Congo Square and Gottschalk

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Upon arriving in America, the slaves who lived in New Orleans in the later part of the 19th century were given at least one minor freedom which was denied other slaves throughout the south. On Sunday afternoons, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the day of rest, African slaves were allowed to gather in a common area with others from various households.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk
New Orleans’ Congo Square, early 19th century

This common area, given the name Congo Square, was located on the north edge of the French Quarter, where the white creoles and creoles of color lived. Between the French Quarter and the area further away from the port where the poorer immigrants, free slaves and Cajuns lived was Congo Square. It was the site for weekly communal gatherings built around chanting, singing, dancing and the playing of various homemade rhythmic instruments such as gourds, tambourines and rhythm sticks. While those on the outside of the circle tapped, pounded, clapped or shook gourds to a variety of rhythms, sometimes with repetitive sung or chanted lines of melody, individuals took turns in the middle of the circle whirling, dancing and singing out a contrary line of music.

The frenetic energy of the gathering may have seemed at times to be chaotic, but the independence of individual within the framework of the group was unlike anything previously seen or heard in elite classical Western European music. It was a part of what jazz was to become.

By the time young Louis Moreau Gottschalk, son of German immigrants, visited Congo Square in the 1870’s with his Jamaican nursemaid, a primitive type of banjo had joined the purely rhythmic instruments being played by the celebrants. Within two decades, Gottschalk had established himself as a first-rate composer in the European classical tradition, yet incorporated the sounds and rhythms of Congo Square and New Orleans into his piano and symphonic music. The energies and rhythms of songs like “The Banjo” and “Danse des Negres” brought syncopated rhythms and melodies to audiences in London, Paris and New York City.


Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” performed by Steven Mayer

In addition to the classically oriented music of the New Orleans upper class, there were also community bands. Primarily made up of brass instruments like trumpets, trombones and tubas, these community bands were sponsored by local groups such as the Catholic church, fraternal organizations like the Elks or Masons or even the town fire department. In some cases, plantation owners hired music teachers to teach their hired hands to play instruments in order to have live music available for dinners, balls and social events.

Band of 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, August 1864

The popularity of brass bands began during the mid-18th century when civil war bands traveled with the troops. At one point, there were over thirty army bands based in and around New Orleans, playing at military functions, patriotic celebrations and town social events. Most of these brass bands played at outdoor gatherings, where, in the days before the invention of sound amplification, the music needed to be loud enough to carry over a large area. When the dances or social events moved indoors, a smaller “string band” consisting of cornet (or trumpet), violin, guitar, bass and piano or some combination could provide music for a more intimate gathering.

At the end of the 19th century, John Philip Sousa’s marches provided lively and easily accessible repertoire for community bands across America, including those in New Orleans. These bands were made up of former military instrumentalists, but also common folk who purchased cheap military instruments after the civil war.

But not all the bands were military in nature with organized rehearsals and written arrangements. New Orleans was also the home to pickup, street corner instrumental groups called “spasm bands.” Using common instruments such as washboards, tambourines, ukuleles or banjos, spasm bands would interpret common pop songs of the period, giving their own unique spin to the sound. Predating the street corner “doo-wop” groups of the 50’s by decades, the spasm bands were more about creating an energetic, loud instrumental sound than any sort of tight vocal harmony. The term “spasm” finds a similar root of meaning as the origin of the word “jazz”, both of which described a type of musical energy had, to the early performers, sexual connotations.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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