Music and Song as Communication

This module will share how music and song were provided as a form of communication for African slaves in North America.

Music and Song Before the Middle Passage

Music and song were used as a form of communication and storytelling by African tribes before the Middle Passage for various occasions such as war, religious ceremonies and celebrations, births, and sometimes a request for help.

…the drums were “beat on the approach of an enemy,” and finally, “on some very extraordinary occasions,” that the drums summoned help from neighboring towns. – (Gleick p. 17)

African Drums
African Drums display at the Kura Hulanda Museum in Curacao

Image by JoAnna Niles 

Music & Song During Slavery

During the Middle Passage, instruments such as the banjo, various styles of drums, and more were either brought or recreated in the Americas. With restrictions to basic skills such as literacy, the use of instruments and oral song shared everyday struggles of slavery, the hope of freedom, and potential ways of escape.

Below are examples of music and song as communication in times of slavery

Songs of the Struggles of Slavery

Songs like “Motherless Child” shares the struggle of separating families during slave auctions.

Hope of Freedom

Because scripture was often used as “pro-slavery”, many songs like “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” showed slaves comparing their struggles with biblical characters with the hope of deliverance in the present life or reward in the afterlife.

Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery by JW Randolph
Excerpt from “Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery” by J.W. Randolph

Image by JoAnna Niles

Potential Ways of Escape from Slavery

Songs like “Wade in the Water” sometimes included “secret code”. This example was a for warning runaway slaves to flee by the water instead of dry land so the dogs chasing them couldn’t track their scent.

How Music & Song Impacts Society Today

Post slavery and reconstruction, genres like Negro Spirituals, jazz, and the blues were formed. Today music and song are still used as a form of communication and storytelling whether it shares political views, personal struggles, or accomplishments the listener can relate to in popular music we know today like Rock and Roll, Hip-Hop, and R&B.

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