Read an Excerpt
"Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air"
Over my head I hear music in the air,
When Africans came against their will to be enslaved in America, they brought with them a richly textured heritage that included singing and dancing as daily activities, interwoven into everyday routines, expressions of a world view in which communion with the spirits and with tribal sisters and brothers (those living as well as those dead) was not only desirable, but necessary for life, as much as food or water. Although there were certainly major cultural differences among members of the various tribes of African peoples captured for American slavery, the role of music and dance was amazingly similar from tribe to tribe, and these activities were always essential features of the life blood of the people. John Lovell, Jr., author of an inspired, comprehensive study of the origins and development of spirituals, puts it this way:
To the African, singing and dancing are the breath of the soul. No matter where he goes or what kind of life he is forced to live, these two things he will do;and basically in the African way.... Very few peoples approach the African in the vigor and dynamics of his music.
Clearly, music and dance have always been defining elements of African culture, including the time period of the slave trade. For Africans captured into slavery, music and dance rituals accompanied any number of tribal ceremonies, including ceremonies associated with agricultural rites, ceremonies accompanying royal installations or gatherings, and ceremonies celebrating and re-enacting important historical events. In addition, special music and dance rituals were invoked during preparations for war or to celebrate victory in war, to prepare for hunting expeditions, to celebrate the birth of a child in the community, or to mark various developmental milestones in a child's life, such as the appearance of a first tooth or the beginning of puberty. There were in fact infinite occasions in which music and dance would predominate, celebrating virtually every significant event in the life of a tribe or individual member of the tribe. And while there were various musical instruments employed, group singing was almost always a part of every musical ceremony.
With singing at the center of their music, Africans were highly poetic in the songs they sang. They were prolific in their use of imagery and figures of speech, often employing creative metaphors comically or playfully to comment on the behavior of fellow tribesfolk. Singers would improvise freely, in preview of the music they would later create in America. European visitors were often amazed at the richness and creativity of the singing. Sometimes visitors found themselves the subject of the singing, with leader and chorus composing extemporaneously and singing in typical African call-and-response style. Later, in North America, slave owners would again be ridiculed in poetic, metaphorical call-and-response verses, frequently unaware that they were being made fun of. The template for this kind of "secret" communication through song was clearly laid down in Africa.
To appreciate fully the prominent role of music and dance in African culture one must understand that for Africans, these artistic expressions flow directly from a world view that places a heavy emphasis on intimate connections with divine spiritual forces and with one's fellow tribesfolk. Furthermore, this world view requires expression of those connections through the channels of oral communication and physical movement. This is true in daily routines, such as work or play, as well as special occasions, such as the birth of a child or a significant tribal ceremony. In the African experience the spiritual force that runs through all of life is impotent unless it is given direct oral and physical expression. Amiri Baraka, in his insightful discussion of the roots of Black American music, provides an especially vivid portrayal of this holistic and functional character of African music, contrasting it with the more compartmentalized nature of music as it has evolved in Western culture:
If we think of African music as regards its intent, we must see that it differed from Western music in that it was a purely functional music.... [There are] some basic types of songs common to West African cultures: songs used by young men to influence young women (courtship, challenge, scorn); songs used by workers to make their tasks easier; songs used by older men to prepare the adolescent boys for manhood, and so on. "Serious" Western music, except for early religious music, has been strictly an "art" music. One would not think of any particular use for Haydn's symphonies, except perhaps "the cultivation of the soul." "Serious music" (a term that could only have extra-religious meaning in the West) has never been an integral part of the Westerner's life; no art has been since the Renaissance.... The discarding of the religious attitude for the "enlightened" concepts of the Renaissance also created the schism between what was art and what was life. It was, and is, inconceivable in the African culture to make a separation between music, dancing, song, the artifact, and a man's life or his worship of the gods. Expression issued from life, and was beauty.
Baraka's analysis underscores one of the most important ways in which African music differs from music as it functions currently in the West. Even music that appears to the European or American as frivolous, lighthearted or purely entertaining in character is, for the African, always directly connected to a serious and fundamentally spiritual celebration of life in which people in the community affirm regularly their relationship with the forces to which they owe their existence. Just as it is impossible in the African tradition to separate music from other aspects of life, it is also impossible to separate spiritual faith and worship from other parts of life. For example, the common European-American practice of specialized worship, confined to one day of the week and separated from other important life functions, is alien to the traditional African experience. For the African, worship and life are inseparable. The most important way in which this fundamental belief is given expression is through music and dance.
