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People & Events: African American Music in Stephen Foster's Time

African American playing a fiddle BORDER=Both free and enslaved African American people in antebellum America composed and performed music in a wide variety of styles. Like their white counterparts, they listened to and performed the songs of Stephen Foster and other popular white composers.

Brought to America in captivity and sold into slavery, Africans carried their culture with them as best they could. Music and dance -- an integral part of African life -- became an important part of life for blacks in America. Both slaves and free blacks used music as an accompaniment to work, worship, and celebration. For money, for fun, and at the command of plantation masters, blacks played music and sang at public performances and private social gatherings catering to both whites and blacks.

In Northern cities, a small number of black musicians gained the kind of renown usually reserved for whites. Frank Johnson, a talented musician and prolific composer, led orchestras and string bands that gave gala public performances in Philadelphia and other locales. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, known as the Black Swan, toured the North from 1851 and 1853; her voice was compared favorably to that of international opera star Jenny Lind. Both Johnson and Greenfield also toured England and performed for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

From 1821 to 1828, New York's African Grove Theater played host to black productions of ballets, plays, and so-called ballad operas -- plays that were supplemented by musical performances. The theater was closed down by the city after complaints about rowdy behavior. At least one observer blamed the trouble on white patrons, who had a special area in the theater reserved for them. In 1848, African American Peter O'Fake conducted a performance of the Newark Theatre Orchestra -- the first documented instance of a black conductor leading a white orchestra.

Most black urban musicians practiced their trade in less formal settings. African American fiddlers were popular fixtures in dance halls, where they spun out the jigs and reels that kept white patrons on the move. Black musicians, including banjo players, guitarists, horn players, and singers performed at all manner of social events, from parties to formal balls. Black stevedores sang work songs in shipyards, and among the whites who listened were composers such as Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett, inventor of the minstrel show. Marching bands enjoyed great popularity across America, and blacks were represented there as well.

Music played a key role in African American religious life. Hymns and spirituals, many written by black composers, accompanied preaching in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and other congregations. But it wasn't until about the 1840s that choral singing and musical instruments made their way into church services. In the South, white slaveholders feared religion as an opportunity for slaves to organize, and severely restricted worship. Yet in services both public and private, Southern blacks joined in songs of praise. Private worship often included "shouts," ecstatic spiritual circle dances that had a basis in traditional African ceremonies. Accompanied by singing and chanting, shouts often went on for hours at a time.

On Southern plantations, slaves sang work songs as they chopped cotton, loaded wagons, and stripped tobacco. They also performed music for the social gatherings of their white masters. When work was done, slaves turned to music as a source of recreation, singing and dancing jigs and reels to the fiddle, the banjo, and the tambourine. The instruments they used were frequently fashioned from gourds, cigar boxes, and other found materials. Some musicians even used their own bodies as instruments, "patting Juba," or providing rhythmic accompaniment by slapping their chests and thighs, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands. The melodies and lyrics of the tunes blacks played were often directly descended from African songs.

From the first arrival of Africans in America, traditional tribal music strongly influenced the music of American blacks. As late as 1843, a weekly gathering in New Orleans' Place Congo drew hundreds of traditional African dancers and drummers and thousands of spectators. By then, the rich mixture of African and European music had already begun. Soon, white composers like Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett would gain fame with "Ethiopian" minstrel songs that reflected their ideas of black life and music. White minstrels would perform these songs using banjos, fiddles, tambourines, and even animal jaw rattles -- instruments popular with African American players.

In turn, white music influenced the compositions and performances of African Americans. Black musicians like Frank Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield performed popular, classical and opera music written by Europeans and European Americans. Singers in African American churches used the Bible as a source of lyrics for their spirituals, often choosing a verse or two and writing more lyrics of their own or writing new lyrics to traditional European hymns. And when minstrel songs written by Stephen Foster and other composers became popular, they were listened to, performed, and altered by black musicians. By the time of Foster's death in 1864, it would be hard for many Americans to tell the difference between popular and folk songs, or the racial identities of the people who wrote each.

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