The Spirit of Music and the Revolutionary Influence of Slave Melody and the Fiddle on America

 

 

 

black fidler

By Abbey Mikha

Assyrians care about peoples from other cultures and they sympathize with their struggle!

I wrote this essay a few years ago for Slavery class.  I encourage all of you to read it.  Although it is not about Assyrians we can still learn from what other peoples of other nations have gone through and the struggle they faced at the hands of oppressors.

Introduction

Since the beginning of civilization many prejudiced catastrophic series of events have occurred which the human race should be ashamed of.   Such an event took place during the transatlantic slave trade.  This was certainly a miserable time in history, a strange time, when the human race had not yet understood itself in relation to people who appear different.  In that time Europeans devastated Africa.  They used African people as slaves and for many years they were their main labor force, which made a lot of Europeans materially rich, but in a historical sense evoked an image of them as morally devoid.  Slaves were important to the economic development of various countries and were shipped to the New World, to what is still today called the Americas.  The African slaves though did not forget about their home and always desired Africa.  Although they were not allowed to conjure an image of their homeland, they did so spiritually in the depths of their psyche and soul and through their music.  This psychological phenomenon became a gift to the New World from the slaves.  Although this world was unkind to them they still contributed to the culture. They told folkloric tales, danced, sang and kept alive the melody of their homeland.  It is undeniable that their beliefs were also repressed and substituted for Christianity, which was forced upon them.  Nonetheless, the melody and beat of Africa, which ran through their veins, would find its way into the notes and hymns of the slaves and the innovative rhythm of their descendants.  At first the music continued to be a reflection of the immeasurable sadness and hopelessness of an oppressed people. After, the interaction of African and European musical cultures as a result of the transatlantic slave trade created an undeniable musical revolution, which began with instruments such as the fiddle and the melody, which forever continues to have a major effect on the development of music in America.

Richard Jobson an English captain who visited Gambia during the years of 1620 to 1621 observed the importance of music in the African way of life: “There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principal person [that is, the kings and chiefs] do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when we come to see them, their musicke will seldom be wanting.”[1] Zora Neale Hurston stated that in the time of slavery blacks “became lords of sounds.”[2] The melody of Africa was in the hearts of every black man and woman.  Although the sad melody of slaves became a mirror of sound of the torture they endured and a certain deep depressive expression of their calamity, one cannot deny the influence it was to have on America forever after.  Shane and Graham White said that, “For nearly three centuries of African American history, much of what was distinctive about black culture was to be found in the realm of sound.[3] Many people today attest to the fact that a large number of African Americans are musically gifted; this is evidenced by the eloquent gift of the spirituals that African slaves gave to people of all color.

For the slaves, as each day drew to a close and fading light made more work impossible, these physically tortured human beings were marched back to cabins for a few hours of rest:

“At night they would begin to sing their native songs, and in a short while would become so wrought up that, utterly oblivious to the danger involved, they would grasp their bundles of personal effects, swing them on their shoulders, and setting their faces towards Africa would march down into the water singing as they marched until recalled to their senses only by the drowning of some of the party”.[4]

In regards to such escapes and in some extreme cases nervous whites wished to silence slaves, at times quite literally.[5] Sometimes slaves were not allowed to even sing during their work so they “quietly hummed against the threat of punishment by the overseer or owner.”[6] This punishment of silence was perhaps why their heart was stubborn and still wanted to sing.  Words, rhymes, notes, and melodies after all are what make any life more bearable.  Although as time passed whites recognized their liking for many of the sounds of slavery. [7] “As would later happen with the paintings of Picasso and Braque, antebellum whites continued to use words such as “wild” or “strange” to describe the sounds that they had heard from colored people, but they also acknowledged the power of what had been revealed to them.”[8]

There were all kinds of songs that the slaves sang.  Some were work songs, dance and play songs, story songs or ballets, satirical songs, field and street cries, spirituals, and poetic forms.  The most common poetic structure was the call and response form, in which the solo verse alternate with the refrain lines. [9] The following is an interesting song with a typical arrangement.  In the song the “springs that never run dry” could be an expression commonly used by slaves to refer to that place where they could indulge in something so natural as a spring, where fresh water flows to the surface of the earth from underground, or even perhaps heaven a place where they would be free from the difficult physical labor which they had to endure on earth at that time:

I meet little Rosa early in the morning.

O Jerusalem! Early in the morning.

And I asked her, how [do] you do, my daughter,

O Jerusalem! Early in the morning.

I meet my mother early in the morning.

O Jerusalem! Early in the morning.

I want to go where Moses trod.

O the dying Lamb.

For Moses gone to the promised land.

O the dying Lamb.

To drink from springs that never run dry.

O the dying Lamb.

Some primary sources such as town and court records and assembly journals of the time reveal matters of musical interest among the lists of facts.  Thus we learn, for example, that the slave Nero Benson was a trumpeter in the company of Captain Isaac Clark.[10] The trial records of one slave revolt in 1741 show that one of the slaves involved was a fiddler named Jamaica, a slave of Ellis.[11] “Fiddling was an occupation that was commonly, if not exclusively, performed by African Americans and the tradition of black fiddling has its roots in slave culture.”[12] The record of slave fiddling was so strong, in fact, that some whites became convinced of the primacy of blacks as dance musicians in antebellum America.[13] Slave musicians had created a custom whereby they provided dance music for white America, and it was some time before blacks were seriously challenged in that field.[14] Therefore, a distinct African American musical tradition, one that combined elements of African and European music, had become well established.  This means there was cultural exchange and African slaves were influencing European music and revolutionizing the culture.  Had the Europeans known that this revolution in melody would occur and influence American culture to such an extent, they may not have allowed it.  It can be said that this gradual musical cultural exchange snuck through with mother time.  There were many songs, but there is a tune fiddlers played called “Lost John” which is said to have originated in black tradition.[15] The fiddlers were the hearts and souls of the party; for slaves it was a way to show their musical expertise and their free spirit.

There are eight important points in regards to slavery and fiddling, which Paul Wells stated in his article “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.”   These are very worth mentioning and are central to understanding the significance of the slave fiddler:

1.Slaves were playing fiddles for white dances as early as the 1690’s and presumably learned-and possibly adapted-the prevailing popular dance repertoire.

2. Black fiddlers also played tunes that were more African in character-“Negro jigs”-which do not conform to the standard British, Irish, American fiddle-tune mod but which may have influenced later southern fiddling, both white and black.

3. The combination of fiddle and banjo grew out of slave culture, and slaves were playing fiddles and banjos together at least as early as 1774.

4. Syncopated bowing patterns, which were likely borrowed from black fiddling, strongly influenced the development of a particularly southern version of fiddling and later forms of popular music.

5. White minstrels adapted black instruments, techniques, and repertoire and combined them with European musical elements to form a popular synthesis of African and European music.

6. Minstrelsy impacted later white fold tradition.

7. In late-nineteenth-century black urban communities, piano-based music supplanted the older fiddle and banjo dance music, leading to the development of ragtime.

8. The blues exerted a strong influence on white southern fiddling and, ultimately, on commercial genres that grew out of it.[16]

The African fiddler became an expert in his field and through his passion allowed white Americans to see the diligence and effort that the African slave was capable of.  Fiddling eventually became the most reported musical activity of African Americans during Antebellum America.

There have also been many forgotten songs influenced by slave culture but one song that everyone knows is “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.[17] “Although the origin of the melody is unknown, most hymnals attribute it to an early American folk melody. The Bill Moyers special on this song speculated that it may have originated as the tune of a song the slaves sang.”[18] Many people, to this day, do not appreciate the influence of slave cultures on America, and do not like to admit that it contributed anything profound, especially in the field of music.  The argument that slave music sounded very simple and primitive and could therefore not have influenced eloquent American music is not true.  Anyone with blood running through their veins knows that the saddest melodies are those that most touch the soul and influence musical minds that perhaps purposely overheard a song and were then inspired to write something similar combining style and music.  According to Samuel Floyd Jr. a journalist once said that Black music died at the hands of British rock groups in the 1960’s.[19] He says that, “part of the reason that such mythological thought continue to surface in scholarly writings is that too few black intellectuals have been involved in black music research for significant and persistent debunking to take place.”[20] Although he wrote this in 1983 it is still very true today.   It is sad that throughout history and even in this advanced century some scholars still deny the influence of slave music on America.  This gives witness to the fact that sometimes people who we believe to be thinkers, philosophers, and leaders in a certain field should be questioned, especially when the truth is so evident.

