Digging at the Root: African American Folk Music

Origin and Elements of Folk

       In the early 17th century, Africans were brought over to America as slaves, with them came their custom and traditions, this included music. This music involved different rhythms placed together called polyrhythms, different from the European style of music and rhythm. One of the key elements of Folk music included the djembe, which is an African drum that was used in different ways to create a multitude of beats.

        Unfortunately, slaves were band from using and even making drums so then the beats and rhythms had to be derived from other instruments, all of which make up folk music. This includes quills which are pan-pipes usually made of bamboo,this instrument originated in Africa as the first mouth organ. They also used an instrument they called the balafon, know to us now as an xylophone giving them a sense of percussion at different tunes. They even introduced string instruments to America through the use of the banjo, paving the way for string instruments to be used for rhythms in ,multiple other genres. Lastly slaves realized they could make beats to cheer them up and keep them going during a time of anguish. Slaves even used their body to make what we call pattin’ juba a beat made from patting our legs or clapping our hand alongside a song that goes with the rhythm of the beat. To get through the treacherous work and tremendous efforts it took for slaves to build America they used  “work song” to create a rhythm and set a pace for the work that they were doing, this was done in cotton picking and even road construction. They even created the call-and-response style music to involve participation for all workers, this is seen any many genres of African American music today, as folk was built upon to create genres that evolved with time.

Social Implications

The songs and beats created during the folk genre allowed slaves to express deep sentiment during such a hard time. It helped them stay focused and continue their work when they did not feel up to completing their task. It was even used in good times such as children parties to help uplift the spirits and bring joy and cheer. Folk music was a form of expression and this feeling can be heard from the field cry in the midst of the lyrics of the song. 

Important Performers

This genre of music did not end when slavery was abolished, it’s rhythm and sympathy had an everlasting effect on African American history, allowing for great performers to keep this genre thriving. These performers included groups such as Sweet Honey in the Rock and the Blind Boys of Alabama and individuals such as Odetta, Leadbelly and Elizabeth Cotten, singing old melodies well after the origin of the genre.


Folk music was composed by slaves, who were not paid for there music, yet Europeans found a way to make means off of the insightful lyrics provided in their songs. Once the Europeans got hold of the lyrics they wrote them down and generated a book full of folk song lyrics for profit. Slaves were not compensated for their music nor were they given a percentage made from the books. Just as they do with other black creations, Europeans took the lyrics and tried to make it their own, white-washing the genre of folk music.

Influences on Future Genres

As mentioned earlier, folk music was the root for African American music as we know it today, from the beats used in pattin juba to hip hop style beats we love and listen to today. It even influenced dancing styles including tap and hip hop style dance moves. Folk music was most inspirational to the creation of gospel music, where similar elements such as call and response is used to generate this new genre.

Conclusory Opinion

In conclusion, folk music is genesis of all African American music and the introduction of rhythm to European composers. The basis of all rhythm and beat stem from this music, giving modern producers the knowledge of integrating multiple beats to create one great sound. Music is simply an art of expression, and this began with folk music and slaves expressing their pain through there music. Music can help us through the good times and bad times and this stems from work song to children’s game songs. Folk music has many implications and influences on the genres of music we listen to today.

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