The History of African-American Folk Music

Understanding the Multi-genre Influences to American Folk Music

Men playing banjo and dancing
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From the blues to zydeco, and jazz to hip-hop, slave-era spirituals about struggle and personal empowerment to the forefathers of rock and roll, America’s roots music is absolutely replete with the influence of the African-American community. Understanding the history provides a wonderful way to celebrate Black history month than by taking a look at the incredible music that has been contributed to the American story by African-American musicians and writers.

The influence of African-American musicians on the evolution of folk music has been immeasurable. Many of the songs that have come to be synonymous with struggle, empowerment, human rights and perseverance have come from the African-American community. From folk-blues singers like Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly) to hip-hop artists like Common, Talib Kweli, and the Roots, the folk music of the African-American communities has embodied the struggle of marginalized people in America.

Slave Spirituals and Work Calls

As far back as African-American history stretches, it has been accompanied by a soundtrack of incredible music. Some of the most timeless songs of empowerment and perseverance come from the American slave fields and communities of forced immigrants held in bondage throughout the early country.

During this time, much of the music among the slaves was a series of calls they would make to each other in the fields. It was the early call-and-response hollers that would later be translated and echoed by street peddlers (a.k.a. “criers”). These call-and-response "songs" were as often aimed at spreading news or information, as they were about passing the time while they worked. Other music of the time came from religious ceremonies. Great songs that have become synonymous with the plight of every community since then that has stood up for its own rights include spiritual songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Amazing Grace.”

"I Try to Stay Here But My Blues Start Walkin"

After the Civil War ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the newly freed former slaves set off to northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, others remained in their home states. They continued to sing the songs of overcoming hardship, endurance and faith that have become so integral to the history of America.

In the late 1800s, the African-American worker followed his job along the railway line, building new railroads in the rural far-reaches of the American West. He took jobs in the kitchens of new boomtowns and peddling wares along city streets. He started singing about his newfound freedom, but also about the ties he still had to his work. Blues music rose from this period.

However, the "blues" referred to during this period are called "folk-blues" today. Many of the blues-folk singers of this time got jobs touring with traveling entertainment groups, vaudeville troupes, and medicine shows. Later, as country-western music became integrated into the larger towns along the traveling routes, blues players began adapting their sound to a more country-oriented blues style.

Folk-Blues and Leadbelly

Probably the most influential figure from this time was folk-blues musician Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly). Leadbelly (1888-1949) integrated old gospel tunes, blues, folk and country music into a sound that was entirely his own. Born on a Louisiana plantation, Leadbelly moved with his family to Texas when he was just five years old. There, he learned how to play the guitar, which he would use as his tool for telling the hard truth and, twice, would save him from a long prison sentence.

The first time, he wrote a song for the Governor of Texas, which won his pardon. The second time, he was discovered by musicologist Alan Lomax, who was touring the southern prisons looking for blues songs, spirituals, and work songs to record. Leadbelly told Alan and his father John Lomax how he got pardoned previously, and he wrote another song called “Goodnight Irene.” Lomax took this song to the Governor of Louisiana. Once again, it worked, and Leadbelly was pardoned and released.

From there, he was taken north by the Lomaxes, who helped make him somewhat of a household name. To this day, artists in blues, folk, rock, and hip-hop look to Leadbelly as an influence on all of those genres of music.

Folk-Blues and the Advent of Rock & Roll

The most obvious, and often the most discussed, influence from the African-American community is in the area of blues and, ultimately, rock & roll. Blues vocalists like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie helped to popularize the blues across the racial divides of the time.

Other great blues legends like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and BB King managed to take that work even further to directly influence the burgeoning sounds of what would become rock & roll, an American institution. These days, blues players like Keb Mo' and Taj Mahal blur the lines between blues, rock, and folk with their raw, gorgeous, infectious tunes that even occasionally flirt with the roots of country-western.

But the influences don't stop with blues, by any stretch of the imagination.

Civil Rights Songs

During the 1950s and 60s, as African-Americans around the country struggled for equal rights under the law, folk singers like Odetta, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and others joined with Martin Luther King, Jr., to spread the word of direct action through non-violence. They stood together with their neighbors and a community of white folksingers to re-teach the songs of their forefathers and foremothers. Civil Rights songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom” were sung again and again in protest and solidarity, helping to organize communities, and ultimately to win the struggle for equal rights under the law.

Hip-Hop Emerges

By the 1970s, a new brand of folk music started to solidify in the African-American communities of major cities like Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Hip-hop borrowed rhythms from across the musical spectrum – from ancient African drum calls to contemporary dance music. Artists used these rhythms and the art of spoken word to communicate the emotions – from celebration to frustration – that characterized their community.

In the 80s, groups like NWA, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Run DMC participated in what came to be an explosion in the popularity of hip-hop music. These groups and others brought the folk music of their communities fiercely into the public consciousness, rapping about racism, violence, politics, and poverty. At the same time, they also addressed relationships, work, and other aspects of day-to-day life.

Now, from contemporary singer/songwriters like Vance Gilbert to hip-hop superstars like Common, African-American folk musicians continue to strongly influence the path of not only American music, but politics, civil rights, education, popular opinion, and the ever-evolving history of our nation.