It is not an easy task for ethnomusicologists to determine the root or origin of American folk music. American folk music history would not be complete without the music of indigenous cultures such as Native American tribes.
The rich gospel music culture of African-American slaves and the hymns of the Puritans must also be considered. The English and French definitely influenced American folk music, and as the country expanded west, the music of Spain and Mexico also came into play. Caribbean influences eventually led to modern jazz and Cajun music. Ethnomusicology, the study of ethnic music and its history, takes all of these influences into consideration.
Cajun and Tejano Music as Indigenous Cultures
The U.S. has, from its inception, been a “melting pot” of people from all over the world. As people migrated to America to seek opportunity and freedom from oppression, they brought their music with them. Regional folk music developed as a result. Protestant French-speaking Acadians who were exiled from Catholic-dominated Canadian Nova Scotia sailed to New Orleans for religious freedom, mingling with the people living in the area. From these populations came the popular Cajun, zydeco, and jazz music styles.
Spanish influences played heavily into the regional music of the Southwest. Spanish missionaries introduced their music to the area as early as 1690, but massive immigration to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1921 deeply influenced the culture along the southern U.S. border. One popular style of “border” music is Tejano. Tejano music is sung in Spanish, blending Mexican mariachi music with country and western.
Native American and African American in American Folk Music History
Indigenous music is a very important part of American culture and history, but is too often overlooked. One source of indigenous music belongs to Native American tribes. The tribal chants, dances and drumming of the Native Americans add great color and influence to the pages of American history textbooks.
One interesting study is the music of the Delaware tribe. The Delaware were among the first indigenous people to greet the “white men,” namely, the Puritans. Delaware chants sound very much like hymns, which suggests that these two cultures were in close contact with each other. Likewise, the music of the Navajo and Pueblo tribes has a somewhat Spanish flavor, due to the influence of early Spanish missionaries.
African-American folk music also played a very significant part in the development of truly American music. Borne out of the constant oppression of human slavery, “spirituals” were sung in the plantation fields and deplorable work spaces to console one another. These spirituals are some of the most beautiful songs ever to come out of an American heart. From the deeply religious overtones of the African-American culture has sprung a joyful celebration of freedom known as African gospel music.