Straight Outta Africa: Folk Music in the Americas

Origin of the Genre

Folk music came during the time of the transatlantic slave trade and is considered the oldest form of African American music. When enslaved people were forced to the Americas, they brought their music with them and adapted it to their new environment. It was passed along through generations orally, and these songs were not written down for a long time. Folk music came about to bring the enslaved people together. Many enslaved people on the plantations did not speak the same language, so music was a way to bring them together.

Characteristics of the Genre

Folk music tends to have similar characteristics to music from the continent of Africa. Some of these characteristics include-

Call-and-response: Call-and-response was another element that Africans used to create what we now refer to as African American folk music. It was used in the fields enslaved people were forced to work in as a form of speech. Sometimes they would communicate meeting times, messages, or use call-and-response just to pass the time.


Banjo: The banjo was an instrument that came over from Africa with native Africans that they continued to build in America. The banjo was the base for many African American folk music songs.


Storytelling: In folk music, storytelling is an important aspect. This element came from African oral traditions. Before written languages, the only way stories and history were preserved was through oral traditions. This method of keeping stories alive transferred to folk music over the ages, and as folk music developed into its own genre.

Drums: Drums were another instrument brought over to the Americas by native Africans that they used to create what we now refer to as African American folk music. Africans in America made drums out of anything they could find, and used them to communicate. Unfortunately, they ended up being banned on many plantations after masters learned that they were used for communication.


Polyphony: Polyphony was another music structure that Africans used to create what we now refer to as African American folk music. It combines multiple lines of independent melodies and can be traced back to multiple tribes in Africa. Polyphony allowed for improvisation, which was an important aspect of African American folk music.


Social Implications

Enslaved people were able to communicate with each other through folk music. Their slavemasters did not understand what the music truly meant, so enslaved people were able to convey secret messages and meeting times through their songs. For example, the song “Wade in the Water” was a message about the underground railroad. Enslaved people trying to escape knew that this meant they should get off of the trail and into the water to avoid being tracked, but their slavemasters believed that it was a simple slave song.


Important Performers

Most of the performers of folk music were slaves on plantations. Folk music was not always performed in front of a crowd, it was also sung by working people. In some cases, enslaved people were forced to perform their folk music in front of whites for their enjoyment. Even though many people did not perform folk music publicly, some of the people who still rose to fame by performing folk music were The Fisk Jubilee Singers and The Hampton Singers of Hampton Institute.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers
The Hampton Singers of Hampton Institute


The original creators of folk music never made a profit off of their songs. In fact, they were exploited by Europeans, who compiled the songs into books and sold them. The enslaved people were never compensated for their work. This is a common theme for many things created by African Americans during that time, so it is unsurprising that the creators were exploited.

Influences of Future Genres

Immediately after folk music, blues music arose from some of the same working conditions.

Hip-Hop draws from rhythms from the African Diaspora, including drums, and communicate emotions that characterize the times. The folk music of the enslaved African Americans embodies the struggles of being black in America, which has translated into blue, Hip-Hop, Rock & Roll, and other genres created by African Americans.

Conclusory Opinions

All of the elements brought together seem to be survival mechanisms. To help with work, to preserve culture, or to preserve energy. This just shows how resilient African Americans are, and early African American music is a testament to this, and a lesson for modern African Americans about what our ancestors went through. Despite different aspects of our music being banned, new ones were developed for communication each time. Early African American folk music has retained an impact on Africans in America from the times of enslavement all the way until modern day.

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