The Music of African American History (2024)

Content Standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circ*mstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D4.1.9-12. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses.

NCSS.D4.3.9-12. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies (e.g., posters, essays, letters, debates, speeches, reports, and maps) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary).


  • Inform students that spirituals arose in the early 19th century among African American slaves who had been denied the opportunity to practice traditional African religions for more than a generation and had adopted Christianity. For the most part, slaves were prohibited from forming their own congregations, for fear that they would plot rebellion if allowed to meet on their own. Nonetheless, slaves throughout the South organized what has been called an "invisible institution" by meeting secretly, often at night, to worship together. It was at these meetings that preachers developed the rhythmic, engaging style distinctive of African American Christianity, and that worshippers developed the spiritual, mixing African performance traditions with hymns from the white churches.
  • Explain to students that scholars have long debated the extent of African influence on the spiritual, but that most now trace the "call and response" pattern in which they are typically performed to worship traditions in West Africa. This is a pattern of alternation between the voice of an individual and the voice of the congregation through which individual sorrows, hopes, and joys are shared by the community. In the performance of spirituals, in other words, slaves were able to create a religious refuge from their dehumanizing condition, affirming their humanity as individuals and their support for one another through an act of communal worship.
  • Spirituals also reflect the influence of slavery in their emphasis on traditional Christian themes of salvation, which in this context take on a double meaning. The worshippers sing of their journey toward spiritual freedom through faith, but the song also expresses their hope for physical freedom through God's grace. These two levels of meaning are especially clear in the many spirituals that recount God's deliverance of his chosen people in the Old Testament, in whom African American slaves saw a reflection of their own suffering.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. How spirituals developed

Provide students with background on the development of spirituals, referring to the posting on "African-American Spirituals" and the essay on "African-American Religion in the Nineteenth Century" at the National Humanities Center website. (For the posting, click "TeacherServe@" on the website's homepage, then click on the icon for "Divining America." From there, click "Getting Back to You" and select "African-American Spirituals" from the menu below. For the essay, click "19th Century" on the "Divining America" webpage, then click "African-American Religion.")

A text of what is probably the most widely known spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," is provided below. Have students notice the song's call-and-response pattern and reflect on the experience of emerging from the group in the solo lines (in italic) and then feeling the group affirm this individual "testimony" with its response.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

If you get there before I do,
Coming for to carry me home,
Tell all my friends I'm coming too,
Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

Analysis questions:

To what extent is this spiritual a song about escaping the physical conditions of slavery?
To what extent is it an expression of religious hope and faith?

Activity 2. Role spirituals played for fugitive slaves

Turn next to examine the role spirituals played for fugitive slaves, who sometimes used them as a secret code. This chapter in the history of the spiritual is best illustrated by several episodes in the life of Harriet Tubman as recounted in Harriet, the Moses of Her People, a 19th-century biography based on interviews with this most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, which is available through EDSITEment at the Documenting the American South website.

Have students read the account of Harriet's own escape from slavery (pages 26-28 in the electronic text), where she uses a spiritual to let her fellow slaves know about her secret plans:

When dat ar ole chariot comes,
I'm gwine to lebe you,
I'm boun' for de promised land,
Frien's, I'm gwine to lebe you.

I'm sorry, frien's, to lebe you,
Farewell ! oh, farewell!
But I'll meet you in de mornin',
Farewell! oh, farewell!

I'll meet you in de mornin',
When you reach de promised land;
On de oder side of Jordan,
For I'm boun' for de promised land.

Analysis questions:

  • What kind of leave-taking is this song about when it is performed as part of religious worship?
  • What is the figurative or coded meaning Harriet communicates to her friends through the song?
  • What is the relationship between these two levels of meaning?
  • How is Harriet's escape like a passing away from the viewpoint of those she will leave behind?
  • How does the song serve to create a bond that will connect her to her friends even after she is gone?

In a later episode (pages 37-38), when Harriet is guiding other slaves to freedom, she uses a spiritual to reassure them that they have eluded a pack of slave hunters:

Up and down the road she passes to see if the coast is clear, and then to make them certain that it is their leader who is coming, she breaks out into the plaintive strains of the song, forbidden to her people at the South, but which she and her followers delight to sing together:

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Oh Pharaoh said he would go cross,
Let my people go,
And don't get lost in de wilderness,
Let my people go.