Coming directly from long and firmly established traditions, the women and men captured into slavery from the various tribal nations of western and central Africa were deeply religious peoples, giving expression daily to their religious faith through myriad song and dance rituals. And although the specific content and form of these rituals differed considerably from tribe to tribe, there were two important factors that would contribute to the ability of people from widely diverse tribal backgrounds to form a common identity as they made their transition to the new world. Most obvious was the fact that they were placed in a unifying predicament as involuntary captives of a common enemy. In this respect they were similar to the diverse Native American people who, treated cruelly and identically by European invaders, eventually formed coalitions that previously would have been unimaginable. There is something about a common enemy that evaporates perceived differences dramatically.
The second factor that made it possible for diverse African peoples to assume a common bond as they were captured into slavery was the fact that despite their significant differences, their basic values and myths were quite similar, as was their penchant for expressing these values and life myths in music and dance. Even before capture, such similarities made it possible for otherwise separate peoples to unite in celebrations of dance and song. Historian Sterling Stuckey describes one of these pre-slavery Pan-African gatherings:
An impressive degree of interethnic contact representing large areas of black Africa, at times took place at such ceremonies in Dahomey. F.E. Forbes, who spent two years in Dahomey and kept a journal of his observations, reports that one such instance of ethnic cross-play involved "groups of females from various parts of Africa, each performing the peculiar dance of her country." When not dancing a dance with elements unique to a given country, they performed dances common to many different countries of Africa: "the ladies would now seize their shields and dance a shield-dance; then a musket, a sword, a bow and arrow dance, in turns." Finally, "they called upon the king to come out and dance with them, and they did not call in vain."
The form taken in these meetings of diverse Africans almost always included "dances common to many different countries in Africa," described by Stuckey as involving a ritual in which the dancers moved in a seemingly monotonous counterclockwise motion, frequently accompanied by musical "shouts," with dancing and singing intensifying incrementally, eventually reaching a point of frenzy, with the participants experiencing moments of emotional and spiritual ecstasy. Inter-ethnic ceremonies were possible because counter-clockwise-movement singing and dancing ceremonies were found in almost all western and central African tribal societies. These ceremonial rituals were associated most often with the occasion of burial of the dead, an event of supreme significance in western and central African culture. Burial was important because African peoples relied heavily on the wisdom of ancestors and the maintenance of a spiritual bond with ancestors as a means of ensuring continuity in the life of the tribe.
The significant role of ancestors in African cultures stems from an even more central unifying factor, the issue of kinship. For African peoples, bonds with immediate, extended and tribal relatives facilitate the survival of the tribe. Typically, there is a complex system of kinship bonds, including various classifications of ancestors, ranging from those remembered by many in the tribe to those remembered by none (but recorded in oral history). In addition, there is communication with children in the tribe who are yet unborn. As psychologist Wade Nobles explains, traditional African kinship systems
stretched laterally (horizontally) in every direction as well as vertically. Hence, each member of the tribe was related not only to the tribal ancestors (both living-dead and spirits) but also to all those still unborn. In addition, each was a brother or sister, father or mother, grandmother or grandfather, cousin or brother-in-law, uncle or aunt, or some relation to everybody else.
Thus, women and men who came to America to serve as slaves were also a people whose sense of themselves was intensely communal. Each person felt, as the East African scholar John Mbiti would say, that "I am because we are; and because we are, therefore, I am." Cultural commonalities prepared each person to unite with others from foreign tribes to form a new "we," bonded together in a Pan-African spirit to resist, at every turn, the unjust condition of involuntary servitude. And while there was at one time a lively debate about the extent to which the cruel conditions of slavery obliterated their values, traditions and sensibilities, it is now unquestionably clear that African philosophies and traditions remained strong throughout slavery, especially with regard to the most robust of cultural traits, the tendency to express self through music and dance.
The immediate problem for Africans coming together in bondage was the problem of language. Not yet fluent in the language of their captors or spiritually ready to adopt that language as their own, enslaved Africans required a new linguistic medium to communicate their commitments to each other and to the spirits. Fortunately, their past histories provided such a medium. Just as West Africans before slavery had come together in counterclockwise-movement dance rituals to worship the gods and commune with each other, ethnically diverse Africans in America now employed the same ritual in forming their new tribal identity as African Americans. The result was a ceremony eventually known as the ring shout. At first, the verbal utterances that came out of these ceremonies were simply emotional shouts and moans, in which music and rhythm were more important than words, since participants came from such diverse language backgrounds. Eventually, the shouts and moans developed into the songs that are now called spirituals. Lydia Parrish, author of an important book on the song traditions of African peoples of the Georgia Sea Islands, describes this evolution:
Those who have traveled in Africa, and have seen native dancing, are convinced that the shout of the American Negro is nothing more than a survival of an African tribal dance, and that the accompanying chants in their form and melody are quite as typical of Africa as the dance itself. It is recognized, of course, that the words of the Old Testament have been substituted by the Negro for those of his native land. When the slaves grew more familiar with the English language, they evolved the more complicated religious songs that are now popularly called spirituals.
As Parrish notes, the content of the songs that evolved from the ring shout eventually came to include material drawn from the Bibles of the singers' captors, and especially from stories of the Old Testament. When people talk about spirituals, they are usually referring to these songs, created in slavery and containing themes from Jewish and Christian religious traditions. This is the usage of the term spiritual that is employed in the current book. It is important to understand that spirituals are not the same as gospel music, a twentieth-century composed art form that evolved from the spirituals tradition.
A common misconception of the nature of the evolution of the spirituals is that enslaved Africans, once acculturated in the new land, abandoned their own traditions (usually thought of, by those ignorant of the backgrounds, as heathen) and became "civilized" via the adoption of the Christian religion of their slave masters. In this view the spiritual songs the slaves created reflected not only a new religious belief system but also, in some more extreme versions of this view, an imitation of the white hymns and spiritual songs of the slave holders. It is important that we correct these misconceptions in order to have clear the perspective that is the foundation for the major points of discussion in this book.
First, we must understand that the enslaved Africans who created the spirituals were not Christian, in the sense of instant conversion to a new religion. The large-scale adoption of Christianity by African Americans did not actually occur until close to the end of slavery and the beginning of the emancipation period. The conversion process was gradual, and the result was a creative blend of African traditions and Christianity, creating a new, transformed religion different in form and substance from the religion of the slave holder. In fact, many of the enslaved people during the time of the slave trade held tightly to traditional religious beliefs and practices, renewed and strengthened by the continual arrival of new captives from western and central Africa. This strengthened the African core of the new religious orientation that gradually emerged. What was true throughout the period of development of the new African American religious folk music was that many of the newly arrived Africans recognized in Christian doctrine the presence of principles that, if they were actually lived, would be thoroughly consistent with their own traditional belief system, emphasizing love of fellow humans, commitment to justice, and the ultimate rule of divine will. However, newly arrived Africans were also very much aware of the hypocrisy of slave masters, whose active participation in slavery was in itself fundamentally contradictory to the beliefs they espoused in Sunday church services. One of the most well known of spirituals comments on this contradiction:
I got a robe,
You got a robe,
All God's children got a robe.
When I get to Heaven gonna put on my robe,
Gonna shout all over God's Heaven, Heaven, Heaven!
Everybody talkin' 'bout Heaven ain't going there,
Gonna shout all over God's Heaven!
Unbeknownst to slave holders, who thought songs like this to be playful and frivolous, the slave composer of this song used poetic subtlety to poke fun at the hypocrisy of the uncomprehending outsider, rejoicing in the confident knowledge that the final judgment of the divine ruler would prevail. The detached feeling of the lyrics clearly reveals a songwriter who was not about to identify with a religion so easily contradicted by the behavior of its most devout believers. The adoption of this and similar songs by the larger folk community of enslaved Africans reflects the fact that this now unknown songwriter was successful in communicating the collective spirit of the African American community. A song like this, sung joyfully and rhythmically, with dancing and joyful celebration, affirmed the African belief in a divine spirit at work in the daily lives of the people, who are "all God's children," smiled on and ensured of the approval of God in heaven. The Christian slave master, extreme in his hypocrisy, was clearly excluded from this divine community, since "everybody talkin' 'bout Heaven ain't going there." As Lovell notes,
The slave adopted the symbols of the Christian religion but not the hypocritical practices. He recalled that Christianity had introduced the slave traffic; that, as Linda Brent said, there was a great difference between religion and Christianity; that, as Matlock proves, Christianity in the South was founded in regions where the people were too poor to keep slaves. In many areas he accepted Christianity but only on his terms; he did not accept the white man's broken and bespattered Christianity.... It is true that many slaves, by learning to read and other devices, learned about the Bible, Old Testament and New. And having learned, they taught their fellows. But the Bible acquired in this fashion was less religious doctrine and more the kind of pithy story the African had been used to for centuries (emphasis added).
