Negro Spirituals and the Development of Blues Ragtime and Jazz Music Term Paper

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Negro Spirituals and the Development of Blues, Ragtime and Jazz Music

The melodies and rhythms of Africa have found their way to America through many ways and the African-American spirituals are one of them. There is one religious folk song, originally sung by the African-American protestants of the southern United States is now known as the spirituals. These pieces of music originated during the period of 1800 to 1850. It was a result of the efforts of trying to convert the then slaves to Christianity. This is generally known as the second Great Awakening. The words contained in the spirituals are based on images present in the Bible, and specially the stories in the Old Testament regarding liberation from bondage. There are also stories from the New Testament regarding the life of Jesus and the visions from the Book of Revelation. These were the songs that the slaves sang while they continued working in the fields of the plantations, and became the Spirituals. These songs also helped in many practical functions of the slaves. The earliest common form of this music was in terms of call and response. There used to be a song leader who used to sing some improvised verses and the group of slaves replied to him with short, repetitive and rhythmic responses. These formed a sort of a mode of communication or the map for travel to the north. Apart from these mundane reasons, these songs formed their cry for freedom and salvation. These were also sorrow songs and are thus directly related through the material to the later on form of blues. (Hogan, 14)

Of course, there were also some quite joyous spirituals and these influenced the contents of the gospel songs. There was development of these songs, and after 1900 they became very important in the popular recorded versions of the jubilee gospel quartets. For this there was a great contribution from the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. Otherwise, they might have just remained as songs for the local congregations and would have been replaced with newer musical styles. The students discovered that these songs were extremely popular among their audiences during a tour that they undertook to raise money for their struggling school in 1871. Thus the spirituals entered the realm of concerts. There have been a number of composers like Harry T. Burleigh, R. Nathaniel Dett, William Levi Dawson, Margaret Bonds and the more recent Moses Hogan. These composers have made the arrangements that have allowed the music to be sung in concert halls and churches. (Jones, 34) The paper is an understanding into the origin of the Negro spirituals, its development and leading composers. Further the paper also delves into the role of the Negro spirituals in the development of Blues, Jazz and Ragtime. Finally the paper also focuses on the critical aspects of the music of the Negro spirituals and ends with a personal observation of the topic discussed.

Discussion:

This branch of song of the Negro spirituals was thought of as the only original folk music of the United States for a long time. Then there was research into its origin and this discovered the nature and extent of the original African ancestry. The slaves from Africa were brought from different regions of Africa, and this has resulted in no clear source of African music being clear in these songs. Some of the elements of African music and the American black spirituals are however common. The common elements are syncopation, polyrhythmic structure, the pentatonic scale and the responsive rendition of the text. The improvisatory nature of the spirituals was increased through audience participation. This has resulted in a single text idea taking tens or even hundreds of versions. (Epstein, 22)

Cecil Sharp explored the wide nature of the American folk son literature in the early parts of the twentieth century. He was later able to show that much of these were of British ancestry G.P. Jackson then traced the influence of revivalist and evangelist songs of the early 19th century camp meetings conducted by the southern white people with the help of this discovery. Many of the black spirituals were shown by him to be the adaptations or from the inspirations of the spirituals conducted by the whites by Jackson using hundreds of comparative examples. The religious songs of the whites in the south had many sources, and the African musical traditions were mixed with these to ultimately produce the form of folk music that could be seen as distinctly black in character. From the reconstruction period to the present, this joint African-American tradition has continued and changed in spirituals and sacred music. (Jones, 35)

The gospel, blues and even pop singers have continued the religious themes that were the soul of the early spirituals. An example can be given of Mariam Anderson who was a very famous singer in her time. She was originally trained for the opera and did not even sing spirituals. She gave her signature performance right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This was a protest to the Daughters of the American Revolution. This resulted in her place being set in the heart and minds of the Americans. The spiritual tradition is still being kept alive in a variety of ways even in the present times. (Hogan, 16)

Christian Gospel artists are traditionally supported a lot in the Christian communities, along with some crossover stars. Kirk Franklin is one of them. He does not sing the songs in the same rhythmic style as the spirituals were sung earlier. Yet the message of his songs still remains strongly Christian and carries the imagery of the people "rising up" from the existing situation. Al Green is probably even better known as a Christian artist. He has been a favorite of the young and old fans of this music for decades due to the soulful nature of his music. The early days of black spirituals are brought back to the listeners by the musical prayers of Green.

Epstein, 22) The spiritual tradition is also followed in the modern by the highly celebrated ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill in her performances. Many of her counter parts in the industry do not match up to her outspoken nature. She has her rich vocals and engaging lyrics to help her sing these spiritual songs in the pop culture that is followed in secular music. She uses Biblical allusions in her lyrics like "Forgive them father for they know not what they do." This also shows the religious nature of the music.

Black music has often come up immediately to meet the demand of the people and this has resulted in many influential folk forms like blues, jazz and other forms and styles that exist in both the U.S. And the Caribbean. In a way, it may be said that blues began with the beginning of the American Negroes. Otherwise one may say that the introduction, the reaction and subsequent relationships of the Negro in this country, in English is in a way the beginning of the conscious American Negro. The Negro spirituals and work songs in the plantations took the form of the blues. These were not often accompanied on instruments and had a call and response pattern. The work songs were sung solo and called 'hollers'. These are normally of free form. These songs served as the foundation for the secular music prepared by black America. Though they contained the spirituals and work songs, they were still the first expression of the Africans experience with America. There is an important collection in the Smithsonian called "The Blues" in 1993.

This gives a clear picture of the origin of blues and its initial various forms. Gradually this became a blended together form of all music of the blacks in the distinctive new form. These may be even be thought as the secular form of spiritual and gospel songs, or it may be said the other way, the spiritual and gospel songs are the religious form of blues (Berendt, 171). In terms of music this consisted of a 4/4, 12 measure pattern. This was harmonized with four measures on a tonic chord and two on a subdominant chord. This was followed by two more on a tonic, two on a dominant and then the final two back to the tonic.

In terms of voice, they normally have an AAB rhyme scheme, where two lines are the same or very similar and the third line will end the verse. There are very few deviations from this rigid structure of the blues. The example of an 8-bar blue is "Shave 'Em Dry" of Ma Rainey. There is a 16-bar blue called "Pallet on the Floor" by Jimmy and Mama Yancey, and a few blues are even stretched to 24 bars. Most of the recorded versions however fit into the 12-bar and AAB scheme (Talbot, Britton, McNeil, 2). These songs are deeply rooted in the black psyche and have a continuous presence in the lives of…[continue]

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