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

You may hinder me here, but you can't up dere,
Let my people go,
He sits in de Hebben and answers prayer,
Let my people go!

Oh go down, Moses,
Way down into Egypt's land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Analysis questions:

  • How does this spiritual fits the circ*mstances of a narrow escape from slave hunters?
  • To what extent is it a signal and celebration of their escape?
  • To what extent a prayer of thanks for their escape?

Activity 3. Analyze Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have A Dream" speech

The use of spirituals not only in worship but also in the struggle for freedom is a tradition that continued in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As a last step in this survey of the spiritual in African American history, have students look at the conclusion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "I Have A Dream" speech, which is available through EDSITEment at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project website.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that -- let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi -- from every mountainside!

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Have students explain how Martin Luther King, Jr. uses the call-and-response cadences of the spiritual to build his speech. Have them comment also on the figurative meaning behind his literal listing of mountaintops in the United States. Have them note finally how he uses the community-building power of the spiritual to rally support for the Civil Rights Movement.

Analysis questions:

  • Who are members of the community that will respond to his call?
  • What binds them into a community? Shared experiences? Shared beliefs?
  • Explore, too, the part religion plays in this closing gesture of the speech. Is there a religious significance to the communal song Martin Luther King, Jr. envisions? Does he impart a religious dimension to the 1963 March on Washington that was the occasion for his speech? What is the faith he proclaims here to members of diverse religious denominations as a faith they all share?


Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Jackie Shane, Solomon Burke, The Staple Singers, and many more Black singers of the 20th century began their singing careers performing spirituals and gospel songs in their respective churches. These artists went on to bridge gospel, soul, blues, rock, funk, and R&B, thus showing the versatility of spirituals in Black history and culture. Rap and Hip Hop artists of the end of the 20th century and start of the 21st century, in addition to writing lyrics that draw upon history and that reflect social, political, and economic issues just as blues and jazz did during the 20th century, also sample from older songs, thus showing an inspiration as well as a rethinking of those songs.

Beyond analyzing the lyrics of a song to make simple connections within a time period when studying history, students can use digital technology and their inquiry skills to create original works that demonstrate their learning around a topic, era, or issue.

Digital Timeline: Students can construct a digital timeline based on an issue that permeates U.S. history beyond a single decade or era (i.e. civil rights, immigration, labor movements, voting rights, etc.) and pair a song of the era with the selected events. The timeline can identify key events related to the topic on top and a song produced at or around the time about that event below the timeline. Students can use their research and the songs they select to present opposing view points on the events they identify on timeline and construct a position that requires analysis and evaluation of the events and the songs included.

Storyboard: In addition to analyzing lyrics, students can use images, sounds, and video clips (when available) as part of a narrated response to a prompt or compelling question that combines multimedia and multiple text types. Storyboard platforms require students to plan what they will say, organize the images and other media in a sequence that articulates a coherent story or argument, and then produce that visual essay creatively using digital technology.

Making the Band:Digital technology platforms give students opportunities to create and record music. Students can write their own lyrics in a style of their choosing toaddressa compelling questionsince songs, as essays do, communicate a perspective on an issue. By creating a song, students will need to be familiar with the conventions of the genre, construct lyrics that they can explain the meaning of, and construct a song the same way they wouldan essay by having an opening, a chorus or refrain that reminds the listener what they are saying about the topic, and a closing.

DBQ essay: Just as students would use excerpts and quotes from speeches, newspapers, and other texts common to the writing of an essay, drawing upon song lyrics to articulate an argument in support of a thesis can also be done. The change over time lens suitable for a DBQ essay would provide students with an opportunity to analyze songs produced at different times or by different performers at a given time to engage in a comparison and evaluation of the point of views, motives, and intended audiences.

Each of the above activities illustrate that issues addressed in spirituals sung during the 18th and 19th century have not fully disappeared from U.S. society and no matter the time, social, political, and cultural issues are the subject of multiple musical genres.

