The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States

By Brooks, Christopher | Notes, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States


Brooks, Christopher, Notes


The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. By Samuel Floyd, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. [316 p. ISBN 0-19-508235-4. $30.00.]

The argument that Samuel Floyd makes in The Power of Black Music demands serious consideration, especially by specialists. For those of us who have taught African-American music surveys or specialized seminars in the area, the book offers and affirms many ideas, challenges old assumptions, and suggests new approaches to existing ideas. It is well researched and draws on many sources, both printed and recorded, to support the argument.

With regard to the assumptions, Floyd takes the position that:

  African musical traits and cultural practices not only survived but
  played a major role in the development and elaboration of
  African-American music. The debate and interpretations surrounding
  the theories of survivalism, syncretism, and non-survivalism-posited
  by Herskovits (1947), Waterman (1948, 1952), and Jackson (1933,
  1943), respectively--are not relevant to this study. (P. 5)

Given that the above-mentioned studies have become "classics" in the discourse of the African diaspora, Floyd's statement, by downplaying (hem (if not dismissing them) right at the outset of the hook, should strongly suggest to readers that they are being taken to uncharted musk historical waters. For his theoretical framework, Floyd relies on Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and Sterling Stuckey, Stave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Floyd identifies several paradigms that have been an intrinsic part of the African-American musical experience. Among them are the ring or ring shout (taken from Stuckey's Slave Culture) found on both the African continent and throughout the history of African-American music-making. Other paradigms include, call-and-response--the ubiquitous performance practice--a cultural memory that can manifest itself in a variety of ways consciously or unconsciously; dance, drum, and song; mythology, and the ever-popular (and complex) Yoruba trickster deity, Esu. The ring, which in the African context symbolizes continuity of life (dating back to ancient Egyptian symbolism) manifests itself in community circle dances and other religious and secular events on both the African continent and in African-American culture. Within the African-American musical context, Floyd identifies multiple manifestations and citings of the ring phenomenon from stylized vocalities such as ululations, screams, shouts, moans, and hums found in spirituals and subsequent African-American musical genres, to the jazz funerals throughout the South (best known in New Orleans), to the 1949 popular song and dance of saxophonist Paul Williams, the "Hucklebuck" among others.

The call-and-response phenomenon is found within numerous instrumental (e. …

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