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African American Music Essay

1240 words - 5 pages

In the works An Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison, both stories include the topics about music from the African-American perspective. Although both works are quite different, there are some similarities between the stories. An Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Slave Songs of the United States both show the difficulty of an outsider trying to transcribe music from a somewhat “unknown” and challenging perspective. Although they are similar in this aspect, their plans, understanding of the music, and musicking experience greatly differ from each other.
An Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man tells the story of a man’s journey living as a biracial person in the time of legal racial segregation in the United States. The novel not only describes the life of the narrator, but also emphasizes his journey into becoming a proficient pianist. The story describes his upbringing, family history, and adulthood experiences. As a child, the narrator was not aware of the concept of race. This, in a sense, led him on a journey of discovering African-American culture. Growing up in a privileged household, he wasn’t aware of the typical African-American’s experience. As a child, he thought he was “white”. For example, he talks about one occasion where his elementary school teacher asked, “’I wish all of the white scholars to stand for a moment (11).’” Since the narrator was not aware of his race, he stood up with his white classmates. This experience led him on the road to discovery of race, racial segregation, and the differences between white and African-American people. This journey brought him to the South and to the discovery of African-American religious music.
Slave Songs of the United States discusses the history of songs created by those who were enslaved. It also discusses the difficulty of trying to record and recreate these songs. The authors mention, “The musical capacity of the negro race has been recognized for so many years that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has been made to collect and preserve their melodies” (i). Because the music of slaves was not a priority to record and preserve, it is difficult to fully recreate these songs. The authors even admit that, “The best that we can do with paper and types is convey a faint shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate…” (iv). Another challenge of recreating slave songs is the aspect of experience. The music meant something completely different to those that were enslaved compared to a modern listener. Because of this, the original meanings of the songs can also greatly differ if they are altered by someone who did not share similar experiences. The loss of meaning in African-American music is a theme not only present in Slave Songs of the United States, but in An Autobiography of an...

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