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Unit Three: Overview African-American Music

This unit explores the heritage of African-American music in North America from its origins in early slave music to blues, jazz, soul, and funk. African-American slaves brought with them a rich tradition of African music and dance, which transformed into something new when mixed with the instruments and influences of the European-Americans. African-American slaves sang daily to accompany their work and worship. In the fields, they sang field calls to communicate with one another and to comfort themselves. At home, they played singing games and sang lullabies to their children. In their churches, they sang songs that helped give them a sense of hope. Music offered a means to express the intense emotions that were always a part of slave existence in America.

Spirituals and gospel music are sacred music. Spirituals are emotional songs; they expressed the sadness of the slave conditions but also the hope of salvation. Singing spirituals was a way for slaves to make music that was acceptable to the plantation owners , who often forbade other forms of musical expression. After emancipation in 1863, spirituals traveled with the people to the cities and towns they moved to. By the 1930s a new form of sacred music was taking shape: gospel music. Gospel is modern sacred music that mixes the soulful, heartfelt lyrics of spirituals with the rhythms, instruments, and upbeat tempos of modern urban music. Gospel music is the evolution of African-American spiritual music.

As African Americans moved away from the plantations, they carried with them the musical styles they had developed during over two hundred years of slave life. The field calls, spirituals, rhyming songs, singing games, and lullabies went with them and mixed with the traditions of the European Americans. The musically inclined sang on street corners and in small clubs to earn a living. They composed their own songs based on the experiences of their lives, which were often sad or desperate. The songs reflected the hunger, poverty, and racism they encountered after gaining their freedom from slavery. This music came to be known as country blues. Early country blues players accompanied themselves on acoustic guitar, banjo, and piano. As time went by, as they moved north into the cities, they found work in clubs that featured blues singers and players. Over time more instruments were added, tempos were increased, and the blues transformed itself into a more modern-sounding urban style of blues, or dance music.

Dancing was always a part of African-American traditions-from dancing at church gatherings and after work on the plantations, to dancing in "juke joints" and African-American clubs and bars after emancipation. Ragtime music and New Orleans jazz were some of the first popular dance music forms to emerge from African traditions around the turn of the twentieth century. Eventually, as European-Americans heard the music and began performing it, these styles spread and became famous among mainstream audiences. By mid-century, as the civil rights movement swept across the country, opening more opportunities for African Americans to record and perform, their music finally came to the forefront of American culture.

Both soul and funk evolved from the blues, spirituals, gospel, and dance music of the 1950s. Soul mixes gospel music with rhythm and blues, creating a passionate, upbeat, rhythmic style of music. In the 1960s, the Motown Records label made music history by featuring African-American artists with a string of number one soul music hits over a period of many years. Funk music followed in the 1970s, mixing soul with rock and jazz. The result was a progressive, groove-oriented, highly danceable music.

Excerpted from Listen to Learn: Using American Music to Teach Language Arts and Social Studies (Grades 5-8) by Teri Tibbett (August 2004, $39.95, Paper) by permission of Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint.