Black, White, Black

Write to us at editor@westenglandbylines.co.uk

Billie Holliday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ – Source: Author

Martin Griffiths looks at the impact of history on language transference and music.

A 1986 BBC TV series and subsequent book, “The Story of English” (McCrum, Cran and MacNeil) says that:

“‘Black English’ [or African-American Vernacular English] is the product of one of the most infamous episodes in the history of our civilization.”

The cruel process, which brought Africa into collision with Europe and ultimately enriched both the English language and the history of music, started many of its journeys in British ports such as Bristol and Liverpool.

At the height of the slave trade, people from the hinterland of what are now Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast would have spoken their local languages such as Hausa, Wolof and Bulu. The first English they heard was probably on the slave ships where a pidgin language developed forming the basis for a slave ‘lingua franca’. This mélange included English, French and Portuguese. In Sierra Leone, ‘Oporto’ is still used to describe a ‘white man’.

In various parts of the Caribbean and America these languages further merged while also taking different paths. Some became established creoles such as Gullah on the islands off the South Carolina coast while in the Southern states of America a variation developed. Over a period of two hundred and fifty years slavery made it’s own traditions of speech and vocabulary. A Plantation Creole was created, combining native African languages, with the slave ship’s pidgin alongside English. Expressions such as ‘slave driver’ and ‘To sell down the river’ come from the plantations. By the nineteenth century Daniel Webster Davis was using this creole to write poems such as,

O, de birds ar’ sweetly singin’,
‘Wey down Souf.

An’ de banjer is a-ringin’, 
‘Wey down Souf;

An’ my heart it is a-sighin’,
Whil’ de moments am a-flyin’

Fur my hom’ I am a-cryin’,
‘Wey down Souf.

This Black English continued to enter mainstream American life through writing such as Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit stories, which took significant inspiration from the West African cultural heritage. Speech patterns, accent and vocabulary amongst the white population were also influenced and changed by Plantation Creole and Black English, as it was the language of work in the fields and many a white child was raised by a black nanny. That the accent of the southern states of America is influenced by Plantation Creole seems an extraordinary irony.

Although the gains of the American Civil War were later cruelly mitigated by the ‘Jim Crow laws’, increasing numbers of former plantation slaves moved to the northern states. They took both Black English speech and musical ideas with them, especially to the clubs of Chicago and New York, thence across to Europe and the clubs of London and Paris where performers such as Josephine Baker were sensationally popular.

In music, this language transference has given us ‘Jazz’, ‘The Blues’ and ‘Rock and Roll’; in dance, the ‘jitterbug’ and ‘break dancing’ and in slang, ‘jive talk’ ‘hip’ and ‘heavy’. Also, a multitude of Jazz and Blues performers started to find a wider audience and Harlem in the 1920s underwent a cultural renaissance, symbolized by the work of the poet Langston Hughes. Meanwhile, black musicians such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were successfully expressing their own narratives through their music and developed strong followings,. However, initially, black people were unable to patronize places such as New York’s The Cotton Club, which sometimes reproduced the racist imagery of the era, often depicting black people as savages in exotic jungles.

Despite the on-going racism, black music, with so much of it’s origins found in spirituals, continued to develop, while often maintaining a tradition in the songs of double meanings and coded messages. Jazz (meaning ‘to speed up’) is believed to have a West African origin and arrived in Europe via World War One ‘dough boys’ while within the Jazz vocabulary the hidden expressions for sex included ‘cake’, ‘pie’ and especially ‘jelly roll’ taken from the African language Mandingo where ‘Jeli’ is a minstrel who has success with women.

In slang terms, although ‘Rock and Roll’ was closely associated with having sex the term was extensively adopted initially by White American radio and is now in widespread use. The process of ‘cleaning up’ the language within black music continued with performers such as Little Richard and his song Tutti Frutti (‘Tutti frutti, good booty’ etc.). Suitably doctored this song was recorded by Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, both of whom out sold Little Richard!

Meanwhile, white musicians such as George Gershwin immersed himself in the culture of Gullah-speakers to give us Porgy and Bess, an opera full of the sounds of black music, rhythms and English.

Summertime an’ the livin’ is easy,
Fish are jumpin’ an’ the cotton is high.
O yo Daddy’s rich an yo Ma is good looking’
So hush little baby don’ yo’ cry.

More authentic voices and singers of The Blues filled the streets of Chicago and New Orleans. In the Caribbean artists like Bob Marley, inspired by dub poetry such as that of Louise Bennett, gave an often political slant to reggae music with lyrics giving poignant expression to the Caribbean predicament that is neither African, European nor American. A musical voice mainly seen now in Rap music?

However, it was generally not American imitators of black musical slang who made the biggest impact on the re-integration of some elements of Black English but young musicians in London and Liverpool during the 1950’s and 60’s. Groups like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles performed to world wide audiences, sold millions of records and responded with enthusiasm to the possibilities of Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues with slang such as ‘cool’, ‘heavy’ and ‘hip’.
Words and music popularised by musicians, some of whom, also started their own journeys and careers in the old slave port of Liverpool.

Follow West England Bylines on Facebook and Twitter.


Read more articles from West England Bylines here >>>