Author: Jada Farley-Cook
When the Africans were brought to America during the slave trade, the Europeans forced them to leave everything behind. They were stripped of their belongings, humanity, and many other things, but could not be stripped of their identity. With their identity and culture came music, which is where folk music in America began.
Folk music was comprised of many different styles to its genre. Two of the most popular styles were call-response and hambone, neither of them requiring physical instruments. In call-response, a leader of a group sang a certain verse or section of a song, and the rest of the group would copy it back or respond. Call-response is a style that was often used for the younger ones in children’s games. In hambone, the style was like an instrument within itself. The slaves would use their hands to slap their arms and thighs to make music.
Another element brought to America by Africans and carried over by African-Americans was their instruments. After the Africans were forced to America, they began to use a variety of instruments for folk music. A few of these instruments were the banjo, bones, tambourine, kora, fiddle, and djembe. The djembe is a type of drum and consists of three sounds: bass, tone, and slap. As previously stated, the style of hambone was also like an instrument in itself.
Rhythms and Patterns
One of the common patterns in folk music was polyrhythms. Polyrhythms are contrasting rhythms and phrases that the Africans would play or sing in sync, but were seen as controversial. This pattern in particular the white man did not enjoy due to its sound. In contrast, the Africans greatly enjoyed patting juba, which involved a lot of clapping and stomping of the feet. Although some of these patterns were very upbeat, not all folk music was secular. Folk was also composed of music that was much more sacred and related to religion.
Timbre (pronounced as tam-ber), helps identify musical instruments. It is able to distinguish between different instruments that may have the same note or pitch to help identify the sound.
Folk Music Today
Over time, the methods and tendencies of the slaves were stolen by European culture and claimed as theirs. Today, folk music is referred to as the genre of “country” and African-Americans are not marketed or given the platform as primary artists. Although they do not receive the credit they should, Africans and African-Americans were the originators of folk music and made American music culture what it is today.
Epstein, Dena J, and Rosita M Sands. “Secular Folk Music.” African American Music: An Introduction, by Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, Routledge, 2015, pp. 34–49.