Section from chapter 1895-1905: The Ragtime Era Begins   [ return to introduction ]

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By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
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William Aiken Walker’s painting Plantation Economy in the Old South (c. 1876) presents a typical scene on a cotton plantation, and seems to suggest that, even after the Civil War, life in America’s Deep South carried on much as before. Walker was born in Charleston, South Carolina, which later gave its name to the most famous jazz composition of the 1920s (• p. 58). [ view larger image ] (Courtesy The Warner Collection of Gulf States Paper Corporation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
Plantation Roots

Hundreds of thousands of African slaves were relocated to North America between the sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, torn away from their tribal homes by European traders. Although the importation of slaves to America became illegal in 1808, domestic slavery continued to flourish in the southern states until Abraham Lincoln became President. He forced the issue, and the bloody four-year Civil War between the industrialized northern states and the secessionist southern confederacy began in 1861. Slavery was finally abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. If freed slaves rejoiced at the news, their elation would prove short-lived: severe problems rooted in violent racism and strict segregation continued to blight black Americans for me than a century afterward.

In the popular imagination, jazz was born directly out of the hardships and repression of slavery and emancipation. Slaves had from the earliest years been systematically deprived of their cultural heritage, including their rich African musical traditions. On the cotton and rice plantations of the Deep South, slaves were forbidden to touch any musical instruments that might be used for secret communication, including drums or loud wind instruments. However, resourceful musicians produced home-made instruments such as the banjo, which was based on a type of West African lyre. Although slaves from the same tribe were split up and dispersed to weaken their morale, African workers from disparate backgrounds soon forged a common musical language through work songs and field hollers.

Unaccountably anxious to please their masters, many slaves began to learn European musical styles and became proficient on Western instruments, such as the violin, in order to perform popular white dance music. When white entertainers began imitating what they saw as quaint black music-making (their faces duly blackened with burnt cork or boot polish), the minstrel show was born. After emancipation, many black musicians–including early jazz practitioners–started their careers in minstrelsy. Other genres that arose from black music-making and proved influential on the development of early jazz included religious music based on European hymns (spirituals, latter supplanted by gospel) and the secular blues (• p. 27).