African American Folk Music

Origin and Influences

Created by slaves that were taken from West Africa to the New World, folk is the earliest form of African American music. Characterized by its unique instruments, rhythmic structure, and various other elements, it has set the tone for modern back music. The main purpose of the creation of folk music was to not only give slaves a sense of of community, but allow them to express themselves while completing field work. In addition, folk music also gave slaves a break from the sufferings they experienced after arriving in the New World. 


Although there are many elements of folk music, the most prominent characteristics that can be found in every form of the genre are polyrhythm, call and response, and instruments. By defintion, polyrhythm is ” several contrasting rhythms played or sung simultaneously”(Epstein 35). Essentially, the songs would have “multipart rhythmic structures” (Epstein 35). This technique is unique to black folk music due to many Europeans considering African polyrhythms as “noise”. Call-Response is a “song structure or performance practice in which a singer or instrumentalist makes a musical statement that is answered by another soloist, instrumentalist, or group”(Epstein 35). This technique can be found in modern day black music such as Hip Hop. After researching African folk music, it is evident that a very important aspect of the genre is the various different instruments used. One instrument very unique to folk is the banjo. By defintion, the banjo is an “instrument of African origin, originally with one to six strings and a neck running parallel to a ground body” (Epstein 35). This defintion is important because it contradicts the notion that the banjo is a “white” instrument invented by Joel  Sweeney. In addition, drums are also a very important part of not only folk music, but black music. In fact, drums are the central part of black music and dance. The most important or notable drum used in this genre of music was the djembe, a drum invented by the slaves from West Africa.

Primary Performers
& Composers

Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact composer or performer of folk music, there are many important musicians that made a lasting impact on the genre. These folk performers include LeadBellyOdetta, and Elizabeth Cotton. Furthermore, the legacy of these performers influenced white folk artists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. 

Social Implications

As a result of folk music, slaves were able to express their emotions and thoughts about their new life. In addition, it gave the slaves an escape from the never ending work on the field. Folk music also made slaves feel more at home, ultimately allowing them to adapt to their surroundings. Furthermore, it allowed the slaves to feel connected to their homeland, by using instruments and music techniques unique to West Africa. 


Although the slaves responsible for this genre of music were never compensated, many Europeans benefitted from folk music. In fact, several European groups  began to create and sell books of stolen folk music lyrics without properly compensating the slaves.  What I find the most interesting about this fact is that although “many Europeans could not acknowledge a music that did not conform to their rules and scales” (Epstein 35), they still found a way to make folk music beneficial to their growth and prosperity. 

Influence on other Genres

As a result of folk music, society now has genres such as Hip Hop, Pop, R&B, and Gospel music. In fact, elements such as polyrhythm, call-response, and drums can be found in modern day black music. Furthermore, dancing styles and techniques have also evolved due to folk music. 


Overall, African folk music is not only the primary base for modern day black music, but it also set the stage for various other genres and music techniques. In addition, folk music led the way for blacks to create music that both expressed their feelings and addressed issues within the community. However, most importantly, it  showed that contrary to European belief, Africans arrived to the New World with an abundance of culture. 

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