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New Hybrids and Genres

Digital History TOPIC ID 46

Exciting new hybrids and new genres arose in the mid-nineteenth century. One of the first was the minstrel song which accompanied theatrical entertainment featured black-faced performers. Even African Americans who performed in minstrel shows were required to use black face. Minstrel songs were the first songs recognized internationally as distinctively American, and established a long tradition of American popular music with a worldwide following.

Characteristics of minstrel songs included the use of dialect, rhythmic vitality, simple harmonies, the use of syncopation, and the banjo. Minstrel songs were also associated with a particular dance of the period known as the cake walk. The most famous composer of minstrel songs was Stephen Foster. His "Camp Town Races" uses the same rhythm as a polka. In its use of syncopation, the minstrel songs drew upon African American traditions.

After the Civil War a new genre that arose was the Negro spiritual, a distinctive African American adaptation of white religious music. The rhythmic and melodic elements of the spirituals make this music very distinctive. Spiritual texts, such as "Go Down Moses," took on new meaning when they were sung by African Americans.

Both the minstrel song and the Negro spiritual helped give American music a distinctive identity.

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