Lesson Extensions

Reference Websites

The Music of African American History (2024)


The Music of African American History? ›

The blues form the foundation of contemporary American music

American music
The song "Hail, Columbia" was a major work that remained an unofficial national anthem until the adoption of "The Star-Spangled Banner". Much of this early American music still survives in Sacred Harp. › wiki › Music_of_the_United_States
. As did sacred and folk music, the blues also greatly influenced the cultural and social lives of African Americans. Geographically diverse incarnations of the blues arose in various regions, including the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, Southern Texas.

What is the music of black Americans a history summary? ›

This text provides comprehensive coverage of black American music, from the arrival of the first Africans in the English colonies to contemporary developments in African-American history. The book draws on authentic documents, from colonial times to the present, to illuminate the history of black music.

What is the traditional black American music called? ›

The term "rhythm and blues," often called "R&B," originated in the 1940s when it replaced "race music" as a general marketing term for all African American music, though it usually referred only to secular, not religious music.

How did African music influence American music? ›

Musical traditions from Africa influenced music in the United States, too. Jazz music, blues music, and gospel music all grew from African roots. Spirituals, work calls, and chants coupled with makeshift instruments morphed into blues rhythms and ragtime.

What kind of music was important to African American culture at the beginning of the 1900s? ›

In the early twentieth century, blues and jazz musicians provided entertainment and dance music for much of America. Each innovation in African American popular music has been influenced by what came before.

What is African American music summary? ›

African-American music is a broad term covering a diverse range of musical genres largely developed by African Americans and their culture. Its origins are in musical forms that developed as a result of the enslavement of African Americans prior to the American Civil War.

Why is black history music important? ›

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.

What is the root of African American music? ›

The music of African Americans can be traced back to the days of slavery. In the fields as slaves were working you could hear them singing songs to pass the time. These songs were a way for them to share their life stories.

What kind of music did slaves play? ›

Although the Negro spirituals are the best known form of slave music, in fact secular music was as common as sacred music. There were field hollers, sung by individuals, work songs, sung by groups of laborers, and satirical songs.

How did black music change the world? ›

Since its earliest stages, African American music has brought a sense of community and urge for social change with its melodies. It continues to do so as artists continue exploring and creating, making way for new waves of music and oftentimes aligning with new social movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Who is a famous black singer? ›

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Led Belly, B.B. King, Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson. That should just about cover every major musical genre from the last 150 years or so. And what all of those artists have in common is that they are African American.

Where did African music originate? ›

The origins of African music can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Nubia. In these societies, music served not only as a form of expression but also played a crucial role in religious rituals and ceremonies.

What are the 8 characteristics of African music? ›

There are eight characteristics that define African music: Polyrhythms, ostinato, the use of percussion, background shimmer, close connection with the music and language, participatory nature of the arts, a close connection with the performing arts, responsorial form.

What music was invented by African Americans? ›

Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Rhthym and Blues, Rock and Roll, Hip Hop…pretty much all came from Black Americans, and was initially popularized by their community before catching on to White audiences. Did African-Americans create all musical art forms in America?

What was the first black song? ›

"The Laughing Song" was number one for ten weeks from April to June 1891, while "The Whistling Coon" was number one for five weeks in July and August 1891. Johnson was the first African American to appear on the pop chart, and his song on the chart was the first to have been written by an African American.

What was the first African American musical? ›

Shuffle Along marked the first full-fledged Broadway musical with an all-black cast, playwright, composer and lyricist.

What is African American summary? ›

African Americans are largely the descendants of enslaved people who were brought from their African homelands by force to work in the New World. Their rights were severely limited, and they were long denied a rightful share in the economic, social, and political progress of the United States.

What is American music history? ›

Music history of the United States includes many styles of folk, popular and classical music. Some of the best-known genres of American music are rhythm and blues, jazz, rock and roll, rock, soul, hip hop, pop, and country. The history began with the Native Americans, the first people to populate North America.

What was the primary purpose of black American work songs? ›

Work songs helped to pass down information about the lived experience of enslaved people to their communities and families. A common feature of African-American songs was the call-and-response format, where a leader would sing a verse or verses and the others would respond with a chorus.

What are the roots of black American music? ›

One musical genre that has roots back to the days of slavery is gospel music. As slaves became Christians, a religion forced upon them, they began singing hymns later termed spirituals. These spirituals later evolved into gospel music. With the abolition of slavery, a new form of music began to emerge.

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