The 1790 census of the United States reported more than 750,000 blacks. The musical expressions of the majority of these blacks—those enslaved in the South—greatly influenced American religious and secular musical forms.

Although some Christians attempted to use the Bible to justify the institution of slavery, the majority of African-Americans embraced Christianity. As a result, they created and performed songs, particularly the spiritual, that had a lasting influence on Christian worship.

Slaves held informal, possibly secret, prayer meetings. Recalled former slave Wash Wilson: “Sometimes us sing and pray all night.” The spirituals sung in these meetings drew from hymns, the Bible, and African styles of singing. Most slaves could not read, so the spirituals helped to teach them the Bible.

Field Hollers

The three primary musical forms produced by the enslaved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were field hollers, work songs, and spirituals.

Slaves were not allowed to talk to one another while working in the field. But singing, such as the work song or field holler, was permitted. The slaves therefore establishd a communication network that was unintelligible to their white overseers.

It is difficult to say exactly how these hollers sounded. They probably come close to sounding like the field hollers recorded by folklorists, such as John Lomax, in the early- to mid-1900s. These more-recent recordings suggest that field hollers were calls for water, food, or assistance. Sometimes field hollers let others know where the caller was working, or simply were cries of loneliness, sorrow, and occasionally, even joy.

Work Songs

Singing accompanied all kinds of work among the slaves. It helped alleviate the monotony of labor and ...

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