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Expression Coded Through Song

Published: February 15, 2016

Music was a true lifeline for enslaved African-Americans, a means for survival. In a way, it was the only real freedom they had.

“When the slave trade was in full force, African-Americans’ public and private lives were, of course, very restricted,” said Ray Briggs, an associate professor in CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory of Music. “What they could say and how they were able to express themselves became extremely important.”

Of course, expressing themselves freely was generally not a viable option for slaves, an irony which is not lost on Briggs.

“Those enslaved realized early on that they could not say things openly and freely, even though they were living in a country founded on the ideals of freedom,” said Briggs. “Unfortunately, those freedoms did not extend to them. That had to be very frustrating.”

The slaves, however, did have a mechanism through which their voice could be heard. They used their songs to express their feelings in ways they would not dare voice directly to those who were enslaving them.

“Music became one of their more significant voices of expression,” noted Briggs. “When you think about African-American history, it is inextricably linked with African-American music. There is no way you can talk about the history of African Americans without talking about their music.”

Early African-American music (1619 to the end of the Civil War) was generally group-oriented since much of slaves’ lives were spent working side-by-side in the fields. Individuals sang while simultaneously working, so most of it was hands-free, a cappella music. A major factor affecting the musical activity of enslaved African Americans was the slave codes, laws that were devised by white slaveholders to maintain full control over those in bondage. For example, in the southeast territory, certain West African transplants such as drums were banned since they functioned as speech surrogates and could therefore serve as a conduit for coordinated rebellion and insurrection.

“Spiritual song lyrics such as ‘Go Down Moses, tell old Pharaoh to let my people go’ reflected the crux of slave theology,” said Briggs. “They were saying, ‘We are like those Hebrews. We are like those people who were enslaved in a foreign land and, just like God worked on their behalf, he will work on ours.’ If they had said that directly to the slave owners, there would have been serious consequences. So, they had to sing it and code it in a way that could not easily be detected, but still allowed for them to express themselves. For one’s psychological well-being we know that expression is important. It’s a human desire, a human need. For them, in a sense, it was a means of survival.”

With freedom following the Civil War, African-American music culture began expanding beyond a cappella form since, for the first time, blacks had wider access to more conventional instruments.

“The instruments that were used before the Civil War are what ethnomusicologists refer to as ad hoc instruments,” said Briggs. “They were made from materials that weren’t really created to make music, such as wash boards or animal bones. Having access to real instruments opened up a whole new world.”

Ray Briggs
Ray Briggs

Post-Civil War freedoms also allowed African Americans their first opportunity to attend school and be formally educated. They were able to acquire literacy skills, learn about Western harmony and even study Western music theory. Some studied classical music and then took that influence and reinterpreted the spirituals that they and their parents had sung as slaves.

“They called those pieces cabin songs or Negro spirituals,” said Briggs. “After the war, these compositions were reshaped to sound more like European choral style. That’s definitely part of the African-American tradition, but if you stripped away the lyrics, a lot of it sounds like it could have been written by some European composer.”

Though African-American music can clearly be identified by its African roots and influence, sometimes the European impact is not highlighted.

“While most African-Americans are descendants of African ancestors, there’s not only a mixing of cultures, but also the mixing of races. There has been an onging Creolization process,” said Briggs. “There’s a lot of influence that goes across the lines. When you’re talking about African-American music, some things are more easily identified with being of African-American origin or have those characteristics, but it’s such a wide scale.”

Enter the blues.

Music went from being more group-oriented to more soloistic, according to Briggs, and the blues didn’t develop until after the Civil War, more specifically after the Reconstruction Era. For 12 years after the Civil War (1865-77) there were hundreds of thousands of former slaves and the Union troops that stayed in the South to try and rebuild it and maintain order. There were so many freedoms to experience and explore that it might have been overwhelming for some former slaves. They went from being someone’s property to being able to move around freely for the first time.

“The blues is about disenfranchisement and it’s about mobility,” said Briggs. “The first thing that some blacks wanted to do was leave the plantation. They’d been there all their lives and had realized that there was more out there so they wanted to travel. Many times they traveled alone and when they moved around they were still making music, but it was more individualistic so you started to get more songs with lyrics employing pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘me’ as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘we.’ So the blues is about this new mobility and also about the disenfranchisement. It’s certainly an important part of African-American music history.”