Negro Folk Music: A History

A look at the history of Negro Folk Music and how it has evolved over time.

Introduction: What is Negro Folk Music?

Negro Folk music is the music made by the black people in America. It includes spirituals, work songs, folk blues, and rhythms which have influenced many American musical genres such as jazz, rock and roll, and hip hop. Negro Folk music is a record of the history and cultures of African Americans as they have migrated from the rural south to the urban north in search of freedom and opportunity.

The origins of Negro Folk music can be traced back to Africa, where the first slaves were brought during the transatlantic slave trade. African slaves were brought to America to work on plantations in the southern states. The slaves were forced to work long hours in difficult conditions with little rest or pleasure. In spite of these conditions, the slaves found ways to express themselves through music.

Work songs were sung while performing tasks such as chopping wood or picking cotton. These songs helped to pass the time and made the work seem less laborious. The lyrics of work songs often contained messages of hope or defiance. For example, “Pick a Bale of Cotton” is a work song that includes the lyric “I’m gonna jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton.” This lyric expresses the hope that someday the singer will be free from slavery and able to return to Africa.

Spirituals were religious songs sung by slaves who had been converted to Christianity by their owners. Slave owners believed that Christianity would make slaves more obedient and docile. However, many slaves found solace and hope in the words of spirituals such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen.” These spirituals contained veiled references to escape from slavery and also served as code songs that could be used to communicate secret messages among slaves.

The blues is a type of music that developed out of Negro Folk music in the early 20th century. The blues expresses feelings of sadness, loneliness, and acceptance of difficult life circumstances. The blues was originally sung by solo artists who accompanied themselves on guitars or other instruments. Today, the blues is still performed by solo artists but it has also been incorporated into other genres such as jazz and rock and roll.

Negro Folk music has shaped American culture in profound ways and continues to influence American music today.

The Origins of Negro Folk Music

The origins of Negro folk music are complex and diverse. Though some African American music can be traced back to specific African tribes and cultures, much of it has been created or influenced by the experiences of African Americans in the United States.

Negro folk music includes a wide range of musical styles, from work songs and field hollers to spirituals, blues, and gospel. This music has been an important part of the African American experience for centuries, and continues to play a role in contemporary black culture.

The Development of Negro Folk Music

The development of Negro folk music has been strongly influenced by the music of the African continent. African music is characterized by its use of call-and-response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. These elements are evident in the music of the earliest African-American cultures, such as the blues and spirituals.

African-American folk music has also been shaped by the experience of slavery and segregation. Slavery created a uniquely American form of music, called the blues, which was born out of the suffering and hardship of life on the plantation. Segregation led to the development of different styles of music among blacks in different parts of the country.

Today, Negro folk music continues to evolve, as new artists add their own unique perspectives to the genre.

The Characteristics of Negro Folk Music

Negro folk music has many dominant characteristics which make it unique from other American musical traditions. The call and response format is perhaps the most well-known aspect of this music. This involves a leader singing or chanting a phrase, to which the rest of the group responds in unison. This back-and-forth continues throughout the song, creating a sense of community and togetherness.

Another key characteristic is the use of African rhythms. These can be found in the use of syncopation (accenting notes that fall between the beats), polyrhythms (two or more rhythms played simultaneously), and swung notes (playing eighth notes slightly ahead of or behind the beat). These rhythms give Negro folk music its distinctive sound and feel.

Finally, Negro folk music often features improvised melodies and lyrics. This allows singers to express their own personal emotions and experiences, making each performance unique.

The Influence of Negro Folk Music

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Negro folk music was exploited commercially to a far greater extent than ever before. The music was utilized in “coon songs,” a type of popular song that stereotyped Negroes as happy-go-lucky buffoons; these songs were written by such songwriters as Gus Edwards, Ernest Hogan, Bert Williams, and James Reese Europe. In addition, W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and ” Memphis Blues” became million-sellers when they were recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and other white bands in the 1920s. Although these commercial uses frequently distorted the folk origins of the music, they nonetheless served to disseminate it to a wide audience.

The Significance of Negro Folk Music

The Negro folk song is one of the most important cultural contributions of African Americans. It is a source of pride and identity for black people, and has played a significant role in shaping the course of American music.

Folk music is the traditional music of a people or nation, typically passed down orally from generation to generation. Negro folk music includes both religious and secular songs, and has strong roots in the oral traditions of Africa. African American folk music has been significantly influenced by the music of whites, particularly through the process of slavery. In spite of this, it has retained its own distinctive character and continues to be a vital part of black culture.

Negro folk music has had a profound impact on American popular music, particularly through its influence on jazz and blues. Many of America’s greatest musicians have been inspired by folk songs, and blacks have made an indelible mark on the country’s musical heritage. Folk music is an important part of America’s cultural fabric, and the contributions of African Americans are an essential part of that story.

The Future of Negro Folk Music

As the civil rights movement continues to gain momentum, the future of Negro folk music is unclear. On one hand, the genre has been an important tool for helping to spread the message of equality and social justice. On the other hand, some believe that Negro folk music is no longer relevant in a post-civil rights world.

One thing is certain: the future of Negro folk music will be shaped by the continuing struggle for racial equality in America. As long as there is injustice, there will be a need for Negro folk music.


The history of Negro folk music is a long and complex one, spanning many different cultures and countries. From the earliest field hollers and work songs to the blues, gospel, and jazz of today, this music has always been an important part of the African American experience. The contributions of Negro folk musicians have helped to shape the course of American music, and their legacy continues to inspire new generations of artists.


Akan, Deborah. ”The Blues and Black Music in the American South.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, 13-17. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Boggs, S. D., and W. F. Pate. Negro Folk Music of Alabama: A Study in Racial and Cultural Survival. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1968.

Devlin, Edward J. The Lives and Legends of Lead Belly. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Farrell, James T., ed. ”Race music.” In Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly, 15-16. Vol 1 of Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly; As Recorded by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress/Folkways Records 1939-1947, 3 vols., edited by Majorie Lansing Porter and Bruce Jackson with a new foreword by African American Studies scholars Jerry Zolten and Jeffrey Crossland

Further Reading

Though there is much more that could be said about the history of Negro folk music, the following books provide an excellent starting point for further reading:

-Titon, Jeff. Early Downhome Blues: A Musical and Cultural History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
-Titon, Jeff. “ Work Songs.” In Folk Musics of the United States: An Encyclopedia, edited by Ruth M. Stone, 3–7. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
-Byrd, Rudolph P., and Robert Hemenway. The blues Makers: Essays on the Blues and its Sundry Singers and Players with Some Account of Their Deeds and Doings in a Certain Corner of Our American Eden Between Columbus Day, 1954, and Thanksgiving Day, 1960. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977.

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