NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared that June would be designated Black Music Month. It’s unique to think about all of the wonderful things that people have contributed to this great country. African Americans have certainly had a strong hand at helping America gift the world modern music.
In the 1860’s as the civil war was to smolder and the light of reconstruction would take hold, Union soldiers were entering the greater New Orleans area. Everything was new and different for these young men in a foreign terrain. The Historic New Orleans Collection has letters from soldiers who were inspired to write about their experiences in Cajun country. Eric Seiferth is a curator historian at the Historic New Orleans Collection and also a brilliant mind in American History, especially when it comes to jazz and civil rights. He says that letters are uniquely enjoyable for historians because it’s the closest thing to having an intimate conversation with the past.
In 1864, a particular soldier wrote about his experience attending a black spiritualist church service outside of New Orleans. The soldier would hear the tradition of call and response used outside of a slavery setting, and see an early snapshot into one of the early ingredients of gospel and jazz music. As distinct as both forms of music are, they are so more or less the same.
Melissa Weber is Curator at the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University Special Collections and knows just about everything there is to know about music. She says, “with the rise of spiritual churches and black protestant churches, these services in their music, embraced African traits and less European ones. The hymns were repurposed showing call and response.”
In 1864 there was a city-wide procession celebration of emancipation that consisted of free creoles and people of color and the recently former enslaved. The Historic New Orleans Collection has documentation of what could be an early parade route, along with a lyrics sheet of music, for the participants to enjoy.
“So you have these musical processions broken down by musical divisions, with stops. These are elements we would see later on in second lines. This would have been a unique moment for black New Orleanians to come together and walk through the streets across the city.”
Part of the emancipation jubilee included Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, this is unique because out of these organizations, would come true second lines decades later. The procession of 1864 wasn’t exactly a second line, but a step in that direction and also a step towards the overall direction of jazz. In the 1890’s the fusion of creole music theory and musicality, along with the spirituality and rhythm of West-African descended slaves, would birth jazz music on the southern soil of the United States.
During this time in the country, brass bands were becoming ever popular and New Orleans were no different. They certainly didn’t play the dixie land styles we know of today, but the instrumentation was very familiar and would evolve over the years to what we know and love today.
Black Music Month is a time to reflect on how we as Americans have always included music as our story. Eric says, “we think of the front line, with the clarinet or cornet, trumpet or trombone, they are all dancing around the melody. They are expressing it in a way that is meaningful to them and that comes out of the ring shouts from these rural African-American churches.”
The world is definitely a much more audibly palatable place because of the contributions of Black Americans. Their concepts would become an American legacy and in the 1940’s and 1950’s America would share the gift of jazz abroad.
To learn more about the story of music in New Orleans, click here to experience a virtual exibition of music at the Historic New Orleans Collection.