Folk Music: How Culture Crossed the Atlantic


The very foundations of African American music , and American music in general, are the songs and spirituals of African slaves. Jazz music , Gospel, Hip-Hop, R&B , Rock and Roll and even Country were all inspired by the voiced of our ancestors. There was a misconception that African Americans had no  Folk Music. Slaves were not allowed to take anything with them on the ships to the New World. There was no way that slaves could take any of their culture with them. This thought , however, was very wrong. Instruments like the Banjo which originated in Africa were appropriated by whites and African American Music was swept under the rug.  Slaves weren’t even allowed top play the the instruments that originated from their homeland. This contributed to the myth that African Americans had no folk music. Christianity was forced upon many slaves and with it were the ideals that many Christians had. Secular music and dancing was seen as sinful. Africans were forced to stop doing something that was so integral to their culture.These myths about African American Folk Music missed many important detail including how deep music ran in African blood.  We didn’t need instruments and such to make music. African Americans had many things taken from them throughout they many centuries of slavery and segregation. We fought and struggled for a long time , but out this struggle came the root and soul of African American music: Folk Music.

Work Songs

Music was integral for African Peoples. I was seen as an almost social activity that brought people together instead of a performance. Music accompanied many group activities. It helped regulate the pace of work and make it less boring in away. These elements of African culture carried over with slaves to the New World. Slaves often sung songs as they worked in the fields. Even  after the abolishment of slavery, African Americans sung work songs as they worked in places like prison camps to make the work less monotonous. It were these soulful songs that kept African Americans going during tough times.

Songs Like Berta Berta had many elements that were known in African music such as Call-response and polyrhythms. Call-response is a song structure where one singer makes a musical statement that is then answered by another singer or group of singers. Polyrhythms are several contrasting rhythms played at the same time. These elements can be seen in the song in the contrasting rhythms of the hammers hitting the the railroads  as the workers sang. One worker sang and then the rest followed. All these elements combined to make the song what it was. It lifted the spirits of African Americans during that time and invigorate the slower workers to allow them to keep up. The singing could accompany many  all types of work from harvesting to laying railroad tracks like what can be heard in Berta Berta. Many of these great songs were improvised  which attest to the creativity of African Americans. Work songs were nothing new. They stem from the African tradition of bringing music into your everyday life. All these similarities between African American culture and African culture shows the large amount African Americans retained from our roots.

Social Implications Of Folk Music

Folk music continued to carry on throughout the decades. Improvisation was a large part of African tradition and this carried on to the New World.This Improvisation was especially apparent in satire used by African Americans.  Many African Americans used improvised satire to make fun of the Slave masters in ways that were either very subtle or light enough to provoke offense. Satire was woven into many work songs to mock or criticize their slave master.This kind of subtle mocking were ways that African Americans protested their conditions. Protest songs were just another derivative of folk music. African Americans used music to help them through hard times and inspire others to fight against their oppressors. The songs were especially essential in the Civil Rights movement. These songs gave strength and hope for people to fight against injustice and equality.

Songs like these ignited a fire under African Americans and inspired them to keep moving and to keep fighting no matter the obstacles faced.

Important Performers of Folk Music

Folk music continued long after slavery ended. Black folk have endured much sense then and folk music endured with them. Struggle did not end for African Americans and they fed that struggle into folk music. The soul and rhythm of folk music bled into African American culture and never left. There were many great performers that helped carry the genre throughout the decades such as Harry Belafonte, Blind Boys of Alabama, Elizabeth Cotten, Richie Havens and many more. These artist helped keep the folk genre thriving.

Commodification Of Folk Music

Folk Music was made by African slaves who were paid for the large impact they had on American music. White people , however, were able to profit off of folk music through the appropriation of the songs created by African slaves. Some white people copied down songs they heard and slaves and published them into to books for money. None of this money was ever given to African Americans. Whites were also able to make money off of folk music by white washing it taking it for their own, never once giving credit to the original creators.

Folk Music's Influence on Future Genres

Folk Music is the very foundation of modern African American music. The times have changed but many of the struggles have remained the same. The soul of Folk music has never left African American Music. From Hymns to Hip-Hop , folk music’s impact is apparent. Some modern African American musicians use sample of old slave song and work songs in their songs today like Rapper J Cole. The soul of Folk Music is ever apparent in genres like Gospel and the Blues. Say what you want about folk music , but its impact is as plain as day. American music would be nothing without the African culture that crossed the Atlantic.

Conclusory Opinion

Overall ,you can not talk about African American Folk music without talking about the struggles of Blacks in America. African Americans have endured hardships for centuries but have used music to get them through it all. It is sad that the slaves who’s struggle birthed Folk Music did not get the credit they deserved , but their words live on with us. Music can help those who are in need and give them the fight needed to get through tough times. American music is African American Folk music. It’s influence runs deep and can be heard in many songs today

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