Term Paper: Negro Spirituals and the Development

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[. . .] The theories about the origin of jazz are many. The most commonly accepted theory is that it originated in New Orleans. This was a result of many influences including African polyrhythms, European classical and American Negro spirituals. This then spread rapidly in the turn of the century culture, and within two decades it had become the most popular form of music in the biggest cities of that time in the country - New York and Chicago. It is felt to be a wonderful form of music and some even ascribe the origin of the music to the same non-people who built the pyramids. They returned after quite a few thousand years because they were unable to stand the types of folk music that were being dished out then, and decided to replace it with infinitely more pleasant form of jazz. An even weirder theory is that jazz resulted from a government experiment to protect us in case of an invasion by Canada - of course, practically nobody believes it. (Gridley, 44)

But in reality, it was during the 1940s the forms of music of Ragtime, early Dixieland jazz and the blues were all formed. These were all forms of swing music and were the most popular form of music in America in those years. The African musical elements had survived in the music forms of the African-Americans. Jazz is a clear example of this retention. These people, their customs and folkways in America form the history of jazz and its transplantation. All the history of jazz contains various Afro diasporic elements like the styles of bebop, cool, modal, hard bop, third stream, avant garde, fusion and even up to the young lions and contemporary jazz. The music continues to evolve due to the efforts of the performers in the tradition of jazz. This brings in new and innovative styles to inform the music to keep it fresh. This openness and willingness to change is the clear indication of the African culture. These also give clear insights into the methods of the African nature of jazz having remained unchanged over this period. (Berendt, 172)

Jazz was really the first original indigenous form of American music which went on to influence music in the rest of the world. The deep down growl of the blues, field hollers, rising gospel choirs, driving brass bands and ragtime syncopation are all included in jazz. The large black population of New Orleans was the main reason as to why it played such an important role in the development of jazz. There were brass bands there playing when marches took place in parades and comfort families during the funerals. The numerous society dances required skilled musical ensembles. The African-American musicians were at last able to remove the mask of deception that had been worn by their predecessors in the closed rooms of the jazz clubs of America and Europe. The earlier generations had to sing the spirituals, moaned the blues and had to paint their faces white to enable participation in the minstrel shows for the entertainment of the white supremacists. (Gridley, 46)

There were many important African-American musicians in the twentieth century including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Les McCann, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Betty Carter and many more. (Hogan, 16) They all used jazz to condemn the present racist society. The society not only enjoyed great pleasure from the music but also great commercial success due to their publication and promotion of the Negro spirituals, blues, minstrelsy and finally jazz. The real jazz was however only the creation of the African-American musicians for a voice in the society. That was not accepted, but critically denounced and underexposed. It was lauded and rewarded far less than the commercial jazz, which was the diluted version given for mass consumption rather than the nationalistic expression present in the real jazz.

From the late 19th century till the end of the First World War, there was another popular music prevalent in the U.S. called ragtime. By definition, this music will always include syncopation. Almost all the commentators have said that the originators of this music were black in both the vocal and instrumental types. Early ragtime music and African music are very similar. The rhythmic syncopation of ragtime may have come directly from the rhythmic practice in African music of 'patting juba'. This is the accompaniment of dance by various body-based rhythmic sounds like clapping hands, tapping of feet and slapping of various parts of the body. (Berlin, 44)

The descent of this music was traced from the indigenous American Negro music styles like the plantation spirituals and work songs. Minstrelsy or the popular imitation and caricature of Negro music may also have played a role. Ragtime music has been in the U.S. ever since the Negro race came according to experts like Scott Joplin. This form of music is known to have started in the south, and this was a heavily black populated area. The music was known as Chicago in many areas of the U.S. By the 1890s. The music was originally written for all instrumental and vocal forms, but today only the piano forms are mostly played. (Berlin, 46)

The verse of the spirituals' are considered inferior to the melody by many. This is felt to be due to the lack of the education of the Negro, which forced him to concentrate on rhythm and harmonics. These were the inherent parts of his genius and needed no formal schooling to be expressed. The text of the Bible for verse themes was used by the slaves of the Southern plantations. They found a striking similarity with the situation of the children of Israel in Egypt and their own. This analogy has been used in the famous "Go down, Moses." There is a touch of whimsy in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Here the chariot of Elias is asked to swing low to enable the soul enjoy the ride to heaven. The spirituals are dubbed naive and sentimental by some self appointed experts, but they reflect the fact that arose from the pain of a race which was helpless before some self appointed masters. The slave's dread of family separation gave rise to songs like "Is Massa Goin'to sells us tomorrow?" And "Farewell to my only child." In the extreme south like Virginia there was a better sense of permanence on the family plantations. This was reflected in the spirituals being more buoyant and happy. Wherever the slaves were abused more often, the spirituals reflected their sorrow by containing more sorrow and foreboding. "I feel like a motherless child" is a reflection of insecurity as well as an embodiment of the emotions of down trodden people throughout the world. (James, 54)

The purest forms of valuable musical lore in America of today are the spirituals and even secular Negro folk melodies, with their harmonic styles. They are felt by musical authorities to be epic and full of simple dignity and not sentimental or theatrical. That the spirituals are mainly choral in character is the opinion of Dr. Alain Locke. He also feels that they are not at their best in solo voice or instruments. His prediction is that their best development will come through symphonic choir, as had been done by the Russian composers to their folk music. He insists that the spirituals will achieve their folk atmosphere and quality religious aspects again. In his book, 'The Negro and his music' Dr. Locke has deplored the dominance of pseudo spirituals in the world of today. He has remarked that these folk compositions have now been colored with artificial compositions, frills in sentimentality and concert versions. The spiritual having the unhappy links with slavery and illiteracy has led to even the educated Negroes also avoiding it. (James, 56)

There are some outstanding Negro artists and choral groups who are rendering these beautiful melodies faithfully and with true understanding, and this is breaking down the antipathy to some extent. In the opinion of Dr. Locke, Eva Jessye Choir and the Hall Johnson Singers have given the most accurate reproduction of genuine Negro singing and may be considered to be typical of these musicians. These singers have the correct mechanism of the syllabic quavers, off tones and tone glides, improvised interpolations and subtle rhythmic variations of Negro choral singing. According to most experts there is too much melody and harmony in most of the presented versions of spirituals. It is said that when the melodic elements of the spirituals are emphasized too much, the result will be a sentimental ballad of the Stephen Foster type. The barber shop chorus will be the result from a high stress on harmony. The product will be completely secular and become only a syncopated shout with no religious mood when there is too much concentration on rhythmic idiom. The only solution thus lies in the subtle fusing of all the elements to form… [END OF PREVIEW]

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