The History of African American Folk Music

As far back as African-American culture reaches, a soundtrack of amazing music has followed it. During the slavery-era, the enslaved Africans would create music between each other while they were out on the fields. This music was a series of calls they would echo back and forth to each other. The songs they would sing were usually about overcoming hardship, endurance and faith, and the freedom they knew they deserved. After the Civil War ended, the newly freed slaves continued to sing songs about their newfound freedom and all the work they had ahead of them. This type of music became known as Blues Music. During this period, the blues that were being sang were actually referred to as “Folk-Blues”

Folk-Blues and Leadbelly

One of the most influential figures from the folk-blues time was Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a Leadbelly). Leadbelly (1888-1949) mixed old gospel tunes, blues, folk and country music into a sound that was new to the world. Leadbelly was born on a Louisiana plantation but then moved to Texas with his family at the age of 5. While in Texas, Leadbelly would learn how to play the guitar, which would become his instrument of choice.

Due to his amazing music, Leadbelly was pardoned twice from going to prison. Right before his second pardon, he was discovered by musicologist Alan Lomax, and recorded a song called, “Goodnight Irene”. This song would help Leadbelly get another pardon and was the beginning of his rise to somewhat fame. “Goodnight Irene” became Leadbelly’s signature song until his death in 1949.

In 1950, The Weavers readapted ‘Goodnight Irene” and created another massive hit. Their version of the song was more wholesome than Leadbelly’s.

Popular Instruments Used in Folk Music

Fiddle. MI*75.44.
Fiddle with case. 1991.0706.01.
Banjo, Gibson five-string. 1981.0157.01.