1790 Painting of Early African-American Dance and Music

Dancing to Banjo Music

Of all of the cultural influences, none has been more profound and yet, at the same time, more indirect, than the changes brought about by African cultural influences.  If this sounds contradictory, it is because the actual African influence was relatively minor.  It is the African-American influence (even during the period of slavery) that is monumental.

The two main African influences were polyrhythmic harmonies and pulsating rhythms; and an instrument–the Banjo!

African-American music was born out of the physical and emotional pain and suffering of slavery.  No single group converted more readily to the Christian faith than did slaves in America.  They identified with the Israelites living in bondage in Egypt; and they accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, a man who suffered as much as they did and who died for them.  This personal sense of connection is found in the title of the Negro Spiritual (“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”). (Emphasis added)

Because this music was developed by a group of Americans, we don’t ascribe the musical or cultural influence to Africa.  The distinction we make is between foreign cultural influences that are brought to America and cultural influences developed on our soil.  Thus, the music that we want to study was composed and developed by Americans.

We will deal in greater depth with the four main areas of African-American music in our Section on the How Broadway Became Broadway (work songs, Gospel and Spiritual compositions, blues songs and ragtime piano tunes).

Sheet Music for Scott Joplin's Rag NonPareil

Scott Joplin Rag

However, we ought to note in this summary that the greatest influence on American music is the influence of jazz (blues and ragtime, combined), especially in the area of American dance music.  From the time of the cakewalk and the foxtrot, we learned to move to the sounds of ragtime or hot jazz; learned to jitterbug to the sounds of swing; to Lindy Hop to the music of early Rock and Roll; to move in our own little worlds as we did the Twist, the Pony, the Cool Jerk, the Mashed Potato, etc; to touch dancing for disco; then to Moonwalking, Hip Hop and Rap.

On Broadway, syncopated music changed George Gershwin’s shows right up to and including Porgy and Bess. In the case of Jerome Kern, the African-American influence went beyond jazz to Gospel music, and it was this larger musical influence that moved Kern to compose “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat. Listen to the driving, syncopated rhythms in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and you realize clearly the changes made to the musical style of Richard Rodgers since the days when he composed Dearest Enemy.

Some historians see events; some see cultures.  However, in American music, we see, ponder and listen to the integration of many events, cultures and styles into one medium; and we get to listen to and appreciate the changes, as they occurred.