, with expert musicians on stage and a large group of silent, motionless people in the audience is also largely a Western invention. Music in other cultures is often participatory, meaning that it is something that anyone might do, and it is more smoothly integrated into everyday activities like work, education, dancing, and socializing.

When one is performing in an oral tradition, this is going to necessarily involve a certain amount of improvisation. If all the details of a piece of music are not worked out on paper it frequently falls to the performer to fill them in in a spontaneous fashion. (In class I often compare this to the process of teaching - while I usually have a pretty good outline in my head for what I want to say in a given session, the actual word-by-word details are mostly not planned and will necessarily involve improvisation. Thus, the class comes out differently every time.)

One very effective way to organize a group activity in an oral tradition is to use a call-and-response technique, where a leader does something (the "call") and the group responds to it in a certain way. Call-and-response structure is one of the most pervasive characteristics in African-American music of all eras!

Kasuan kura, Northern Ghana

Our first example of African Music comes from the Dagomba People of Northern Ghana. A leader is singing various lines about a village elder named Kasuan Kura, and the group responds with a fixed melodic formula.

The drums they are playing are called Dondons, or Talking Drums - they have strings along the sides that can be squeezed to raise the pitch.

(Also, if you listen carefully to the group response you can hear that one singer is improvising a higher line above the fixed part that the rest are doing.)

Spotify link

Dondons, or "Talking Drums"

Rhythmic complexity

African music tends to have a much higher level of rhythmic complexity than Western Classical music. Again, this is perhaps thanks to the freedom that is gained in an oral tradition - for a long time Western Classical composers were simply not very motivated to write down complex rhythms using the vocabulary of notated music.

African music also uses a great variety of percussion instruments, another phenomenon that is basically unknown in the West until the 20th century.

Borhomasi fare, Low Coast of Guinea

Here is a track called Borhomasi fare, from the Low Coast of Guinea. We hear an elaborate structure of interlocking drum parts, in which the person playing the high-pitched bell instrument seems to be acting as leader.


Variable Approach to Pitch ("Blues Inflection")

The last African influence I want to look at here is a variable or sliding approach to pitch, what we call the "blues inflection" in American music. Again, this is an aspect that is often difficult to capture in musical notation. In Western notated music the notes occur on a fixed grid of pitches, and our instruments and singing habits tend to adhere very strictly to these specified frequencies.

Other cultures, however, often exploit a more fluid conception of pitch, in which one can scoop and slide from note to note in more complex gestures.

This variable approach to pitch can also exploit an area that is sort of "in between" speech and singing.

Litungu (Bukusu)

Our final example of African music is performed by two men who talk quite a bit while playing the Litungu, a harp from the Bukusu people of Kenya. This is clearly another "storytelling" track like Kasuan kura. Once they do start singing (around :40) you can hear this sliding approach to pitch, as well as some more more rapid singing that blurs the line between speech and song.


The Litungu, a kind of harp

Early African-American musical practice, ca. 1800-1863

Now let us look at certain traditions that were observed in the United States during the early 1800s (i.e. still during the period of slavery.) Here we will see certain African elements being reassembled and reconstituted on American soil.

Audio recording technology wasn't invented until the very end of the 19th century, so we must turn to 20th-century examples of these traditions for some sense of what they might have been like.

Work Songs

One phenomenon that was frequently described in historical accounts is Work Songs, a group call-and-response that would be performed while doing physical labor.

"Old Alabama" recorded at Mississippi State Penitentiary, 1947

In this example, we will hear the interaction between a leader and the group. The group's reponses seem to be somewhat improvisatory and feature lots of blues inflection.


The Ring Shout

The Ring Shout is a kind of music that would be performed away from the field, and it is more energetic than the work song. Again it features call-and-response, blues inflection, and a very strong rhythmic element. There are also a dancing aspect, as participants would usually move in a counterclockwise circle.

"Move Daniel, Move" performed by the McIntosh County Shouters

Here's a live performance at the Library of Congress

There is another version on YouTube and Spotify that makes for an interesting comparison.

The Southern Baptist Church

Work songs and the Ring Shout are two traditions that seem to be built almost entirely out of African elements. There is one more early 19th-century tradition that is more of a hybrid phenomenon, namely the music of the Southern Baptist Church (often called Spirituals).

At this time Protestant Christianity is something that African-Americans would have been introduced to in the United States. In class we know a little bit about how Protestant congregations used hymns as part of their service (from looking at the use of the chorale in a 17th-century Lutheran church) - African-Americans were introduced to a similar tradition and they adapted it, creating original melodies with a call-and-response structure, blues elements, and lyrics that reflected their own experience.

