Music and Slavery

What was the nature of black music during slavery?

Slaves, who lived a life of suffering, hardship, and pain, used a variety of styles and forms of expression in the music of the time. From Africa they had used music as a part of daily life—in work, communication, celebration, unity, and rites of passage. Because theirs was an oral tradition, the slaves had no need for sheet music to bring their songs and dances with them—they carried it all in their heads. Their musical styles consisted of moans, cries, hollers, shouts, work songs, and dances. As early as 1620, moans, cries and hollers were described by slave traders and others who kept journal records. Whether on slave ships, auction blocks, in the fields, or slave coffles, moans were heard and focused on repetitive words. As a form of exchange between slaves, field cries were used. Hollers were used to share a sentiment or to alert fellow slaves about a particular issue, while moans were used as “brief sighs or expressions.” Work songs gave slaves an outlet to express emotion and were used by slaveholders as a form of motivation or to account for their presence or work. Styles varied, however, according to the type of work, such as gang labor or domestic activities. Musical styles and forms of entertainment of the enslaved began to take various forms as early as 1620, as they produced songs for children’s play, dances, storytelling, and other forms of cultural expression. The role of the African griot (a West African oral historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, and/or musician) was copied as well, as elder slaves passed on the essential music and cultural traditions in the slave community by singing songs and telling stories.

As slaves assimilated the culture of their owners, they learned the European’s language, religion, and music. Between 1770 and 1865, they sang English psalms and hymns in church as they converted to Christianity and, along with whites, attended church services on Sundays and holidays. Their worship was in a segregated area of the church. Camp meetings and outdoor revivals were popular in the South at that time as well. It was at such meetings that slaves gave full expression to their lifestyle and feelings by singing, dancing, shouting, and praying. The ring shout has been called the “first form of religious expression adapted from an African religious dance.” It was performed in a call-and-response form, as some sang while others danced in a circle.

Some slaves in the South studied with itinerant music teachers. The most talented musicians gained professional-level skills that were quickly put to use by the whites. Bonded servants and slave musicians, playing instruments such as the violin, flute, and piano, provided much of the recreational music for their masters, playing at dance balls and dancing schools. On self-sufficient plantations, the most musical of the domestic slaves provided evening “entertainments.” Once public concerts became possible and popular in the New World, a few talented slaves gave public concerts.

Black slaves, such as these sweet potato workers in a circa 1862 Southern plantation, would use songs to communicate to one another or express emotions. Styles varied depending on the type of labor and purpose of the song.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy African American History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App