Tony Montague celebrates Black culture and its indelible contributions to various forms of folk and roots music.
As I write, it’s Black History Month, and I’m home in Vancouver after 15 ear-opening days in New Orleans—including Folk Alliance International.
It feels like a good time to connect a few geographic and cultural dots, and reflect on the story of early African-American music.
Most popular music in the West today has black roots that can be traced back as far as blues, ragtime, and jazz. But what came before that? There’s a span of 300 years between the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia and the first commercial recordings of black music—three centuries of near obscurity, when very little was written down, yet so much took place.
What traditions did the enslaved people bring with them and keep? How did these converge and change with each passing generation? How did they interface with the music of the First Nations peoples around them, and of white masters and settlers?
While there may not be clear answers to these questions, they lead us to consider the mixed origins of many forms of folk that are normally thought of as white—from sea shanties to old-time fiddle tunes, country, and Cajun.
In sub-Saharan Africa, music pervaded every aspect of life, an invisible glue that bound groups and nations together. All work tasks were performed to songs and rhythms. The violence, misery, and extreme disruption of enslavement and the horrors of the Middle Passage didn’t crush the music of early African-Americans—it was one of the only things they were able to bring from their homeland, and all the more precious and cherished.
Contrary to popular belief, some instruments came, too—the slavers and the masters cynically understood that music helped to raise morale and get work done faster and more efficiently.
Relatively few slaves came directly from Africa to the seaports of North America. The great majority were first taken to Britain’s Caribbean colonies, Jamaica, Barbados, and islands of the Lesser Antilles where—to use a chilling expression from those harsh times—they were ‘seasoned’ before being sent farther north. This process could take many years, even generations. The Caribbean basin is where early African-American music was forged.
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