It is interesting to note that someone who is considered a great thinker like Friedrich Hegel also rationalized slavery.   He said that Africans lack consciousness, which sets man apart from other “animals”.  He thought that since Africans did not have that consciousness they deserved to be enslaved.[21] These are devastating thoughts and ideas, but even the Pope himself at some points in history sanctioned slavery.  Nonetheless, neither Hegel nor the Pope had enough authority to take away from slaves the power of music. Quite a few ex-slaves stated that their masters and mistresses and sometimes their white guests as well would come down to the slave quarters to witness and be entertained by a slave dance.[22] In the narratives, one finds references to blacks listening to white music and whites listening to black music.[23]

The truth is that racism has been there since anyone can remember,[24] but there have also always been a few kind people who knew that slavery was wrong on every level and tried to destroy it as an institution.  Sometimes the behavior of criminal peoples can be difficult to understand especially when we do not agree with them on any level. The transatlantic slave trade was a devastating event which, to say the least, shook and traumatized millions of Africans perhaps forever.  The creation of the universe may still be a mystery, but the creation of slavery was no accident.  One positive thing that came out of the transatlantic slave trade was the interaction of African and European musical cultures, which eventually created an undeniable musical revolution.  It was initiated by instruments such as the fiddle and the melody that forever continues to have a major effect on the development of music in America.

Imagine the fiddler, a man who happens to be black and also a slave, who in his moment of happiness shows excitement and creativity in play and in movement.  He created in the heart of the humanitarian onlooker a desire for a human uprising, an explosion of feeling, with his deliberate exchange and intermixing of techniques, notes, dancing, and feeling.  This musical expression, which stems from the source of the need to be free and to be allowed to exist is an image and sentiment that alone can influence generations of people in the beat of every second in time.

End Notes

[1] Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans A History. New York.  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1971.  4.

[2] Shane White and Graham White. The Sound of Slavery. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. Ix.

[3] White, The Sounds of Slavery. Ix.

[4] White. The Sound of Slavery. xi.

[5] White. The Sound of Slavery. xiii.

[6] White. The Sound of Slavery. 55.

[7] White. The Sounds of Slavery. 18.

[8] White. The Sounds of Slavery. 18.

[9] Southern. The Music of Black America. 190.

[10] Eileen Southern.  The Music of Black America. 30.

[11] Eileen Southern. The Music of Black America. 30.

[12] Paul Wells. “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” Black Music Research Journal. Vol 23. 138.

[13] Wells. “Fiddling Avenue Interchange.”138.

[14] Wells. “Fiddling Avenue Interchange.”138.

[15] Wells. “Fiddling Avenue Interchange.”142.

[16] Wells. “Fiddling Avenue Interchange.” 145.

[17] Professor Mohamed H. Mohamed. Class notes.

[18] Al Rogers. Amazing Grace: The Story of John Newton. http://www.anointedlinks.com/amazing_grace.html (accessed December 1st).

[19] Samuel Floyd Jr. “On Black Music Research”. Black Music Research Journal. Vol. 3. 1983. 48.

[20] Floyd. “Black Music Research”. 48.

[21] Professor Mohamed H. Mohamed. Class notes.

[22] Robert Winans. “Black Instrumental Music Traditions in the Ex-Slave Narratives”. Black Music Research Journal. 1990.  53.

[23] Winans. “Black Music Ex-Slave Narratives.” 53.

[24] Professor Mohamed H. Mohamed. Class notes.

Works Cited

Floyd, Samuel Jr. “On Black Music Research”. Black Music Research Journal.  Vol. 3, (1983), pp. 46-57.  Published by: Center for Black Music Research – Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press. (accessed December 2nd 2010). Jstor.

Southern Eileen.  The Music of Black Americans A History. New York.  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1971.

Wells Paul.  “Fiddling as an Avenue of Black-White Musical Interchange.” Black Music Research Journal. Vol. 23, No. 1/2 (Spring – Autumn, 2003), pp. 135-147.  Published by: Center for Black Music Research – Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press.  (Accessed December 1st 2010). Jstor.

White Shane and White Graham.  The Sound of Slavery. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

 

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    Hi Cambria. Thank you very much for your comment. I love writing about sensitive topics that people usually ignore. As historians students are first taught not to judge people from the past, but for topics such as slavery everyone should be asking why and perhaps even judging the people who committed such horrendous acts. About being “popular” it is not really important to me and its not what I strive for. I am me Abbey and I wont change myself to be more popular. “What good is it to gain the world and lose yourself”-Jesus. :)

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