African American Folk Music

The Beginning of Folk Music

The start of folk music can be attributed to blacks arrival in the New World. Music has always been apart of the daily lives of Africans in Africa so it was no different for them once they were brought to North America as slaves. Although Africans arrived during the 1600s the emergence of folk music did not come until the 1800s. 

Elements of Folk Music

– The Banjo or Banza: The banza is a guitar-like instrument with four to six strings. It is one of the longest lived African instruments and it accompanies many African dances.

– Drum (Djembe): The djembe is originally from West Africa. Women would sing, clap and dance, taking turns, as the spirit moves them, at the center of the circle to its beat. The djembefola, or djembe master, leads the pace of the song and dance, adjusting the tempo as one dancer, or group of dancers, yields center stage to another. A single, traditional song that can last for hours is played on most of these occasions.

– Balafon (xylophone): The balafon is a type of tuned percussion instrument similar to a xylophone. It is played by using two padded sticks to strike the tuned keys. It has been played in Africa since the 12th century.

– Patting Juba: An extension of simple hand clapping, slapping of the legs, and body to produce complex, rapid rhythmic support to dancing.

– Quills: It is are a rare instrument from the American south, of the panpipe family. It is a set of cane pipes, numbering from two to at least 8. The Quills are first mentioned in early American plantation slave histories. It was played for recreation and dancing, accompanied by shouts, whoops and songs.

– Work songs: Singing that took place by groups of workers in the fields. These songs could accompany hoeing, planting, harvesting, picking cotton, etc. The leader would call or sing a line and the rest would respond. This was a way many slaves kept their pace.  

– Field holler or cry: Short melody sung by a lone individual working in fields. It served many purposes like work songs. They were expressions and a way of communicating different emotions.

Notable Folk Musicians

Elizabeth Cotton

Born in 1893 Elizebeth Cotten was a self taught blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter. She is most known for her signature song “Freight Train” which has been covered by many.

Odetta Holmes

Odetta was a singer, lyricist, actress and civil and human rights activist. She was a very important and influential figure in the 1950s and 60s during the American Folk Music Revival. She was named the queen of folk music by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter better known as “Lead Belly” was a legendary folk and blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Some of his songs include “Good Irene” and “Cotton Fields”.

Social Implications

Folk music brought African Americans together. Creating and displaying it was a way they could please themselves all while keeping African culture alive. The music served almost as an escape from the mistreatment they endured. Their display of folk music added a different element to the western culture.


Early on in the development of folk music most of the “artists” or contributors were just slaves enjoying the music so many songs and their originators are unknown. Books of folk music were made and sold for profit and blacks received no pay or recognition. This is one reason why the true origin is misconceived.

Folk's Influence

Folk music has influenced the formation of music genres and like R&B,  soul, gospel, and even rock and roll. Folk’s elements like call and response, beta patterns, and rhythms can be linked or related to the genres we have today.


Folk music stemmed from the African slave’s innovative ways of making the most out of their predicament, integrating music into their daily lives whether it was in the fields to assist their work, emotional express, or just for pleasure. Its musical techniques have opened the floor for many later music genres but unfortunately because of its profit for many whites, credit is often not given to blacks for its creation.

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