Thought Experiment

After four centuries, most Americans can identify a piece of music as African-American. Not necessarily performed by African-Americans but in the African-American tradition. Why is that? Nobody else does that. Jews have to hire a Klezmer band, Greek have to hire a bouzouki player. But every Black church performs music with greater or lesser elements of indigenous or authentic African music in it, e.g. call and response, cross rhythms, an array of vocal techniques routinely employed which are not found in any systematic way in Western music, off-beat phrasing, heterogeneity in choral vocal forms, not to mention the drive toward some exhibition of spirit possession in many churches. Sam Floyd traces all these back to the ring shout. I am still assessing this but it has merit. He sees myth and ritual at the heart of Black music in America and the more the music assimilates to Western conceptions of musical form (jazz, concert and symphonic music, etc.), the less of myth and ritual do we see.

Yet again, we easily identify a piece of music as “Black.” While many authors like Floyd have gone into the make-up of those distinctive features, my question is why do they still exist? What did Africans bring with them that survived so well? Was it their isolation in slave cabins and “darkie towns” and ghettos, or the fact that Whites tended to like the music or could it be that the Africans’ musical tradition was so embedded and so rich that few wanted to let it go. That scene in Twelve Years a Slave when Solomon Northrup, a relatively assimilated free Black in the North, finds himself at a grave site mourning with the other slave who sing a dirge and joining in, reaching down for that most intimate place to find the music of his soul.

Just a thought experiment.

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