EARLY AFRICAN-AMERICAN GENRESBlack Americans' vernacular music extended African musical practices and played a critical role in emergence of jazz.
- Pentatonic melodies with bent and sliding pitches are major features in the blues and its close cousin, spiritual songs.
- Work songs carried on the call-and-response tradition of Africa.
- Ragtime brought the complexity of polyrhythm to American social dance.
SPIRITUAL SONGS AND THE BLUESSpiritual songs and the blues differ in subject matter but both are closely related to the minor pentatonic scale and to the bending and sliding pitches of sub-Saharan African cultures.
Spiritual songs are religious songs created by slaves in the southern states and transmitted orally. Although slaves borrowed melodies from the Christian hymns of the white Protestant population and drew on stories from the Bible, they modified this material to make it personal and to express the sufferings of slavery.
The music known as the blues derived from African-American work songs and spiritual songs, but the blues is an individual singer's form of expression. The cradle of the blues is the Mississippi River Delta, where it was played by itinerant black male poet-singers who accompanied themselves on guitar. This early stage of the blues is known as country blues or rural blues. The distinctive sound of the blues spread throughout the South and became a key influence on the development of gospel, jazz, country, early rhythm & blues, rock & roll, the "Dirty South" sound and the commercial R&B of today.
W. C. Handy and other song writers of the 1920s structured blues in concise poetic-musical forms, the better to fit the recorded media format of the time and to appeal to urban listeners' tastes. The standard blues form, three lines structured in a formulaic pattern of chord changes, as shown below, became the song form of countless rock & roll and rock songs as the blues spread from the south to become a national music.
The blues also incorporates a modification of African call and response by allowing for an instrumental fill at the end of lines. In the first two stanzas of "St. Louis Blues" Bessie sings only the first half of each line and is answered by Louis Armstrong on cornet in each second half.
WORK SONGSThe work songs of African-American crews reflect a long history going back to the work songs of slaves on plantations. Like spiritual songs, work songs retain strong African characteristics -- the pentatonic musical scale that helps define the blues, and the call and response of African music.
After the Civil War, all-black prison work gangs became virtual extensions of slavery. The criminal justice system in Southern states unjustly sentenced thousands of black men to hard labor and exploited work gangs to clear land and build railroad infrastructure. The practice continued well into the 20th century.
Ragtime is a period in the U.S. from the turn of the twentieth century to around 1920. Its name comes from the "ragged" rhythms in compositions for solo piano called rags. The originating composers were black Americans Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Irish-American Charles Lamb. Ragtime composers developed rhythmic complexity by fusing European and African rhythmic approaches: the player's left hand keeps steady beats in a strong meter, while his right-hand rhythms emphasize weak beats, or arrive just before or after beats. The result is a hybrid of strong European dance rhythm and the interlocking patterns of polyrhythm. Ragtime's style -- a steady pulse enlivened by polyrhythmic patterns -- forms the basis of much North American social dance music.
Rags were also arranged for brass bands (similar to today's marching bands but without the marching), an extremely popular medium. Scott Joplin, "Pineapple Rag" is one of Joplin's rags used on the soundtrack in The Sting, which led to a rediscovery and revival of ragtime in the 1970s. (The movie is set about 10 years later than ragtime's heyday.)
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This page references:
- Juvenile Prison Work Gang, 1903
- Furry Lewis
- Robert Johnson
- Scott Joplin, 1903
- 12-Bar Blues Form
- Robert Johnson - Crossroads - Cross Road Blues
- Bessie Smith sings "St Louis Blues," 1925
- Prison work song, "Grizzly Bear"
- Scott Joplin, "Pineapple Rag"
- Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937)
- Furry Lewis - When I lay my burden down