Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry

Article excerpt

Over the past ten years, black scholars in the field of English literature have identified a black literary tradition and developed critical strategies for studying that tradition from within black culture. And black historians have also been writing black history and American history from a black perspective. In the field of history, their works include Sterling Stuckey's Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987) and Mary Berry's and John Blassingame's Long Memory: The Black Experience in America (1982), and in literary criticism, Houston Baker's Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984) and Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) and Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988). By taking an insider's view of black cultural and literary traditions, these books offer insights that cannot be achieved through more conventional means. The success of an Afrocentric perspective in these fields invites black music scholarship to move beyond the standard approaches of musicology and ethnomusicology, by learning from the theoretical insights of black historians and literary scholars and applying that knowledge to the study of black music.

For a glimpse of what existing theories of Afro-American history and letters offer to black music scholars, I will examine the hypothesis of Stuckey and the theory of Gates with musical implications in mind. In doing so, I will use Stuckey and Gates to read black music, Stuckey to read Gates, and Gates to read Stuckey, while recognizing that although literature, history, and music are all different things, certain aspects of black experience may be seen as common to all three.

What I will propose here is a mode of inquiry that is consistent with the nature of black music, that is grounded in black music, and that is more appropriate than other, existing modes for the perception, study, and evaluation of black musical products.

The Ring Shout: The Foundation of Afro-American Music

One of the central tenets of Stuckey's Slave Culture is that "the ring shout was the main context in which Africans recognized values common to them--the values of ancestor worship and contact, communication and teaching through storytelling and trickster expressions, and of various other symbolic devices. Those values were remarkable because, while of ancient African provenance, they were fertile seed for the bloom of new forms" (Stuckey 1987, 16).

The shout was an early Negro "holy dance" in which "the circling about in a circle is the prime essential" (Gordon 1981, 447). From contemporaneous descriptions of the shout we learn that the participants stood in a ring and began to walk around it in a shuffle, with the feet keeping in contact with or close proximity to the floor, and that there were "jerking," "hitching" motions, particularly in the shoulders. These movements were usually accompanied by a spiritual, sung by lead singers, "based" by others in the group (probably with some kind of responsorial device and by hand-clapping and knee-slapping). The "thud" of the basic rhythm was continuous, without pause or hesitation. And the singing that took place in the shout made use of interjections of various kinds, elisions, blue-notes, and call-and-response devices, with the sound of the feet against the floor serving as an accompanying device. (1)

The shout has been identified as an African survival by Courlander (1963). The earliest on record in the United States dates from 1845 (Epstein 1977, 232), but the practice in this country clearly antedates that record. As Epstein, Courlander, and numerous other scholars have shown, all ring shouts had essentially the same elements, with variations manifesting themselves here and there depending on locale and other factors.

From all accounts, the shout was an activity in which music and dance commingled, merged, and fused to become a single distinctive cultural ritual in which the slaves made music and derived their musical styles. …