Characteristics of Folk Music
American folk music, like folk music of other nations around the world, had four characteristics.
First, the songs had anonymous composers, that is, no one knows the exact starting point of songs like “Old Dan Tucker” or “Home on the Range.” Someone, somewhere, put words together with a rough melody and it happened—on the back porch, in the field or on the open range. No one claimed ownership because music was of the people, for the utilitarian purpose of entertainment and enjoyment. Some of the songs were American adaptations of folk songs brought over from Britain, Ireland, or Scotland. The majority, however, were crafted first in the rural areas of America.
Secondly, because very few of the composers or performers of folk music could read or write music, the songs were transferred by oral tradition. Each person learned the song by hearing others perform it and tried to remember enough to replicate the song days, weeks or months later for someone else.
Because there was no original written song to which the common folk could refer, folk songs tended to go through variations and permutations as time passed, and the songs migrated to different areas. At times, this caused the songs to have improvised melodies and rhythms. The version of “Buffalo Gals” that one person sang in Pennsylvania might differ slightly from the one being sung in Georgia. Although, no one “correct” version existed, some versions are definitely more musical and easier to sing than others.
Finally, the words of the songs reflected life experiences of the common man. In contrast with the classical songs which might be in German or Latin and might ponder deep philosophical ideas, the lyrics of folk songs were accessible to the common folk. There were songs about different types of workers such as cowboys, farmers and the railroad workers, songs about courtin’ and dancin’, and songs about war and being away from loved ones. There were songs about heroes and villains, songs about religious experiences, about joys and heartaches, about loved ones found and loved ones lost. For every experience and moment in their life, there was an appropriate song to facilitate the celebration or give voice to the heartache. The burden was shared, the loneliness was lessened, the joy made more merry through song.
In composition, folk music is made up of simple, catchy melodies, easy to remember lyrics and simple harmonies. Like most crafts of the people, it was designed to be both portable and functional. Its simplicity allowed it to be gifted from one person to another and its purpose was to entertain, inform or comfort. Unlike the classical music being composed for artistic absorption, folk music was as much a part of the fabric of everyday life as the boots that were put on in the morning or the quilt that was pulled up at night.
Spirituals – Folk Songs of Faith
One important type of folk song in the 19th century was the spirituals crafted by African-American slaves. Like other folk songs, spirituals had anonymous composers, were transferred by oral tradition and often were varied with improvised melodies and rhythms.
The lyrics of the spirituals, however, deserve special notice. By nature, spirituals were religious expressions, speaking of biblical characters and stories, promising reward for the righteous and punishment for the wayward. Although they were certainly genuine and heartfelt in their religious fervor, their surface simplicity belies the multi-level meanings.
Biblical stories and the Christian religion were part of their transplanted environment. Their own religious heritage in Western Africa was significantly different in belief than those practiced by their American slave owners. But the pressure to leave heathen practices to their ancestors and embrace the Christian religion of their new land forced them to adapt and recreate. The spirituals were part of the cultural amalgam which was forged in the fires of slavery. Biblical events and characters were transplanted onto the folk music traditions of African religion.
Although the beliefs were, at first, strange and unusual, eventually new generations of African-Americans grew to understand and fervently believe the Christian truths taught and sung in plantation religious meetings and work fields. With each passing decade, the sounds of West Africa were replaced by the spirituals of American folk music.
The power of the African-American spiritual, though, was in its multi-level meanings. On the surface, the spiritual “Go down, Moses” was the story of the Old Testament figure of Moses going to the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, and telling him that God demanded that his people, the Israelites should be released from their slavery to be allowed to go to the promised land. The biblical story had its Christian subtext in comparing the Israelites in slavery in a foreign land with Christians enslaved to this world and desiring to be let go to a heaven, a land of righteousness. But, even more evident is the parallel with the slaves’ existence in America. Just as Moses and the Israelites ached for freedom in the Promised Land, African-American slaves longed for release from their slavery to the Promised Land of personal freedom.
The harsh realities of the slave’s life, however, left no option for protest. In the oppressive and often cruel environment in which they found themselves, a verbalized complaint or wish for freedom might have brought punishment and physical retribution. Particularly in the Deep South, where slaves held the same value as farm animals or furniture, the life of a slave was a horrible existence. Physical abuse was not uncommon. The grind of long work days in the fields were part of their reality.
In the middle of this severe way of life, the slaves found new meaning in songs like “Go Down, Moses.” Beneath the surface of Bible events and their Christian interpretations lay a third level of meaning. In songs like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” where the “walls come tumblin’ down,” they envisioned their own victory over heavy walls of entrapment. They found a common identification with Jesus when he was beaten and abused and “never said a mumblin’ word.” Their life, characterized by poverty, found hope in the promise that in heaven, “all God’s chil’n got shoes.” For those who spent their entire lives within a twenty mile radius of the plantation, the promise of a chariot “comin’ for to carry me home” was indeed a glimmer of hope beyond the confines of their dreary life.
In practice, the Negro spirituals (as compared to the white spirituals, a form of religious folk music crafted by lower class Caucasians in the South) were not at first included in the regular church services. Instead, they were sung in the homes, work fields and in particular during the “shouts” which took place following the regular Sunday service. When the formal church service, with its hymns and composed spiritual songs, had ended, the more pious whites and cultivated blacks went home. Those who remained pushed the benches back to the walls and formed a circle in the middle of the floor. In a manner similar to African tribal customs, those in the ring shuffled around the circle, all the while clapping, dancing and singing responses to a leader who shouted or sang lead lines of spirituals. Following the leaders’ “call,” the assembly as a whole sang the “response” lines which consisted of both rich group harmonies and zealous individual improvisations.
These meetings, called “shouts,” were passionate, intense and loud; and would often carry on into the night before the worshipers disbanded to go home. It was in these meetings where new spirituals and variations of old ones were woven into the fabric of the African-American slave’s life.
With the publication in 1867 of the first collection of black spirituals, entitled “Slave Songs of the United States,” many whites outside of the South began to hear the earthy, rich African-American musical creations. So powerful was the 19th century spiritual that it remains even today a part of the heritage of both white and black religious gatherings.
From the PBS Documentary Slave Songbook: Origins of the Spiritual