Plantation Songs

Slave and plantation music was the first of five local American influences which fused into jazz around 1900. 

Work songs were everywhere on the plantations - songs for cane cutting, rice fanning, pulling, hammering, rowing, chopping - all repetitive rhythmic riffs, monotonous but effective. But songs were also heard after hours on the stoops, often lone voices, with strange rhythms and strums.
With the economic success of the plantations, the parties and celebrations of the owners often included musical contributions from some accomplished slave instrumentalists. Maybe dance music with fiddles and banjos and reels, jigs and gallops. And maybe a 'performance' of spirituals. Even on the plantations music was thriving and crossing the cultural divide.
Around 1850 plantation songs sung by the slaves had developed their individual character. 

They were strongly influenced by African rhythm and led directly to the embryonic country blues.

'Lawdy, Capt'n, I's not a singin' I's a jes hollerin' for help'.

The music always had a strong ground beat, full of field hollers, forerunners of 'the break', and insistent call and response patterns, blue notes, falsetto voices with melisma.
During the Civil War, 'Slave Songs of the United States' was published by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickford Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison.

After the Civil War prison songs were identifiable as a development of the plantation songs.
Huddie Ledbetter (1888 - 1949) recorded work songs, prison songs and black ballads. 'Take this Hammer', 'John Henry', 'Stagolee', 'Midnight Special'      
New Orleans composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk appears to have introduced themes from Creole slave music into his works, particularly 'La Calinda' and 'La Bamboula', dances performed in New Orleans Congo Square. Gottschalk's piano piece 'The Banjo' (1855) appears to be the earliest composition to reflect the sound of the instrument then commonly played by Minstrel performers, though it is clear the earlier African instrument was played in the Congo Square. He would have heard it when he was a boy, in the 1840's.

Instruments - vocals with banjo

The Banjo or banjar or banza (or bonjour if you were French) appears to have been an African instrument introduced into America by the slaves. The first banjos we know of had bodies made of gourds with three or four strings. The modern banjo was perfected by a white minstrel performer in the 1840's. The drone string was introduced with the 5 string banjo, carrying on an ancient African tradition shared with the bagpipes! The banjo was introduced to Scotch-Irish Appalachian music around 1860 where it shared popularity with the fiddle and after 1880 the guitar. Early black jazz bands (1897-1917) did not use the banjo but the Spanish guitar. White bands were using it by around 1915, perhaps earlier, and it was introduced to black bands in the recorded era after 1917. 

Technical - ‘a tuning reality check’ -harmonics are naturally related by the laws of physics to the brain … harmony, as harmonics, is 'easy' to get on a vibrating string - 1/2 you get the octave - 1/3 you get the 5th - 1/5 you get the 3rd

the 5th                  G – G – D – B

tonic                      C – C – G – E

the ‘mirror’ 4th     F – F – C – A root & natural harmonics … 

Sooooo … sitting on the stoop on the plantation humming to myself and tuning my banjo the only thing I know is what sounds good - a vibrating string sounds good because of natural harmonics, much better than a tuning fork !

To hear the harmonics more clearly touch the string at a third of the length for the 5th and a fifth of the length for the 3rd, it is physically impossible for a string fixed at both ends to vibrate in other than simple ratios !

A second string sounds great when added if it is a 5th up, not only the root but also the harmonics are in harmony !

A third string a 5th down 'mirrors' the nice sounds and gives added flexibility when played with the first string

On the 3 strings I can now hear and play all the nice harmonics as individual notes and if I play them close I find - C D E F G A B C - the major scale !

Everything sounds fine as long as I play either up or down, to and from the first string, trouble starts if I play the second and third strings together, not only the G and F sound bad but the harmonics are bad as well !

So I play in a sequence, either way, from and to the tonic and I get functional harmony !

The B and the F are particularly excruciating -

Better avoid those and just play - C D E G A C - the pentatonic !!

Or deliberately play the excruciating sound to 'force' a resolution back to the tonic - 7th chords and added harmonic movement !!

All this is natural harmonics, with no frets and strings stopped to give the harmonic notes I hear !

Then the fun starts when folk want to be clever and add more strings and more notes and more instruments and the physics and the maths can't cope and we are forced into compromise …

Being an adaptable beast, the ear and brain can recognise new patterns and work with them … but the tempered scale … remains an unnatural fudge !


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