THE RING SHOUT
Slave Culture in the North American Colonies and United StatesUntil the time of the U.S. Civil War, in 1860, “the great majority of slaves remained outside the Christian Church.” [Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans]. There were many obstacles to the spread of Christianity among slaves in the colonial period and beyond — severe shortage of clergy and churches, reluctance of slaveholders to provide free time necessary for religious instruction, and the belief that black people and indigenous Americans were not equal to whites in the sight of God. Above all, many slaveholders “feared .. the egalitarianism implicit in Christianity,” believing that Christianity would “make their slaves not only proud but ungovernable, and even rebellious.” [Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution”] Missionaries appealed to slaveholders’ profit motives by insisting that Christianity would make slaves more obedient and docile; this was their interpretation of “Christian Love and Duty.” Not surprisingly, few slaves shared this view.
The Ring Shout was the most important expression of spirituality among slaves in the United States. Sterling Stuckey, in his groundbreaking and monumental Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America advanced the thesis that the Ring Shout, as well as black funeral rites and folk tales, not only demonstrate African spirituality and aesthetics during slavery, but also testify to the creation of a community among the disparate ethnicities and languages of African slaves and their descendants, and the basis of organized resistance to servitude. The complex symbolism embodied in the practices of slaves leads Stuckey to assert that while rites like river baptism "may at first glance appear to be primarily Christian...the great bulk of the slaves were scarcely touched by Christianity, their religious practices being vastly more African than Christian."
Ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax were among first to establish the features of the Ring Shout that are shared with other religious rites among the African diaspora in the western hemisphere, and to tie all of these practices to West and Central African origins. Other researchers have confirmed their observations.
- All of these religions are “danced religions”
- The dance involves the whole body
- Dancers always move counterclockwise in a circle
- There is leader-group call and response
- The song/dance increases in intensity “until a sort of mass hypnosis ensues”
Drums, forbidden to slaves in the U.S., were replaced in the Ring Shout by “hand-clapping, foot-tapping, [and] rhythmic preaching” while the singing style in the Ring Shout derived from African musical practices: “a strong emphasis on call and response, polyrhythms, syncopation, ornamentation, slides from one note to another, and repetition.” [Robateau] In cases where slaveholders disallowed religious services, slaves often held secret nighttime or sunrise meetings in secluded woods or thickets. More lenient masters allowed services in slave cabins or “praise houses.” Similar practices were documented among free blacks in Manhattan and New Orleans as well.
Raboteau sees the mid-18th century as the beginning of sizable numbers of slave conversions to Christianity (albeit a Christianity that was strongly influenced by African religious systems) due to the “waves of religious revival” known as the Great Awakening. The camp-meeting revivals held by evangelists encouraged ecstatic religious behavior that African slaves could relate to their own traditions. In santería, palo monte, and Brazilian condomblé, divinities of African origin with distinct characteristics and personalities possess enthusiasts during religious rituals. In the United States there arose a different possession belief, but to the same effect: “it is the Holy Spirit who fills the converted singer with happiness and power that drives him to shout, sing, and … dance.” The vocal music that originated in the Ring Shouts would engender the major genres of African-American vocal music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: spirituals, field hollers, work songs, and blues.
Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The 'Invisible Institution' in the Antebellum South, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Gerhard Kubik, Africa and the Blues (Americaan Made Music), University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1999.
Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, Random House Books, New York, 1983.
Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans, W. W. Norton, 1971.