Roundtable | A Historical Perspective on Teaching Controversial Aspects of African-American Music

Josephine Wright
Professor of Music and The Josephine Lincoln Morris Professor of Black Studies
The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio

Within the academy I wear two hats—one as a historical musicologist and one as a professor of Africana/Black Studies. Both disciplines inform my teaching of undergraduates. Last fall I introduced a potentially controversial course into the curriculum of my small liberal arts institution, entitled “Racism 101.” The course examined the historical foundations of institutionalized racism in the United States, and several of my colleagues shook their heads as if to say, “There goes the neighborhood.” “Racism 101” was, however, immensely successful, and discussions in the class spilled over into other classrooms. 

Having survived “Racism 101” relatively unscathed, largely through reliance upon historical method, lessons learned from this experience can be applied to teaching other controversial topics in American Studies. For undergraduates increasingly attempt to plunge head on into discourses and research of popular polemical topics without sufficient historical perspective on them. In Africana/Black Studies students must often be reminded that many of the issues that impact contemporary African Americans have histories that extend beyond their limited view of the world; in some instances these histories date back to the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Probe deeply the annals of U.S. history for any of these eras, and one will encounter major problems and controversies surrounding blacks that continue today—institutionalized racism, struggles for quality education, inadequate health care, unemployment, exploitation within the work force, racial violence, and pejorative attitudes about blacks and their expressive culture.

Teaching controversial aspects of American music therefore has broader implications beyond focus upon such popular topics as gansta rap, Showboat, and the appropriation of black culture by white entertainers, as manifested in blackened-face minstrelsy or Eminem. Historically, other race-specific traditions that grew out of black America (notably black hymnody, the rites of the black church, the Negro spiritual, the blues, black gospel music, and rock and roll) were also controversial topics in American music when they first evolved.

Much of the music created by African Americans in the United States evolved out of a definite social and political context, and isolation of the music from these moorings disconnects African-American expressive culture from black cultural history. Thus, the integration of controversial topics about African-American music in American music history courses offers instructors unique opportunities to help students understand black music as one dimension of black cultural history and to emphasize, where possible, the historical continuity of contemporary musical phenomena with the past. Similarly, such topics in American music create possibilities for exploring imaginative ways to introduce historical documents into the classroom to engage students and stimulate discussion. Accessibility of historical documents about black Americana has been greatly facilitated in recent years by online digitized sites. They have not only revolutionized how I teach, but they have helped my students gain a deeper appreciation of the many ways contemporary black musical expression is connected to the past.

I should like to focus briefly on two opportunities or challenges for the instructor in teaching controversial aspects of African-American music: 1) Stressing historical continuity in black American music, and 2) Incorporating new digitized historical collections in classroom teaching.

Stressing Historical Continuity in Black American Music

About a century ago W.E.B. Du Bois noted in The Souls of Black Folk that the social and cultural history of black America began in Africa, not North America, and he observed that many of the cultural traditions created by African Americans at the dawn of the twentieth century actually had roots in slave plantation culture. Eileen Southern and I later appropriated Du Bois’s thesis during the mid-1970s and 1980s when we investigated American literature from the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century for evidence of African-American expressive culture in the oral and performing arts. Our research resulted in the publication of two companion volumes, African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Art Work and Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s–1920s, which are selected guides to a disparate corpus of literature on African-American expressive folk culture from colonial times to the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Although many examples can be found in the literature that link contemporary African-American music with the past, two will suffice to demonstrate the possibilities. The first pertains to the music of the folk-oriented black church, the oldest institution owned by the African-American community. Within that tradition, the earliest repertory of sacred song is black hymnody (called variously Baptist “lined-out hymns,” “lining hymn,” or “Dr. Watts”), which can still be heard in folk-oriented black churches across the United States today. This practice dates from the colonial era when some slaves were converted to the Protestant religion of their masters. Never fully assimilated into mainstream colonial American life, these slaves created a folk style of religious expression by superimposing African tribal rituals and traditions upon European-American Protestantism (Du Bois, Negro Church 5). Several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans commented about the distinctiveness of the religious observances of early African Christians in America. The influential clergyman John Leland, a standard bearer for early Baptists in America, remarked in his Virginia Chronicle(1790) that

They [the slaves] are remarkable for learning a tune soon, and have very melodious voices … When religion is lively they are remarkably fond of meeting together, to sing, pray, and exhort, and sometimes preach, and seem to be unwearied in the exercise. … They commonly are more noisy in time of preaching, than the whites, and are more subject to bodily exercise, and if they meet with encouragement in these things, they often grow extravagant.” (qtd. in Green 98)

John Fanning Watson, a Wesleyan Methodist, described the religious excesses of blacks in Philadelphia in the early 1800s in a monograph, entitled Methodist Error of Friendly Advice to Those Methodists Who Indulge in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises. Watson complained in his epistle that poorly educated black Methodists sang unapproved, unintelligible songs of their own composition in divine worship, and that they performed these songs in “the chorus manner of southern harvest field, or husking frolic method, of the slave blacks” (qtd. Southern, Readings 63), accompanied by actual dancing in church. In his words, “What in the name of religion [could] countenance or tolerate such gross perversion of true religion?”

Irrespective of how insensitive one might view Watson’s comments as being today, many of the rituals of the black church that he complained about in the early nineteenth century survived through the centuries and remain prominent features of black folk religion today. Moreover, sentiments Watson expressed about their practices remained a thorny source of contention between main-line religious leaders within the African-American and European-American communities and the traditional black church well into the mid-twentieth century.

A second example of historical continuity in black expressive culture in the US is found in the study of the slave masking and miming festivals of the antebellum South and the cultural traditions that evolved from them. Such festivals had their roots in the West African masking and miming festivals that slaves continued in the United States. They later served as resource material for several genres of American popular entertainment in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including Ethiopian minstrelsy, a crude blackened-faced parody on African-American folk life and culture, ragtime, and (possibly) rap, one of America’s newest musical crazes. 

One of the earliest sources of American provenance to discuss slave masking and miming festivals in the antebellum South was Horace [Horatio] Smith’s Festivals, Games, and Amusements, Ancient and Modern, which describes a week-long carnival celebration of southern slaves held during the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays. Smith published his book around the same time that white actors began introducing two stereotyped impersonations of Negro characters in blackened face on the American stage—Jim Crow,1 the dimwitted country bumpkin, and Zip Coon, the slick city dandy.2

Slave mimes and masqueraders, unlike their impersonators, performed largely their own folk music, dances, and comic skits at their festivals. On occasion such festivals served the slave community as vehicles whereby slave entertainers could poke fun good-naturedly at each other, as well as at their slave master, without giving offense. In 1832, for example, James Hungerford, then a young law student, observed a slave miming festival held at a plantation along the eastern shore of Maryland and noted that slaves impersonated their master, who seemed as amused by their “laughable imitations” of him as they were (198). Later, in 1909 the African-American composer J[ohn] Rosamond Johnson connected the banjo instrumental accompaniment used for such plantation-type dances with the origin of ragtime music. Writing in the article “Why They Call American Music Ragtime,” he wrote:

In analyzing this peculiar American syncopation we can easily see why it has been called “ragtime.” The origin of “ragtime” began with the old darkey patting his foot, and strumming on the banjo, while the pickannies clapped their hands at the same time. … If music is the art of expressing emotions, then the Negro has certainly given to us his conditions expressed in song. And what is folklore but the expressions of a peasant people in song. And this is proof that there is a school of music in that peculiar rhythm of syncopation originating from the patting of the foot, the clapping of the hand and the strumming on the banjo by the old plantation darkey, which has passed through the same stages of improvement by new emotions of the new Negro of to-day [sic].

In 1997 Eileen Southern similarly commented on young African-American musicians reviving and tweaking musical practices from the past, connecting in one instance performance practices associated with one slave plantation dance, the Juba dance, to “rap.” According to Southern, 

The origins of rap can be traced to any number of sources … [T]here is a longstanding tradition in the black community of using language creatively in everyday life. “Pattin’ Juba,” … [a slave dance] which dates from the early nineteenth century, was often a two-person operation: the patter provided dance music and a second person accompanied him, or her, reciting verses that were made up on the spur of the moment. (Southern, Music of Black Americans 602)3

Incorporating New Digital Historical Collections in Classroom Teaching 

The internet offers infinite possibilities today for bringing historical documents into the classroom for instruction, with an eye toward helping students trace the continuity of many present-day topics in black American expressive culture with the past. While several excellent digitized sites exist for historical documents on African-American history and culture (see list below) six have been particularly useful to me and my students. Foremost has been the Library of Congress’ American Memory, which contains over 7,000 primary sources, including legal documents pertaining to slavery, the entire WPA Slave Narrative Collection (Southern and Wright, African-American Traditions 208–26), nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American pamphlets, as well as rare books and serials from the nineteenth century. I have found the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South an equally useful web site for published slave narratives, as well as other nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature about southern culture and the black church in the South. 

The New York Public Library’s Digital Schomburg, a relatively new site for me, provides unique access to an indexed data bank of digitized photographs, prints, and illustrations in its Images of African Americans from the nineteenth century. These visual images shed light on a variety of topics, ranging from slavery, the Civil War, religion, and expressive culture, to social life and customs.4 In addition, three digital collections of American sheet music bring a virtual library of popular music from the nineteenth and early twentieth century to the researcher’s reach with a click of the mouse—notably, Brown University’s African-American Sheet Music, 1850–1920, an indexed collection of 1500 copies of sheet music; Duke University’s Historical American Sheet Music Collection, which contains over 3,000 compositions published between 1850 and 1920; and the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music at Johns Hopkins University, another large holding of American music published from 1780–1923.

In summary, teaching controversial topics about African-American music can be meaningfully enhanced when grounded in a historical perspective that allows students to make meaningful connections between contemporary musical phenomena and the past. In recent years advancements in information technology have facilitated access to historical documents and iconographical materials that offer unlimited possibilities for incorporating these documents into the classroom and into the students’ own research.

Next Essay (Link to “Response by Richard Crawford”)

Works Cited

Books and Articles

Alexander, J. Heywood, ed. To Stretch Our Ears: A Documentary History of American Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1903.

_____. The Negro Church. Atlanta University Publications, no. 8. Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta University Press, 1903.

Green, Miss L.F., ed. Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including Some Events in His Life, Written by Himself, with Additional Sketches. New York: G.W. Wood, 1845.

Hampton Folk-Lore Society. “American Folk-Lore Society [Annual Meeting].” Southern Workman 24 (February 1895): 30–32. Rpt. in The Black Perspective in MusicSpecial Bicentennial 4 (1976): 148–149.

Hungerford, James. The Old Plantation and What I Gathered There in an Autumn Month. New York: Harper, 1859. Rpt. in Wright American Fiction, 1851–1875. Ed. Perry Willett. Jan. 2, 2005. Indiana University Digital Library Program. Apr. 18, 2005 <
Johnson, J. Rosamond. “Why They Call American Music Ragtime.”Colored American Magazine 15 (January 1909): 637. Rpt. in The Black Perspective in MusicSpecial Bicentennial 4 (1976): 261. 

Smith, Horace [Horatio]. Festivals, Games, and Amusements, Ancient and Modern. New York: J.J. Harper, 1831. 

Southern, Eileen. Readings in Black American Music. 2d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

_____. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Southern, Eileen, and Josephine Wright, comp. African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s–1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Art Work. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990. 

_____. Images: Iconography of Music in African-American Culture, 1770s–1920s. New York: Garland, 2000.

Thompson, Maurice. “Plantation Music.” Critic 4 (January 12, 1884): 20.

Watson, John Fanning. Methodist Error of Friendly Advice to Those Methodists Who Indulge in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises. Trenton: D & E Felton, 1819.

Recommended Websites

African American History Digital Library. Academic Info.

African-American Sheet Music from Brown University Library. The Library of Congress. <

American Memory. The Library of Congress. <>.

Black Media Online.
 University of North Carolina. <>.

Black Presence: Asian and Black History in Britain, 1500–1850.National Archives, United Kingdom. 

Digital Schomburg. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. <>.
Documenting the American South. UNC University Library. <>.

Historical American Sheet Music, 1850–1920.
 Duke University.

Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music. Johns Hopkins University.

Library of American Civilization Titles Available Online. Quinnipiac University. <>.

On-Line Library of African-Americans in the United StatesThe WWW-VL History Virtual Library. European University Institute, Florence.

Online Exhibitions. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. <

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection, 1773–1934.
Cornell University.

  1. Created by the actor Thomas (“Daddy”) Dartmouth Rice ca. 1828. See Alexander,128–31.
  2. First published in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1834 , the song “Zip Coon” (aka the fiddle tune “Turkey in the Straw”) was popularized ca. 1835 by actor George Washington Dixon. See Crawford, 200–02.
  3. According to some nineteenth-century documents, instrumental accompaniment on the banjo was also associated with the Juba dance. See Maurice Thompson and the Hampton Folk-Lore Society.
  4. The Schomburg’s Online Exhibitions features in digital format excerpts from four of the library’s mounted exhibits: “Louis Armstrong Jazz Oral History Project”; “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery”; “Harlem, 1900–1940: An African-American Community”; and “The African Presence in the Americas, 1492–1992.”