James "Sparky" Rucker
HEROES & HARD TIMES:
EXPLORING THE TAPROOTS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOLK CULTURE
(This essay was written in March 2003, and parts of it were published in the April 13, 2003 concert program for the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music in Raleigh, NC. It is for the personal use of students, scholars, and the public. Any commercial use or publication of it is strictly prohibited.)
The story of the roots of African-American Folk Culture would, of course, start with slavery and the "middle passage," which is what the slaves called the sea voyage from West Africa to the shores of the American Continent and its accompanying islands. Any songs that they sang would have been in native dialects and went unrecorded. The "middle passage" was the third leg of the "Golden Triangle." Ships would sail to British Ports from Virginia [and other ports in the Americas] loaded with rum, sugar, cotton, and tobacco. After trading their cargo for trinkets and iron implements, they would then sail south, around the Rock of Gibraltar to West African ports where they again traded...but this time for human cargo. This cargo was shackled in chains and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean "middle passage" to slavery in the Americas.1 The rule of the day necessitated that they learn "English" and "forsake" their native languages and dialects, hence no "African songs" remained in the culture...however a new African-American language emerged...which thoroughly enriched the American landscape as a whole. Work songs, spirituals, and the blues emerged as truly American forms of folk culture.
The shattering experience of slavery produced spirituals ... "the old slave songs which helped an ancient generation make it through life."2 These songs inspired a whole nation of African expatriates living in bondage in "the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave."3 Often these songs bespoke of trials and tribulations, but also were instrumental in guiding these wandering fugitives to freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. Another vehicle of soothing inspiration was the blues.
Out of the Delta Region of Mississippi came a young man who's legacy was to be a creation of a whole new style for the playing of the blues. A young man who was rumored, as claimed by Son House, to have "made a deal with the Devil." This man's name was Robert Johnson.4 He was later to have a major influence on the music from the delta and to become the "father" of the "Chicago Blues" sound. In assessing Robert Johnson's influence on later musicians we also have to turn to the so-called "Chicago Blues" sound. Artists such as "Muddy Waters" (McKinley Morganfield), "Howling Wolf" (Chester Burnett), and Elmore James all owe their styles to Robert Johnson. "Muddy" gives credit to Robert Johnson's recording of "Walkin' Blues" (1936)5 and "Son" House's guitar playing for the musical inspiration behind the song "Country Blues"(1941)6. He stated that he didn't know Robert personally but that he had learned a lot from his friend "Son."7 When "Muddy" moved his music and his style to Chicago where he added amplification, harmonica, horns, drums, and bass, etc., the "Chicago Blues" was born.8
The work song tradition was not "invented" by African-Americans, however in this "slave influenced" culture it reached new heights and invented "new heroes." Songs such as "Long John"9were the premier "hammer songs" of the railroad and chain gangs. In this song "Long John" is seen as somewhat of a "trickster"10 with his "heel in front and a heel behind"11 which led to confusing footprints and making him difficult to track. These "hammer songs" gave voice to another song and legend in the persona of "John Henry," and the popular African-American Ballad of the same name.12
Most African-American ballads, indeed most American ballads were penned, or "made up," between 1875 and 1900 [in fact I've had numerous African-American songsters tell me, in answer to my question of "When did you write this song?" that they didn't write it...but that they made it up, suggesting that there was NO pen OR pencil involved!].13
This phenomenon can be explained in a number of ways such as the end of Manifest Destiny and the "idea" of the "frontier," thereby recreating this "frontier" in song and legend. It could also be explained that the African-American ballad tradition only flourished after the Emancipation in the "Year of Jubilo" in 1865 [ten years hence].14
This era gave rise to such legends as Pecos Bill and the afore-mentioned John Henry.15 There were also real character legends such as Stagger Lee16, John Hardy17, Casey Jones, Jesse James18, "Wild Bill" Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, and "Buffalo Bill." Most of these "larger than life" characters took on "monumental" proportions and some elicited ballads about them.19
As we can see by this abbreviated tour through the many varied avenues of African-American folk culture...its "taproot" draws from, and is nourished by, many different aquifers. Each type of music has its story to tell and its song to sing, and America is all the more enriched because of it.