Digital History

The Huddled Masses

Music and Migration Previous Next
Digital History ID 3304



As they traveled from one environment to another, immigrant groups carried their musical traditions with them. These musical traditions included ceremonial music, folk music, work songs, dance music, instrumental music, and popular songs as well as distinctive forms of musical instrumentation.

The New World slaves, for example, created the banjo in the New World, modeled on earlier African musical instruments. West Africa had one of the most complex rhythmic cultures in the world, and in developing musical forms in the New World, African Americans made extensive use of rhythmic syncopation. This musical term refers to temporarily breaking the regular beat in a piece of music by stressing the weak beat and singing and embellishing around the beat. African Americans drew upon these earlier traditions to create music as diverse as the Spiritual (which blended together rhythmic and melodic gestures drawn from African music with white church music), Ragtime (which combined a syncopated melodic line with rhythms drawn from musical marches), the Blues (songs of lamentation which made extensive use of ambiguities of pitch), and Jazz (an amalgam of blues, ragtime, and Broadway musical forms).

Migration resulted in the creation of new musical hybrids, styles, and genres. The polka, a popular dance of the mid-19th century, represented an American adaptation of German tradition.

One of the earliest forms of commercial popular music was the minstrel song, which accompanied a popular form of 19th century theatrical entertainment. Minstrel songs represented an adaptation of earlier ethnic and popular musical traditions. The minstrel song--typified by Stephen Foster's Old Folk's At Home and his Camptown Race Track--drew its rhythm partly from the polka and its spicy syncopation from African and African American music.

In Latin America, the music of various ethnic groups blended together to form musical and dance forms that would become recognizable worldwide. Spanish, African, and various Indian musical traditions combined in intricate ways to form the tango, the cha-cha, the mamba, the rumba, and reggae.

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