African music has always influenced other musical genres.When slaves came to the Appalachian Mountain region from Africa, they brought over a lot of their traditions.Most of these traditions are shown frequently in the music world, especially in bluegrass music.
It is already known that the 4-string banjo originated from Africa, along with oral tradition. The first banjos were made with a gourd sound chamber. Five elements that compose a banjo include the sound chamber, head (vibrating membrane), neck, bridge, and the strings. The most important part is the bridge as it transmits sound from the strings to the head. However, early banjos from Africa did not have bridges. The strings on early banjos were made from “…silk to dried bird gut to horsehair to vine or twine” (Conway 169). In 1856, wire, along with fishing line were introduced to be use as strings. The chamber was made from any animals skin available, whether it was goat, horse, cow, raccoon, snake, etc. (170). Furthermore, the rims were made of either gourds or wood. Gourd rims came from Africa, while Europeans adapted the wooden rims. Wooden rims soon became popularly used because gourds were not easily accessible throughout the year in some regions and were very fragile (174). Soon after these changes, white Americans changed the number of strings to five. This change to five strings made the banjo the only original folk instrument in America (190).
Another African musical influence in bluegrass is the singer’s vocal traits. Bluegrass singers are of some distinction, but are very much like their African musical counterparts. Singers will wail, moan, and sometimes shout in the middle of a song to emphasize what they are feeling. The voice can be the most powerful element in a song. Most songs are sung in harmony, as in most black Baptist churches. Some groups, both black and white, will sing accapella tunes that give that eerie, lonesome feeling to the song. Sometimes one will not be able to follow the words, but become mesmerized by the vocal quality in the tune. The lead singer usually has a tenor singing voice and hit amazingly high notes. Bill Monroe was one of few that were able to “climb up from a pledging style in a middle register into a more forceful calling style at higher pitches” (Cantwell 212).
Many of the bluegrass tunes are derived from African music. Like jazz, bluegrass song arrangement is in the form of instrumental solo breaks and improvising throughout the tune. Bluegrass tunes are often in the form of a dance, very much like those in the African tradition. Clogging and flatfoot dancing is very much like the African tradition in tribal ritual dances. Both use rhythm of the music to move, and improvisation is often used in both traditional dancing styles. Work songs, such as “Nine Pound Hammer,” provided a driving rhythm in both worlds of white and black music. Ballads are often common between the two genres. Both would often tell a story about a particular event or period of time.
One of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s more popular ballad songs is “Pretty Polly.” In November 1997, Stanley was accompanied by Patty Loveless to sing the tune for the Clinch Mountain Country album. The song originated in the British Isles. According to Wayne Erbsen, “It was in the English town of Gosport that the gruesome murder of Pretty Polly took place. Originally entitled “The Gosport Tragedy,” the ballad has been collected as early as 1750 complete with twenty-seven verses. In some versions, Willie tries to escape on a ship but is haunted by Pretty Polly’s ghost. The first recording was in 1925 by Levi Stanley, a pseudonym of John Hammond. In recent years, Ralph Stanley has recorded an eerie version on Rebel records” (Erbsen 41).
How exactly does this song relate to the African music culture? First, it is in the form of a 12 bar blues, or AAB. The first line is repeated, with a third line that is different than the other two. In “Pretty Polly,” the third line has different words and melody. The third line is usually “spoken” compared to the lonesome singing in the first two lines. Furthermore, some of the words in the song are emphasized or stressed. The first and second word of the second line in each stanza is always emphasized. The last word of the second line and the third line are also stressed throughout the song. Emphasizing the lyrics helps give it that lonesome sound, making it appear as though the word is wailing with the fiddle or mandolin. Finally, Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless sing the song in a call and response form. In other words, Patty responds to what Ralph says. In the end of the song, they both harmonize the lines “Well he went down to the jailhouse and what did he say? He went to the jailhouse and what did he say? I’ve killed Pretty Polly and tried to get away” (“Pretty Polly”). The mountain lonesome sound from both performers made it one of the original classics.
African musical retentions are ever present in the world of Bluegrass music. As aforementioned, the banjo originated from Africa and was adapted in the United States, first by slaves and then by Whites. Musical styles such as harmony, call and response, and vocal stylistic features are demonstrated throughout bluegrass music in songs such as Ralph Stanley’s “Pretty Polly.” In a world of bluegrass music, where many assume there is no presence of Black culture, African musical retentions abound.
Cantwell, Robert.Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound.Chicago:University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Conway, Cecilia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Erbsen, Wayne. Backpocket Bluegrass Songbook. New York: Pembroke Music Co., 1981.
Jessica Blankenship is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website with over 20 years experience in music journalism, concert planning, photography, and promotion. Jessica is a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the 2019 Leadership Kentucky BRIGHT Class and a recipient of the Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award. Listen to her each week on WFKY on Friday mornings for the Nashville News Roundup.