The New International Encyclopædia/Negro Melodies

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NEGRO MELODIES. The music of the American negroes is essentially vocal. Their few musical instruments are of importance only for furnishing accompaniments to songs or for accenting the rhythm of the dance. During the last twenty years negro music has been steadily losing its distinctive features, owing to the tendency among the younger generation to discard everything which harks back to the days of slavery. The old plaintive melodies have been replaced largely by more modern comic and erotic songs which are cast in a nondescript Afric-European mode.

Negro songs may be divided into two general groups: those which show evidences of foreign origin, but which have been added to and changed until they are undeniably negro in character; and those which are the spontaneous expression of the negro's own feelings. The first group may be subdivided into (a) those derived from European songs and dances, and (b) those adapted from Baptist and Methodist hymns. The original negro songs, whose most typical element is a weird recitative, have undoubtedly an affinity with the musical forms used in Africa, but they have been greatly expanded both rhythmically and melodically. Though it is possible to make some such analysis of negro melodies, the most important feature, their interpretation, cannot be adequately described. Impromptu chords, notes, and accents are introduced, the whole blending into unusual forms with strikingly original melodies and motives. Strange to say, the time structure is excellent, and the tempo is universally exact. The tunes have as a rule a range of few notes, and, as in Africa, the major key predominates. In some songs both the major and minor keys are used. The weird effect produced by many of their cadences is not as a rule due to the use of the minor key so much as to the employment of the pentatonic scale, and the major scale with the flat seventh. A distinctive character of negro melodies is the ‘rhythmical snap’ which became such an overworked feature in ‘ragtime.’ See Folk-Music; Ragtime. Consult: Ritter, Music in America (New ed., New York, 1900); Edwards, Bahama Songs and Stories (New York, 1895); Marsh, The Story of the Jubilee Singers and Their Songs (Boston, 1880); and Trotter, Music, and Some Highly Musical People (ib., 1878).