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History of African-American Folk Music

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Folk-blues legend Leadbelly

Leadbelly "Boll Weevil" CD

Fruit Tree Records, 2005

From the blues to zydeco, and jazz to hip-hop; slave-era spirituals about struggle and personal empowerment to the forefathers of rock & roll, America’s roots music is absolutely replete with the influence of the African-American community. So there is, quite possibly, no better way to celebrate African-American 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 perseverence 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 ceremony. 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"

Later, after the Civil War was 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, endurance, and faith that have become so integral to the history of our nation.

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.

Blues, however, during this period, is now considered the folk-blues. Many of the blues folksingers 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 onto 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, save himself 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.

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