Folk Music in The United States


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54                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

great, but rhythm is often very complex and syncopated, though the meters are simple and constant. The music is typically polyphonic, much more so than in most western European folk styles. Instruments, especially drums, rattles, and bells, but also horns, plucked string instruments, and xylophones, are prominent in number, variety, and function.

Some of these characteristics are present in the American Negro material. In the folk songs of those parts of the New World in which Negroes predominate, such as the West Indies, the African traits are easily discerned, but in the United States they are not as evident. Some songs which are still sung in Haiti were probably brought from Africa, but the United States seems to have no native African compositions because the Negroes have become Westernized. Even they, however, have not lost their African musical heritage completely, and it is specifically the surviving African traits which have made American Negro music so interesting to the white population.

The Negro spirituals are among the best-known products of Negro folklore. Although they were once believed to be the exclusive property of Negroes, they have now been shown to be closely related to the folk hymns of the Southern whites. George Pullen Jackson discovered most of these white spirituals published in shape-note hymn books of the early nineteenth century, and on this is based his conviction that the Negro spirituals are simply adaptations of the white hymns ."^ To be sure, if one examines the melodies of the spirituals on paper, they seem to fit the characteristics of Western hymnody. They have tunes which, although they could conceivably fit into some African styles, are definitely in the English folk song tradition or in that of urban hymn composition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They have pentatonic scales, the over-all forms usually consist of four phrases of equal length, and the rhythms are not essentially different from those of English folk songs. But if we listen to recordings of Negro spirituals sung by genuine folk singers, we find that a good many things occur which are simply not shown in the printed music. For although they are basically Western, the singers of the spirituals incorporate some of the

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