Folk music is derived from Africa and has migrated to the United States as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This genre of music focuses on storytelling and the expression of emotion to convey a message. Folk music amongst enslaved Africans allowed a tradition to stay alive throughout in the Americas that greatly impacts most black people today: the integration of music in everyday life, which was essential to their survival.
Folk music comes in several differently performed variations with one primary goal of storytelling and self expression.
Game Songs/Community Singing:
At the closing of the day, children slaves would gather in a circle or with partners to use their bodies to match the words they sung. In addition, the children would perform dance moves and formations, such as call-and-response, that accompanied the songs directions. Through this activity children could express joy with their peers.
Protest Songs/Oral Tradition:
Protest songs allowed slaves to communicate and criticize without being overheard by their ‘master’. With many European’s associating folk music as just ‘noise’ it was not difficult for slaves to keep their feelings amongst those they could trust. These songs also allowed slaves to orally pass down stories with each other about freedom and ways to escape.
A field cry expressed the emotion of slaves, including sadness, frustration, and loneliness as well as expressed an unfulfilled need. These hollers were usually deciphered in context with the slaves position and condition while working.
Folk music intertwines the usage of polyrhythms, sounds produced by the body and instruments.
As previously mentioned, Europeans found folk music to sound like ‘noise’ that was difficult to decipher. This was probably because of the unfamiliar polyrhythms that were incorporated into folk music. Polyrhythms are several contrasting rhythms played or sung simultaneously.
Sounds from the body that were incorporated into folk music were done through pattin’ juba and hambone techniques, in which the performer would slap their hands amongst their hips, chest and thighs to create sounds that accompany singing and dancing.
Call-and-response was also an important aspect of folk music because it allowed for community engagement through music. Typically, in call-and-response, one person within a performance makes a statement which is then responded to by another person within the song’s melody.
Instruments such as the bones, banjo, and fiddlesticks were recreated by slaves in the Americas from their recollection of the instruments they used in Africa to make sounds which further enhanced secular folk music and dancing.
Folk music was created and utilized by enslaved Africans as a means of self-expression, communication, and integration of music into everyday life. The usage of traditional African musical elements including but not limited to the banjo, call-and-response, and polyrhythms allowed slaves to to maintain some of their identity and in foreign land while criticizing (and plotting plans to escape) their new way of life through melodies with hidden meanings. While folk music is now purposely associated as a white genre, its roots are deep in African origin and purpose, which successfully kept the secrets of slaves through its dynamic nature.