Performing Culture in Music & Dance
Not only did African Americans often blend traditional West African spirituality with Christian beliefs, they also wove together West African rhythms, shouts, and melodies with European American tunes to create spiritual songs drawn from images and stories found in Bible. African Americans also put their own unique cultural and musical stamp on a style of hymn singing called lined-out hymnody. Lined-out hymn singing has roots in sixteenth and seventeenth century England and Scotland. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries taught lining out to slaves and poor whites in the South where literacy was low and hymnbooks were few. Taken together, African American spirituals and hymns represent a profound cultural expression and contribution that laid the foundation for future forms of American music including the blues, soul, jazz, and even rock n’ roll and hip-hop.
African American spiritual songs took a variety of forms including shouts, anthems, and jubilees. “Styles ranged from the exciting tempo and rhythmic stamp of the shout to the slow, drawn-out ‘sorrow songs’ which usually come to mind when the spirituals are mentioned,” observes historian Albert J. Raboteau. “While the lyrics and themes of the spirituals were drawn from Biblical verses and Christian hymns, and although the music and melodies were strongly influenced by the sacred and secular songs of white Americans, the style in which the slaves sang the spirituals was African.” (Raboteau, 74). The influence of West Africa could be heard in the spirituals’ call-and-response form, syncopated rhythms, and the use of “blue” notes, which are tones in the major and pentatonic scale that are “bent” into minor tones. African Americans also demonstrated their West African heritage in their body movements, including hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and dance. (Darden, 2004) (1)
The Ring Shout
The heritage of West Africa found perhaps its fullest expression in the spiritual form called the ring shout, which seemed to thrive on the sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The ring shout combines singing or shouting stories from the Bible with a religious form of dance that resembles shuffling. In a religious setting, the shouters shuffle and stomp in a counterclockwise motion while clapping their hands to the shout’s rhythm. Some African American slaves believed the ring shout was a central part of worship, often a prerequisite to receiving the spirit or having a conversion experience. The ring shout, argues Raboteau, was thus a “two-way bridge connecting the core of West African religions—possession by the gods—to the core of evangelical Protestantism—experience of conversion.” (Raboteau, 73)
During the Civil War, William Francis Allen, a northern educator, heard the religious singing of newly freed slaves while in the Low Country of South Carolina. He later helped edit and publish the first collection of African American religious songs in American history, Slave Songs of the United States . In an 1867 article in The Nation , Allen described the ring shout in the following manner:
“…the true ‘shout’ takes place on Sundays or on ‘praise’ nights through the week, and either in the praise-house or in some cabin in which a regular religious meeting has been held… The benches are pushed back to the wall when the meeting is over, and old and young men and women… boys… young girls barefooted, all stand up in the middle of the floor, and when the [spiritual] is struck, begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter, and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes they song itself is also sung by the dancers…. Song and dance alike are extremely energetic, and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous thud, thud, thud of feet prevents sleep within half a mile of the praise-house… It is not unlikely that this remarkable religious ceremony is a relic of some African dance…” (Allen quoted in Rabotaeu, 71)
During the 1930s, the folklorists Alan and John Lomax, found evidence of the ring shout still practiced in Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, and the Bahamas, and versions of it in Haiti. (Rabotaeu, 1978, 70) The ring shout is still performed today by the descendants of slaves, particularly in McIntosh County, Georgia. Versions of the ring shout can also be seen today in some African American Primitive Baptist churches in Georgia and Florida. Congregants often sing spirituals during the offering portion of the service and some will move toward the front of church and “rock” counter-clockwise around the communion table while singing old spirituals like “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” (1)
As Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries spread the gospel during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including into African American slave communities, they brought with them hymns composed by English hymn writers such as Issac Watts, William Cowper, and Charles Wesley. In many poor white and slave communities, church attendees could not read or afford hymnbooks. As a result, missionaries taught church congregations the practice of lining out hymns. Lining out involved a preacher or deacon standing before a congregation and reading the first lines of a hymn from a hymnbook or speaking them from memory. The congregation, which most likely did not have hymnbooks or were usually unable to read them if they did, would hear the lines intoned by the presenter and then respond by singing them, often very slowly, to a familiar tune that fit the hymn’s meter. The practice of lining out originated in England following the Protestant Reformation and spread to Scotland and then North America where the Puritans lined out the Psalms from their Bay Psalm Book. Lining out quickly took hold among white and black Baptists in particular during the eighteenth century and nineteenth century.
One slave master, and Presbyterian missionary, from Liberty County, Georgia, Charles Colcock Jones, emphasized the importance of teaching hymns and psalms to slaves as way to dissuade them from singing the “extravagant and nonsensical chants” and shouts “of their own composing.” Ironically, however, black slaves used these European hymn and psalm texts to learn literacy. And by creating their own melodies, tunes, and speech patterns when lining out the hymns, African Americans effectively “blackened” what was originally a European form of singing. African American slaves in turn created a unique African American musical sound and culture that became the bedrock of later secular genres such as the blues. (Dargan, 2006)
William Francis Allen, who described the ring shout tradition among African American slaves during the Civil War, also provided one of the most detailed and evocative descriptions of lined-out hymn singing among slaves during the same time period:
“I went to the Praise House in the Quarters…. They were just beginning a hymn, which the preacher deaconed [lined] out, two lines at a time. The tune was evidently Old Hundred, which was maintained throughout by one voice or another, but curiously varied at every note so as to form an intricate intertwining of harmonious sounds. It was something very different from anything I ever heard, and no description I have read conveys any notion of it. There were no parts properly speaking, only now and then a hint of a base or tenor, and the modulation seemed to be just the inspiration of the moment—no effort at regularity, only that one or two voices kept up the air—but the ears are so good, and the time is so perfectly kept… that there was very seldom a discordant note. It might be compared to the notes of an organ or orchestra, where all harmony is poured out in accompaniment of the air.” (Allen quoted in Dargan, 112–13)
Lined-out hymns in the black church also became known as long meter hymns, metered hymns, or “Dr. Watts” because of the large number of hymns penned by Issac Watts. Until the late twentieth century, lined-out hymns were almost always sung a capella—that is with voices only and without musical accompaniment.
George Pullen Jackson, a folklorist and professor, visited black Primitive Baptist churches in Alabama and Jacksonville, Florida in the 1940s and heard congregants still singing lined-out hymns, which he sometimes called “surge songs,” with great power and beauty:
“The ‘long meter’ hymns (absolute opposites of the spirituals in every sense) are sung in thousands of unspoiled [black] congregations usually, but not exclusively, at the opening of the service. A deacon or the elder ‘lines out’ a couplet of the text in a sing-song voice and at a fair speaking pace ending on definite tone. This ‘tones’ the tune. The deacon then starts singing, and by the time he has sung through the elaborately ornamented first syllable the whole congregation has joined in on the second syllable with a volume of florid sound which ebbs and flows slowly, powerfully and at times majestically in successive surges until the lined-out words have been sung…. No instrument is ever used.” (Jackson, 248)
The lined-out hymn singing tradition still thrives in some black churches, particularly in Missionary and Primitive Baptist congregations. Black Primitive Baptists maintain the strongest tradition, however. They sing numerous hymns from their hymnbook, The Primitive Hymns, which contains only texts and no musical notations, during all parts of their church services. The Primitive Baptists also draw from the deepest well of hymn tunes, which have been passed down orally over many generations. Primitive Baptist associations in states such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia also have their own unique hymn tunes and rhythms while sharing the same hymn texts and manner of lining out. (1)
Below are two examples of lined-out hymns:
An audio element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can listen to it online here: pb.libretexts.org/aa/?p=80
“Go preach my gospel,” saith the Lord, “Bid the whole earth my grace receive, Explain to them my sacred word, Bid them believe, obey, and live.” “I’ll make my great commission known, And ye shall prove my gospel true.
An audio element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can listen to it online here: pb.libretexts.org/aa/?p=80
Jesus, my God I know his name His name is on my soul He will not put my soul to shamebr Oh let my holy Lord)
Black Secular Music
African Americans also created their own body of secular songs during the trials of slavery. These included work songs and hollers as well as drum rhythms and songs composed on stringed instruments like banjos. Work songs helped to ease the drudgery of plantation labor while hollers resembled laments that provided emotional release or allowed slaves to communicate covert messages that might spread from plantation to plantation. These songs showed the individual and collective creativity of black people and their desire to create and maintain a sense of community and resist the dehumanizing and destructive forces of slavery. (1)
One example of how black people used music to create a sense of community is from Charleston, South Carolina where African Americans would travel to rural areas to participate in countryside dances where they danced all night. Slaves continued to hold countryside dances at night throughout the eighteenth century, even after the Stono Rebellion in 1730 when slave dances were outlawed along with use or ownership of drums, horns and other loud instruments (Morgan 1998:580–582).
