Southern Appalachian mountain music has transcended time and location, standing as a root to many music genres, such as the blues, jazz, bluegrass, country, gospel, and American folk. It is a fusion of culture that has crossed borders of geography, race, and class, reminding us that music is just as mobile as the people are who create it and listen to it. Beginning with a narrative of forced migration and slavery, the musical practices of African Americans have significantly contributed to the Southern Appalachian musical sound that is heard in the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas. The African American Experience Project is highlighting this crucial, but often overlooked, African American cultural contribution while also emphasizing the historical presence of African Americans in the region.
Memory, Instruments, and Slavery (16th -19th centuries)
African American culture, including its musical practices, began on slave ships where diverse West African ethnicities and sounds were forced to collide in order to survive. Various songs, languages, and cultures traveled within the memories of captured Africans as their chained bodies were transported as cargo across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. On this violent journey, the captives were sometimes brought up from the confined storage spaces of the ship and were required to dance and sing for exercise on the ship’s deck so that they would be healthy for profit on American slave markets. This led to the development of cultural kinships, as languages, music, dance practices, and religious beliefs were shared amongst the captives. Once they arrived on American shores, enslaved Africans used the various cultural practices of their homelands to create a new and vibrant African American culture that was born in bondage. They went on to create and contribute to so much of what is considered American culture and music, including Southern Appalachian mountain music. Within the memories of captured Africans there also traveled the sound and construction of over sixty long necked West African gourd instruments, such as the ankonting, ngoni, and xalam to name a few. Gourds are oddly shaped fruits with thick shells that are used as the body of these instruments. The gourd instruments later evolved into what is now the banjo. Enslaved Africans’ distinct style of down stroke banjo picking, which is known as “clawhammer”, was popularized on plantations and established the unique Southern Appalachian banjo sound that is heard today.
With fast down stroking fingers, dust kicking feet, and soft scratching fiddling, enslaved African musicians created tunes that became a standard musical sound across the Antebellum South. They were often required to perform to entertain whites on plantations and would also be sent by their owners to travel to other plantations or social events as entertainment, further spreading musical Africanisms across the American South. Due to the mountainous terrains and weather conditions, slavery was less widespread in the southern mountains than in the Deep South because the environment was not suitable for profitable crops. However, slavery was still very present in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. This resulted in closer interactions between whites and Blacks in areas like the Great Smokies. While there was still a societal racial imbalance, these close interactions created the rich intercultural nature of Southern Appalachian music which combined African, European, and Native American musical practices.
Post-Civil War and the Great Migration (late 19th – mid 20th century)
Minstrel shows became extremely popular nationally and globally during the post-Civil War era of the late 19th century. Minstrelsy was a form of theatrical entertainment that portrayed racist stereotypes of African Americans that were rooted in the history of slavery. White actors would apply black colored makeup to their faces and red paste on and around their mouths to create large, exaggerated lips to mock African features. This is called ‘black face’, a clown like mask used to negatively portray African Americans as they were seen in the eye of white society.
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Last updated: May 26, 2021