Plantation Songs

Plantation SongsSlave 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 accompanied cane cutting, rice fanning, pulling, hammering, rowing, chopping - all these songs had repetitive rhythmic riffs, monotonous but an effective help for monotonous work. However songs were also heard after hours on the stoops, often lone voices, with strange rhythms and strums. Often melancholy but sometimes exciting ... depending on moods.

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 from the churches. Even on the plantations music was thriving and crossing the cultural divide. For sure slave music was encouraged; it helped work efficiency and social peace & tranquillity.

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, the rhythm of work, full of field hollers, forerunners of 'the break', and insistent call & 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.

LeadbellyHuddie Ledbetter (1888 - 1949) recorded work songs, prison songs and black ballads. 'Take this Hammer', 'John Henry', 'Stagolee', 'Midnight Special'.

Alan Lomax discovered Muddy Waters on a plantation outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1940 playing the popular songs of the moment for dancing - Chattanooga Choo Choo' & 'Darktown Strutters Ball' for 'pretty dances, the Black Bottom, the Charleston, the Two Step & the Waltz ... clearly little had changed music that folk heard and loved was still played for dancing ...

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.


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