Folk Music Defined
Folk music is a type of traditional music that is passed down from generation to generation through families and small communities (primarily rural ones). It is typically learned through hearing rather than reading, making it an oral traditional art form.
African American folk music is usually associated with other activities such as work, dancing, and storytelling by griots (West African poets). AA folk is characterized by themes of struggle, empowerment, and perseverance, commonly related to human rights.
Black American folk music began with the era of enslavement (17th-19th century) when European slaveholders would force African people to perform their cultural music on the slave ships to lower the mortality rate of the slaves. It continued when they were placed on plantations for forced labor, where they used music as a form of communication and motivation.
Field Holler / Work Songs
Field hollers (also called work songs)are an early form of African American folk music. These songs were sung on the field by enslaved Africans as they did their fieldwork. They were often sung in a call-and-response format, in which there was one singer who sang the main part of the song, and the rest repeated after or “responded” to the main singer. Field hollers often incorporated biblical parables and folklore into the lyrics, expressed strong emotions, and served as a coping mechanism for enslaved Africans dealing with the grief of their forced migration. They were also used by the slaves to spread messages and communicate amongst themselves.
Pattin' Juba (Body)
Typically made of animal bones but sometimes made of wood, this instrument is one of the oldest instruments in the folk genre. It is played by holding them between your fingers and moving your wrist in a back-and-forth motion.
A skin-covered goblet drum that originated in West Africa. It has three sounds (bass, tone, and slap) and is played with the hands, usually at celebratory events that symbolize unity and togetherness.
A West African stringed instrument made from logs covered with sheepskin. Played by enslaved Africans on ships for white entertainment. Originally called “banjar” before its appropriation, this was a staple instrument for the African American folk genre.
Also called hamboning, this was a style of dance that involved stomping and slapping or patting the body (mainly the chest, arms, legs, and face) rhythmically. Can be considered as using the body as an instrument since the patting and stomping produce coherent rhythms.
This instrument was originally used as a tool for slave work but was repurposed to be an outlet for creativity and expression for enslaved Africans to relieve them of the negative energy that their work immersed them in. It is played by rhythmically stroking or tapping the board’s ridges with the hands to produce a percussion-like sound.
Folk music influenced many genres, including blues, jazz, rap/hip hop, and gospel music. Its influence can be seen in the soulful and emotional nature of blues music, which is similar to the emotion put into the lyrics of folk songs (especially work songs). An example of this can be seen in Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues” song (left video). A lot of blues music uses and draws inspiration from the spirituals, field hollers, and ballads of the African American folk music era. Rap music also draws inspiration from folk music which can be seen through its use of intricate wordplay and sampling of old folk songs. For example, Jay-Z’s song “The Story of O.J.” samples Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” where he raps about the lack of generational wealth and financial literacy within the black community.
Some popular folk artists include Odetta, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), and Nina Simone. These singers had a great influence on African American music of the 1900’s and had extremely powerful and soulful voices that conveyed the spirit of the times they lived in very well. A popular black folk song of this century was Harry Belafonte’s version (1952) of the Jamaican folk song “Day-O” (also known as the Banana Boat Song).
Commodification and Appropriation
White slaveholders used their African slaves for more than just field and housework. Those who were talented in the performing arts were exploited by their slaveholders through forced performances featuring cultural dances and songs for the entertainment of their white superiors.
After the illegalization of slavery, white people were no longer able to force black people to perform for them, so they resorted to mockery. They began to derive their entertainment from their own theatrical performances called minstrel shows, where they would try to mimic the singing and dancing style of black people, as well as their mannerisms and diction, in an amusing/comedic way. The performers of these shows would paint their skin black to fully seal in the effect.
These shows contributed greatly to the harmful stereotypes we see today that perpetuate the view of African Americans as ignorant, sub-human beings who are good for nothing but entertainment.
Another form of appropriation is the general plundering and remixing of black folk music by white people into the genre we know as “country” music, where common themes and instruments such as rural life and the banjo are used. This appropriation is the reason why black people are hardly given as much credit as they deserve for their influence on music.
African American folk music is a direct product of the forced migration of enslaved Africans and early oppression of black people that developed into a genre of beautiful, emotional, and tactical music that influences its successors greatly. It is important that we, as African Americans, learn the history of our art so that we can connect with it and appreciate what our ancestors created and dismantle the idea that white people are the originators and influencers of everything American.