Belleville A Capella Choir, "Come On Isreal" 1961

In class I play "Come on, Israel" which was performed by the Belleville A Capella Choir, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1961. It is weirdly absent from Youtube and Spotify but it can be streamed from the Alan Lomax online archive.

(Also for your convenience I'll just embed the track here:


1880s and 90s: Blues and Ragtime

Towards the end of the 19th Century we see two new musical inventions that will be crucial in the development of Jazz. Both seem to start out as more European-style traditions but evolve into new phenomena which incorporate African influences.

The Blues

After Emancipation in 1863 new trades began to emerge in the Southern U.S., and one notable new role was that of the Songster, a traveling musician who usually played guitar.

It is thought that the repertoire of the Songster originally consisted of European-style folk tunes. As an example, we'll listen to the well-known 20th-Century artist known as Leadbelly, singing his signature tune "Goodnight Irene." While the lyrics are somewhat pessimistic (like we might expect in a blues song) the melody and triple-meter rhythm is more like a European-style folk ballad.

Leadbelly, "Goodnight Irene"


Asked your mother for you
She told me that you was too young
I wished Dear Lord that I'd never seen your face
I'm sorry you ever was born

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene
I get you in my dreams

As we get into the 1880s and 1890s, these traveling musicians began to compose new songs that feature the sliding approach to pitch we call "blues inflection" and original lyrics about the Black experience. This is the Blues.

Our example of the Blues will be "Come On In My Kitchen," by Robert Johnson, recorded in 1936.

Robert Johnson, "Come On In My Kitchen."


In class I put the lyrics on the screen and ask students to tell me what they are about:

You better come on in my kitchen,
it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Ah, the woman I love, took from my best friend,
some joker got lucky, stole her back again
You better come on in my kitchen,
it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

Ohah, she's gone, I know she won't come back
I've taken the last nickel out of her nation sack
You better come on in my kitchen,
it's goin' to be rainin' outdoors

(oh, can't you hear that wind howl?)
Oh why', can't you hear that wind would howl?

(So, obviously we have a story of loneliness and lost love, albeit in an environment where love is not really expected to last. We get the central metaphor of the kitchen representing the security and support that a relationship can provide, and rain as the general difficulty of everyday life.

Last semester a student argued that the protagonist wants the women in his kitchen so that she will wait on him and cook him food, and thus the text is sexist. I guess that's possible!)

Ultimately a good blues song functions as poetry that documents everyday life in the 19th and 20th century, much like the troubadour songs did in the Middle Ages. The Blues is also frequently more profane and sexually explicit than the more "respectable" literature from the early 1900s, and thus it has a lot in common with more contemporary popular culture.


If the Blues is mostly guitar-based, ragtime is its piano-based counterpart. And, like the blues, it seems to have evolved from European-style music.

Ragtime was developed by African-American piano players who provided entertainment in bars and brothels. Originally, they would have been playing dance music like the "Jenny Lind Polka."

Jenny Lind Polka

Spotify Link

African-American piano players took dance music and marches and added new rhythmic complexity. The publication of sheet music by composers such as Scott Joplin allowed ragtime to travel around the world and become an international sensation.

Scott Joplin, Maple Leaf Rag [1899]


The new rhythmic element in this music is called syncopation. It could be defined as a shifting of notes off the beat, so that they fall in the spaces in between. This creates a fun "push and pull" against the beat that is engaging and pleasurable both to listen to and dance to.

One more surprising source

With the emergence of Blues and Ragtime we are almost at the invention of Jazz. Our Blues music tends to be guitar-based, and Ragtime is frequently piano based. What we seem to be missing is the rest of the band! Where are the horn players and drums?

The last ingredient we need to take us into the 20th Century is marching bands. America fought a few wars in the 1800s, including the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and the end of these military actions meant that musicians who served in Army bands brought their skills back into civilian life. There was a strong tradition of African-American Brass Bands throughout the 1800s.

With all three of these sources in place, the invention of jazz is perhaps not so mysterious. If one assembles a band with guitar or piano at the core, but also all the brass, woodwinds, and drums of a marching band, with the intention of playing new styles of music such as blues and ragtime, one has a jazz band. Perhaps the only other necessary ingredient is a new interest in group improvisation, which would have been a possible element in blues and ragtime but really comes into the foreground with jazz.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, "Dippermouth Blues" recorded 1923

Since we've done so much work to build up to the invention of jazz, we might as well listen to one of the earliest jazz recordings, by Joe "King" Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. Louis Armstrong is playing trumpet in this group and his future wife Lil Harden is on piano.

Spotify Link

OK! Exercise 50: Roots of African-American Music asks you 11 questions about this material.

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