Enslaved African Americans communicated with one another in hollers or calls derived from their musical tradition of call and response. Callsare as musical ways “to communicate messages of all kinds-to bring people in from the fields, to summon them to work, to attract the attention of a girl in the distance, to signal hunting dogs, or simply to make one’s presence known Courlander 1963:81).” Calls convey simple messages, or merely make one’s whereabouts known to friends working elsewhere in the fields. Many slave calls were modeled on African drumming. Slaves also copied the drum rhythms by ‘patting juba.’ This procedure involved “foot tapping, hand clapping, and thigh slapping, all in precise rhythm (Southern 1971:168).” Patting juba was incorporated into an early twentieth century dance called the Charleston. This “Africanism,” reappeared in the late twentieth century in the dance choreography of the Broadway musical “Bring on the Noise, Bring on the Funk.”
African Americans also made and played banjos made out of gourds. The banjo is a musical instrument that originated in Senegal and the Gambia region of West Africa. By the end of the eighteenth century banjos had become the most common musical accompaniment used by Africans for their dances. The first mention of it in North America is found in a 1749 account of a Christmas celebration of Africans from plantations along the Cooper River playing the banjo, dancing and making merry (Ravitz 1960:384; Coolen 1984:117–132). This famous watercolor painting The Old Plantation which portrays a slave dance in eighteenth century South Carolina illustrates one slave playing a banjo and another beating a drum. The musical instruments and styles of dress reveal the intertwining of influences from African and Europe.
Enslaved Africans learned to play European instruments as well. “A black Virginia born Negro fellow named Sambo,” who ran away in 1766, was a carpenter who made fiddles and played them. Gabriel, a weaver by trade…is fond of reading and plays well the violin,” so said his owner in a 1776 newspaper advertisement seeking his capture and return. A number of these advertisements for runaway musicians also note that they could read and some could write well enough to have possibly forged a pass. Other runaways were drawn to a different kind of cultural performance in the Christian church. Jemmy, a dark mulatto man was fond of singing hymns, Jupiter alias Gibb was a “great New Light preacher.” Charles, a sawyer and shoemaker by trade also “reads tolerable well, and is a great preacher, from which I…[his owner]…imagine he will endeavour [sic] to pass for a freeman (Virginia Runaways, 2004; Jupiter, October 1, 1767; Charles, October 27, 1765; Jemmy, September 8, 1775).” (3)
The creation of a unique African American culture through language and religion not only allowed black people to resist the brutality of slavery and create a cohesive sense of community, it also helped spark an abolitionist movement in America. In the second half of the eighteenth century, following the spread of evangelical Christianity during and after the Great Awakening, runaway slaves, such as Jemmy, Gibb, and Charles, embodied important characteristics of a new African American culture, including religion and music, and, it seems, drew from them the inspiration and courage to flee bondage for freedom.
In the nineteenth century, black abolitionists, including David Walker, Frederick Doulgass, Nat Turner, and Sojourner Truth, used their literacy, language and religion to make forceful pleas for the humanity of black people and the immediate end of slavery. They became the vanguard of the most radical abolitionist movement in American history. (1)
- Authored by: Florida State College at Jacksonville. License: CC BY: Attribution
- Park Ethnography Program. Provided by: National Park Service. Located at: https://www.nps.gov/ethnography/aah/aaheritage/histContextsA.htm. Project: African American Heritage and Ethnography. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright
- Slave dance to banjo. Located at: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slave_dance_to_banjo,_1780s.jpg. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright
- Go Preach My Gospel. Authored by: John A. Lomax (Collector). Located at: https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000532/. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright
- Jesus, My God, I Know His Name. Authored by: John A. Lomax (Collector). Located at: https://www.loc.gov/item/lomaxbib000324/. License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright