History and Characteristics of the North American Slave Songs

Polonkai, Roland
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The aim of this paper is to present different musical sub-genres of the North America slaves, with attention to their history, musical properties, importance for the slave communities and their hidden double meanings.Therefore, this paper examines several of these sub-genres and relate them to their African origin and explore their relation to each other and different musical genres of the white community. Firstly, the dance songs or reels are presented. These songs still had strong roots in their African heritage, although influences of the slave life in the New World were present from the very beginning. Thus, the traditional African tunes started to become African-American from the onset of slavery, even if slowly. Secondly, the most well-known slave sub-genre, namely, the spirituals, are dealt with. Both historical and musical influences that contributed to the emergence of the spirituals will be studied. Then, the immense popularity of the spirituals among Blacks and its influence on other sub-genres of the slaves are also discussed, with special focus on the linguistic double talk of the spirituals. Next, the work songs are presented, because the slaves spent most of their time working and the songs of these activities cannot be neglected in order to get a full picture of slave songs. Naturally, their musical nature and history are examined, along with the influences that shaped them and the occasions during which they were sung. Lastly, the songs of the Underground Railroad are discussed.
slave songs, spirituals, underground railroad, reels, North America