As Eileen Southern points out in The Music of Black Americans, African Americans had many opportunities to make music during colonial times, whether it be psalm singing, slave songs, or fiddle playing. Additionally, many enslaved people were valued for their musical abilities (Southern 26) due to a high demand for plantation dance fiddlers. While reading Southern’s chapter, it struck me that African Americans were able to learn new instruments by teaching themselves and practicing during odd hours of the day. Learning a new instrument is difficult enough the way it is, and even more so given the constraints imposed on them through slavery.
This brings up the point that much of African Americans’ music making was shaped by oppression. A common reason for fiddle playing in the first place was to fulfill the demand for colonists, and other music making was a response to oppression. African Americans had to learn new instruments because they did not have access to the ones they were accustomed to from their homeland, and they were given no other option but to find the time to practice during odd hours of the day. Additionally, they were forced to give up their native tongue. This does not mean, however, that all of the music of black Americans was devoid of their African roots. There were many ways of infusing music with traces of Africa, whether this be with musical tools, imagery, or language.
An excerpt from an 1847 magazine features a conversation about a slave song that highlights how the music of African Americans can be shaped by oppression, yet carry with it its roots:
This evening the female slaves were unusually excited in singing, and I had the curiosity to ask my negro servant Said, what they were singing about. As many of them were natives of his own country, he had no difficulty in translating the Mandara or Bornou language. I had often asked the Moors to translate their songs for me, but got no satisfactory account of them. Said at first said, ‘Oh! They sing of Rubee,’ (God.) ‘What do you mean?’ I replied impatiently. ‘Oh, you don’t know,’ he continued, ‘they asked God to give them their Atka!’ (certificate of freedom.) I inquired, ‘What else?’ Said: ‘They remember their country, Bornou, and say – Bornou was a pleasant country, full of all good things; but this is a bad country, and we are miserable!’ ‘Do they say anything else?’ Said: ‘No; they repeat these words over and over again, and add-O God! Give us our Atka, and let us return again to our dear home.’
Those who sung this song did so in their Native tongue, with references to their own religion and homeland. Although we can’t know what it sounds like, these markers in their language show how music continued to carry traces of Africa in it.
However, it is important to note that at its core, this song is still shaped by oppression because it functioned to comfort those who faced the horrors of slavery, and connect them to a homeland that they were torn away from.
Boahen, A. Adu. “JAMES RICHARDSON: THE FORGOTTEN PHILANTHROPIST AND EXPLORER.” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 1 (1964): 61–71. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41856689.
J, G. WHITTIERNational Era. A Song of Sorrow: Song of the Slaves in the Desert. Christian Secretary (1822-1889), Feb 05, 1847. 4, https://www.proquest.com/magazines/song-sorrow/docview/124265012/se-2?accountid=351 (accessed September 26, 2021).
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans : a History 2nd edition. New York: Norton, 1983.