Wednesday, June 12, 2019

African Americans continued to sing & dance

Dance, Lynchburg, Virginia, 1853 Lewis Miller, Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, 1853-1867. Lewis Miller, Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, 1853-1867.

In the African cultures from which the slaves had come, everyday conversations, storytelling, & oral histories during sacred rituals & other celebrations, were filled with energy & dynamism.  Indigenous musics permeated all aspects of traditional African social life. They were used to establish & maintain the rhythms of work. Almost no African festival or life-cycle celebration seemed complete without the presence of music.
Harper's Weekly (April 13, 1861), p 232

Dancing to these rhythms was equally pervasive & usually involved all members of society regardless of age, sex, or social status.  When combined with the spiritual forces invoked by the singing, drumming, & dancing, the African dancers themselves seemed to become the embodiment of the rhythms & the spirits.
 Henry Bibb, Narrative of the life and adventures of Henry Bibb, an American slave (New York, 1849), facing p 23

Africans from a number of different ethnicities & nationalities created new music & dances out of the cultural & material resources found in their new environment in the Western Hemisphere drawing on their traditional African heritage.
Master Juba from American Notes by Charles Dickens 1842

America's Africans built their religious & secular rituals, festivals, & social gatherings on the foundations of song, dances, & rhythms which they invented to cope with the restrictions of their New World realities.
Plantation Dance, South Carolina, ca. 1785-1795  in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

This music prevailed despite the fact that drums, the rhythmic foundation of African music & dance, were outlawed in many slave communities in the United States.  When slave owners in the United States discovered that drums could be used as a secret means of communication, many banned the use of drums.  In the place of drums, enslaved Africans in the United States substituted hand clapping, "pattin' juba," & tapping the feet in cadences to reproduce the complex rhythms of African drumming.
Jumping the Broom 1850s Emily Clemens Pearson [pseudo. Pocahontas], Cousin Franck’s Household, or, Scenes in the Old Dominion (Boston, 1853), facing p. 169.

Vernacular dances such as jigs, shuffles, breakdowns, shake-downs, & backsteps, as well as the strut, the ring shout, & other religious expressions, were danced to the accompaniment of these drum-less rhythms & to the fiddle, the banjo, bows, gourds, bells, & other hand or feet instruments—all New World African inventions by enslaved Africans.
 Robert Criswell, Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York, 1852), facing p 113

During the slavery era, enslaved Africans became the musicians of choice for white & black celebrations & festivities, because they were recognized by whites & blacks as the best musicians in their locales.
Singing & Corn Shucking in South Carolina 1852. Robert Criswell, Uncle Tom's Cabin (New York, 1852), facing p. 65.

Two indigenous African-American musical forms—the spiritual & the blues—were created by enslaved Africans during the slavery era.
Slave Quarters, Louisiana, 1861-65  Adolf Carlsson Warberg, Skizzer fran Nord-Amerikanska
Kriget, 1861-1865

Negro Firemen's Ball, Sabbatry Hall, Charleston, S.C. Sketched by William Waud, See page 67, New York Illustrated News, December 6, 1862, 77

Contraband Children Dancing the Breakdown. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. January 31, 1863.

Some of the images on this posting are from, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.