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About The Music of Slavery

Elvis Elvis

Music was a natural part of the life of the Africans who were brought to North America as slaves. The enslaved Africans never forgot the importance of music and dance in their lives. The arrival of new slaves kept the tradition alive. The music of African Americans has been recognized as one of the greatest contributions of African Americans to American and world cultures.

The Northern colonies held slave festivals. One of the best known was the Pinskter Festivals held in cities around the state of New York. African Americans performed traditional dances and music in front of large crowds of whites. There were also annual fairs in Philadelphia. And at the Place Congo in New Orleans, slaves performed traditional dances on Sunday afternoons.

African Americans adapted to the music traditions of the white colonists. They learned to play the violin, the flute, the French horn and the trumpet. These players performed at dances and were musicians for dancing schools. Drummers and fife players accompanied military units and some African Americans performed in white society dance orchestras. While attending the churches of the white colonists, African Americans learned their psalms and later their hymns.

By the end of the 1820s, slavery had been abolished in the North. African Americans were able to study with music teachers.

Distinction as the first African American music teacher is given to Newport Gardner. He taught African American and white students in New England. Pioneer concert artists were Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the “Black Swan,” and Thomas Bowers, the “Colored Mario.”

About The Music of Slavery

In the 1830s, African Americans organized a symphony orchestra in New Orleans and founded brass bands throughout the North, Midwest and the South. Established music publishers printed the music of African American composers such as Francis Johnson, William Brady, A. J. R. Connor, Edmund Dede, Henry F. Williams and Justin Holland.

The separation of worship by African Americans gained momentum after the American Revolution. Richard Allen founded the first independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, in 1794. He published the first hymnal exclusively for African Americans, A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected From Various Sources by Richard Allen African Minister, in 1801. By the middle 1800s, the AME church had expanded and their musical activities included trained choirs, musical accompaniment and concerts. Other denominations were formed and they engaged in similar practices.

African Americans became more involved in music as the history of the century progressed. Antislavery songs were developed. More bands, orchestras and choral groups were formed. During the Civil War, the Union Army organized African American musicians into regimental bands. The Confederate Army pressed slaves into service as drummers and fifers.