Roots of Popular Music

The arrival of slaves from Africa, many were from West Africa, brought a people to the America’s with a unique cultural and musical influence. For white American’s to openly enjoy African music would have been taboo. Around the time of the Civil War, minstrel shows became quite popular. They appealed to many white American’s as a way to satirize African slaves and politics. They were over the top and exaggerated portrayals of slaves and free black men, that perpetuated racial stereotypes. Once PT Barnum asked a black janitor to fill in for the white “black-faced” minstrel performer and brought down the house, however if the white audience knew that the performer was really a black man they would have been furious. This is such a cultural dichotomy to me. If you despise something or someone so much why would you imitate it? Why dress up as a black man, play African style music and dance? To me it seems a way to be able to openly enjoy a culturally taboo style of music and lifestyle. By the 1900’s black men could participate in minstrel shows but they would still wear “black-face” make- up. This is also the beginning of white appropriation of African music and culture for political and monetary purposes.

Minstrel shows did many things culturally. The banjo an African instrument became a folksy instrument of white Appalachian people by the 20th century. It made fun of Africans in a way to keep them oppressed and looked down upon. They were seen as uneducated, raggedy, and happy in their “station” in life, which was no where near the truth. It put African music out in the world and celebrated it in someways. Minstrel shows drew more attention to being “white” or “black”. It allowed for other ethnic groups to pretend or play down their ethnicity because they were lighter than many Africans. Such was the case of Al Jolson, a Jewish man from the D.C. area, he put on black-face and while doing the minstrel show about the deep south he never knew it allowed him to pass for white. He was actually a friend to many African Americans and they did not view his behavior as appalling. It satirized the politics of the time. And pushed gave white people a way to enjoy African music in an allowable way. Minstrel shows created boundaries and broke them at the same time.

Popular and dance music accent on the 2 and 4 beat in the African tradition as opposed to the 1 and 3 beat in the European marching band style. One of my favorite sayings from this class is “white people clap on the wrong beat, Southern white people are less likely to clap on the wrong beat, and black people clap on the right beat.” It explains so much about the stereo type white people can’t dance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *