The origins of American Negro music go back to the time of slavery in the Southern colonies. It is believed that Negro slaves coming largely from Africa brought with them some particularly rhythmic elements of what was later called Negro music. American. This opinion is based on the fact that many American Negro melodies can be reduced to a pentatonic scale, the same as the instruments that seem to be still in use in certain regions of Africa, and the use of which would also be so among the Negroes of ‘ America as “among those of Africa a marked tendency to syncopation. The question is however controversial and there are folklore scholars who assert that the same scales and their syncopated use are also common to traditional Scottish music, of the Irish and the Welsh; so that it could have happened that Negro music was born from the contact of slaves with the descendants of the first American colonizers, of British origin. Comparative analyzes were also made between Negro songs and Hebrew songs, and it was found, for example, that the song Go down Moses has similarities to the old Hebrew chant Cain and Abel. This led, among other things, to a Negro-Semitic theory of affinity, a theory recently invoked to explain the increase brought to jazz, which is originally believed to be Negro-American, by the Jews. The fact is that like all popular music, the Negro-American one is a product of assimilation and elaboration of different elements, the main ones of which can be established in native rhythmic elements and in melodic and harmonic elements of European origin. These seconds would derive above all from old German and English folk songs, and from hymn melodies brought to America at the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century by the ministers of the Baptist, non-conformist and Methodist churches. These melodies, at first kept pure, gradually transformed into gospel hymn, with an insistent rhythm and many repetitions, which became one of the most widespread forms in all religious meetings (camp meetings and revivals) of the southern colonies. From the meeting places the songs soon spread to homes and plantations, often adapted to different words improvised on the spot and dictated by mystical imagination. Thus were born the spirituals, spiritual songs, the richest and most complete expression of Negro-American music and among the most characteristic of all popular music. Choral expression, it must be added, whose particular genesis can be reconstructed in the following way. A Negro, generally a householder, during work breaks or before meals and evening rest or on other occasions would take up the sacred themes learned from the shepherds, intoning them to a transformed hymnological melody. His voice was joined by those of workmates or family members, in a simple harmony, from the tonic-dominant-tonic, tonic-subdominant-tonic alternative, also of innodic derivation but with the introduction of dissonant original sounds. The new melody was also accentuated by an often syncopated rhythm that can well be defined as dance. And not infrequently the dance and other manifestations of obsessive rhythmic fervor accompanied the song which sometimes took on a sensual and orgiastic character. Primitive instruments or the striking of the hands on the knees emphasized the rhythm. Unleashed by such sensualistic repercussions it spiritual however remains a song of a sad nature comforted by an unshakable faith in the happiness of the divine realms. Slavery ceased with the civil war, the Sphituals survived and still resist the modern forms of coon songs (coon equals “negro”), plantation songs and syncopated, the source of which is moreover easily found in the ancient negro songs.
Alongside the spirituals are the seculars or sinful songs, songs more directly connected with the life of black slaves. The spiritual songs abound with idiomatic phrases from the Bible, they are mainly dedicated to the emotions aroused by the thought of death, by the fear of hell; the secular songs deal with topics inherent to the everyday existence of the Negro: his loves, his dislikes, his privations, the processes to which he is subject and which include the injustices of the white man, his material well-being. The seculars refer to ancient situations such as the Negro race, from spirituals to a relatively recently adopted religion. To the seculars belong the songs of captivity, work, bad men songs and blues that have been transplanted into jazz. The verses are often narrative and the music is now similar to that of some spirituals, now it is a version of more modern melodies taken from songs of mountaineers and English ballads.
The knowledge and diffusion of black songs in the United States came quite late, mainly through the work of white singers disguised as blacks, called minstrels, who gave the first performances around 1830. One of the most popular of these black– faced singers was Thomas. (Daddy) Rice who at that time performed the song Fim Crow with enormous success in Pittsburgh, which is believed to be the name of the song as well as of the Negro who created it in Kentucky. From then on the Negro minstrel show spread rapidly, the negro songs were also known in the north, and they began to write songs inspired by spirituals (in 1851 Foster wrote the famous Old folks at Home and other songs for the “minstrel” Christy). Many of the plantation songs (especially Louisiana) were introduced into these shows, including Coal black Rose, Zip Coon, Ole Virginny nebber tires. The spirituals were later disseminated by small groups of Negro singers from the universities of Fisk (“The Jubilee singers”), Tuskegee, Hampton, etc., from 1871. These universities, created for the education of Negroes, were partly subsidized by the obtained from these concert tours, and still preserve intact the spiritualistic tradition, which they have made known also abroad (in Italy the Jubilee singers came for the first time in 1927).
Of black songs in general and of spirituals in particular there are approximately 50 collections (for voices only and with piano accompaniment) and studies. Among the former, the collections of Harry Burleigh, Natalie Lurtis, Arthur Farwell, Weldon J. Johnson, Rosamond J. Johnson, Henry Krehbiel, William F. Allen, William A. Fisher, Theodor F. Seward, Clark N. Smith, the collection curated by Nathaniel Dett, director of the Hampton Instit., etc. The examples shown in the previous column are unpublished, and were provided by the black musician Frank Withers who learned the melodies from his grandmother Louise Spears, born a slave in 1813 in Bourbin County, Kentucky, who died in 1918. According to Withers, the two melodies were already known by Louise Spears’ grandmother. The use of black songs has been and still is frequent in American music (by European musicians A. Symphon from the New World, although it is not proven that these songs existed prior to his work and may have even been composed by himself, in the same way as the songs composed by Stephen Foster), and have had, among other things, the power to attract more attention to this vast field of popular music on the continent.