The lion’s den | Look Where It Brought Me From: A Musical Journey


When seeking to discuss and describe the developments of black music during slavery and the ensuing Civil War, one must first trace the origins of black music prior to its arrival in America. For this, we must examine the history of the African peoples.

First, a common and stereotypical misconception persists that Africans come from a primitive society. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Africans built great civilizations which included language, art, politics, economics, religion, spirituality, music and dance. In addition, Africans lived in well-established social communities.

In terms of music, it is known that music and dance were an integral part of African life and were very important for social and spiritual events. African music is driven by its distinct rhythms which serve as the foundation for this genre of music. For example, Africans believed that everyone was a musician and could make music (see Small, 1987, p. 26). This belief that everyone could be a part of music and dance helped build and strengthen the African community and allowed it to develop a strong culture. Musical gifts to America include drum, banjo and flute.

Another essential element of African music is improvisation. According to Small (1987, p. 27), improvisation allowed Africans to spontaneously compose songs for specific occasions and easily forget them once the event was over. The ability to improvise would also be essential for Africans forced into slavery in America. Improvisation and adaptability would allow Africans to communicate with each other, regardless of the ever-changing and often deadly situations they would face upon arriving in America.

Arriving in America as slaves, elements of African music and dance were not forgotten, despite their captors’ best efforts to eliminate all sense of language and culture. Always a resilient people, the newly enslaved Africans would continue to tap into their culture to survive. The spiritual power of music and dance was never more essential to the survival of a people than in the early years of captivity.

With the introduction of Christianity by their white captors, slaves began to incorporate elements of European religion into the musical traditions of their homeland. However, while European Christian music focused more on the sin and worthlessness of slaves, slaves created a new form of music that was more spiritual than religious and instead focused on joy, trust, faith, and freedom. . The elements are designed for hope and survival rather than repentance.

Negro Spirituals

Slaves participated in rituals affirming and celebrating the power of lineage and their common ancestors. This music was something slaves used to escape the brutality and depression of terror and torture. In music, slaves found peace and happiness. Slaves used music to express their feelings, and it was influenced by African religious traditions, also known as Negro Spirituals. Negro Spiritual is defined as a genre of music created by Africans captured and sold as slaves. These spirituals were also a way for slaves to communicate through their songs without their captor understanding.

These spirituals were extremely important when it came to planned escapes. As mentioned earlier, slaves used improvisation in their music as they had in Africa. In this case, it was to conceal their plans from their captors. So instead of saying “meet me in heaven for freedom,” the song might have said, “I’ll lay my burdens down, by the river.” A message to those who seek freedom, to meet by the river and lay down the burden of slavery by escaping to the North.

Sing the blues

Eventually, these Negro Spirituals would lead to the Blues, and the Blues would lead to gospel music. Gospel music is more associated with Blues and Negro Spiritual. Gospel, like blues and spirituals, were all forms of music that spoke to the lived experience of African Americans. These genres of music told the stories of the anguish and pain that black America suffered at the hands of its oppressors. This music gave hope and promise to the oppressed. As black music evolved, these genres of music became intertwined. It was pretty typical for blues, spirituals and gospel, at different times, to sound the same. Many of the great soul singers of our time began their careers in the church. Legendary singers like Al Green and Aretha Franklin, to name just two.

After the Civil War, with Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups, and the crop devastation of that era, this opened up opportunities for southern individuals in the music industry. to move north. These southern musicians composed songs about hardship, which turned into mini revival sessions for those seeking worship in this time of need.

However, problems began to arise when northerners realized that the worship experience of black southerners was slightly different from their own. The southern black worship experience included more emotions and feelings, while the northern black worship had a more Eurocentric style and seemed more organized. These differences in worship styles led many Northerners to take a negative view of Southern evangelical traditions that had migrated to the North. Some were reluctant to accept that singing, shouting and dancing during worship had started to become the norm.

preach the gospel

Throughout the 1900s, gospel music in Chicago was prevalent and included many key people who played crucial roles in the development of gospel music. A few of the names involved were Thomas Dorsey, widely credited as the father of gospel music; Mahalia Jackson, considered by some to be the greatest gospel singer of all time.

Dorsey was a crucial figure in the creation of gospel music in Chicago. His background includes being a versatile pianist, composer, singer and conductor. Early in his career, he played with Ma Rainey, a famous African-American blues singer who would go on to influence his sound. Due to the blues influence present in gospel music, some churches have disapproved of it.

Due to his blues and jazz background, Dorsey was often not welcome in various churches. However, like the music he loved, Dorsey was persistent. As opportunities opened up for him, he began to learn the gospel by observing other preachers in the churches and conventions he visited. With this he wrote his first song called “If I Don’t Get There”. Dorsey also wrote many other pieces, such as “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, and began to feature other gospel artists in songs. But before Dorsey started taking gospel seriously, he was very good at making blues and jazz music, where he worked with many popular artists. He was involved in a band called The Whispering Syncopators and played with famous musicians Ma Rainey, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong. After being refused so many times in many churches, he had to explain to preachers that he was not trying to change the culture of the church but to introduce a new style of music. After finally being accepted, the popularity of gospel music grew so rapidly that Dorsey was able to organize his own gospel convention called The National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. Over the years he continued to tour, becoming a successful black music publisher.

musical journey

Mahalia Jackson is another notable gospel singer from Chicago. Although born in Louisiana, she emigrated to Chicago during the Great Migration like so many others. Jackson was also a protege of Dorsey and thus faced the same scrutiny as at the start of his career. Many also considered her a blues singer; however, Jackson always insisted that she was not a blues singer and was quoted as saying, “The blues are the songs of despair, but the gospel songs are the songs of hope.”

Although Jackson was correct in his view of what gospel music was fundamentally, there was always a contradiction in gospel music. All gospel music contains elements of despair, a low point from which an individual must rise or cross. Gospel is the journey from sorrow to hope, hence the similarity and contradictions of gospel music. The same thing that has made churches reluctant to embrace gospel music is the essence of a spiritual journey. Before you can reach the top of the mountain, you have to start from the bottom. You have to have the blues before you can rent what gives hope. It is, in essence, gospel music and the black experience in America.

The key to the uniqueness of the black experience in America is black music. His ability to adapt and improvise in any situation is a survival trait and a spiritual trait. The spiritual depth of today’s Africans, slaves, and African Americans has contributed significantly to humanity. More than any other, these characteristics have contributed to black epistemology. The collective knowledge of a people who have contributed significantly to humanity through improvisation, adaptability and music. Perhaps more than any other people, given the circumstances.

Jabir, J. (2017). Conjuration of Freedom: Music and Masculinity in the “Gospel Army” of the Civil War.
Ohio State University Press. Small, C. (1987). Common language music: Survival and celebration in African-American music. Wesleyan University Press.