African American Influences

Updated: February 22, 2011

African American musical tradition has all influenced all American music, including that of Appalachia.

African American musical tradition, characterized by riffs, polyrhythms, and call-and-response structure, has influenced all American music, including that of Appalachia. In contrast to the conservative continuity of European musical traditions (particularly old-world balladry) in the region, the African American aesthetic within Appalachia has accentuated improvisation, encouraging musical and verbal dexterity and variation.

Historically, African culture considered both sacred and secular music as fundamental to spiritual expression and everyday life. Two major African musical traditions arrived early in America: group singing and drumming came from tropical rainforests of West Africa, and the instrumental tradition of the griots (storytellers of Africa who reminded fellow villagers of their history and traditions) emerged from the savannah grasslands. Africans in America had to negotiate among themselves many African dialects and languages as well as learn English. Living in shanties, these various peoples began to exchange repertoires. Accustomed to the mouth bow and bowed harp in Africa, these newcomers adopted the fiddle and entertained both themselves and whites, playing their own melodies as well as European tunes. The bluesy fiddle style that black fiddlers created still persists in Appalachia.

When collectors, almost all of whom were white, first traveled through the southeastern United States (including parts of Appalachia) to document African American music, they concentrated on vocal music, which was less challenging to transcribe than instrumental music. Collectors were most interested in black spirituals but also documented some African American field hollers and work songs, the latter featuring call-and-response improvisation.

No music has been more influential in the region than the singing, dancing, and music surrounding the banjo, still often considered an Appalachian icon. By 1740, enslaved musicians from West Africa had brought to the New World some percussion instruments as well as a plucked lute with a hide-covered gourd sound chamber and several strings, including the short, thumb drone. Blacks were playing this banjar for white frontiersmen in Appalachia by 1800. Interaction between African American banjar players and white musicians resulted in the invention of the wooden-rim, five-string banjo, the genre of banjo songs, and blackface minstrelsy. Several twentieth-century banjo styles reflected African traditions, especially various clawhammer techniques.

African American music was transformed when, in the early years of the twentieth century, guitars became readily available and affordable via mail-order catalogs. Transferring stylistic elements from the banjo to this newly adopted instrument, black musicians performed the recently emerged genre known as the blues, initially as solo vocalists with their own guitar accompaniment and, in later years, in combination with other singers and instrumentalists. White musicians in Appalachia had been  influenced by black music long before the introduction of recorded sound technology; several major country music stars from Appalachia, including Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Hank Williams Sr., learned songs and stylistic technique from African American musicians. Other music genres associated with Appalachia—such as string-band music, bluegrass, and rock ’n’ roll—also reflect the influence of black music.

Cecelia Conway, African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions (1995);

Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks, Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem (1993);

Newman Ivey White et al., eds., The Frank C. Brown Collecion of North Carolina Folklore (1952–1964).


Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"African American Influences," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <>

APA Style

"African American Influences." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia:

Howard Armstrong