Rather than a new religion, Christianity and its tradition of storytelling (especially in the Old Testament) represented primarily for enslaved people a rich source of material, readily available to Africans from diverse preslavery backgrounds, for use in continuing in the new world the African tradition of song and dance, with storytelling and poetry at the center of the singing. Coming out of the ring shout, the spirituals represented one major body of new African American songs.
In an important sense spirituals, a term used commonly today by Americans of African as well as European descent, is a misnomer, reflective of our collective ignorance of African traditions. As we have seen, all music in the African tradition is spiritual, even when accompanying activities are seen from a European-American perspective as secular. Africans in America during the slave period continued their tradition of singing to accompany work and other daily activities, never separating in their intentions work or other secular songs from specifically religious songs. In a sense, then, all folksongs composed by African Americans during slavery were spirituals, since music and spirituality are so intimately linked in the African oral tradition. However, the term spiritual is so entrenched and widespread that I have continued to use it specifically to refer to folksongs composed in slavery whose content was manifestly religious or philosophical, frequently containing material drawn from the Bible. Songs of this nature constitute the majority of African American folksongs. One factor supporting the classification "spirituals" for this body of songs is the powerful religious symbolism they frequently employ, a factor that has contributed to their survival and widespread appeal. As Lovell has noted, the symbols of Christianity were consistent with the poetic needs of the early African American folk composer:
If a slave, even a religious slave, seeks an outlet for expression, he wants and needs a system capable of direct language and undercurrent symbolism at the same time. Nothing fits this better than the Christian religion. It has a firm base in traditionalism. But it strikes out in two other directions, a much better and radically different life on earth and a supremely better and revolutionary life in a world beyond the grave. Since poets are helpless without symbolism and since slave poets find symbolism indispensable (as self-protection and prevention of the destruction of their creative product, if for no other reasons), the Christian religion was made to order for the slave poet we are studying. He seized upon it and put it to as good use as poets anywhere have done.
Again, however, it is important to separate this use of Christian symbolism from the idea that most enslaved African Americans were Christian in the sense of wholesale adoption of the religion of their captors; they were not.
Not only is the nature of early African American spirituality and its reflection in songs misunderstood, but the role of music and dance in African culture generally is often misconstrued by outside observers. For example, the still prevalent view of enslaved Africans as "happy go lucky" because of their constant resort to music and dance is based on the failure to understand the cultural roots of these early African American cultural activities. In fact, the whole tradition of minstrel songs and their pejorative imitation of early African American music stemmed from ignorance of the basic nature and function of slave songs, which, as we have discussed, were rooted firmly in African traditions, with intensely religious foundations. These pervasively negative and stereotypic portrayals of African American music, especially singing, have probably contributed to the misunderstanding of the nature of spirituals, even in the African American community.
Smugly aware of the failure of outsiders to understand their intentions, enslaved Africans established as a first priority the use of songs as a means of combating the potentially destructive internal psychological damage that could be inflicted by the experience of prolonged enslavement. If we understand this music correctly, as a continuation of the African oral tradition in which a community of singers and dancers derives personal and spiritual power from participation in their art, then we realize that enslaved Africans in America were beginning to fashion for daily use a potent method of maintaining spiritual and self-integrity in the midst of injustice and suffering. Contrary to popular belief, this was not escapism. Rather, it was an extension of African communal and spiritual power gained through oral and body expression.
Excerpted from Wade in the Water by Arthur C. Jones. Copyright © 1993 by Arthur C. Jones. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.