Samuel L Jackson continued his documentary Enslaved by delving into how music played an integral part into guiding people to freedom.
The third episode of the four-part series focused on two major parts – the ships who tried to help enslaved people get out of the US, and the music which kept them motivated.
This included songs that would help guide them to where they needed to go, with hidden messages in the lyrics offering them direction.
The Avengers actor visited the Jubilee Singers, a choir of singers that helped how to introduce African American music to a general audience 150 years ago.
There, he learned how Harriet Tubman used song in the underground railroad system to help those needing to escape to navigate their way to freedom.
Coded songs included Wade In The Water, which warned others to walk through the water, to prevent them from being caught by dogs chasing after them.
Go Down Moses was another – offering unity with those who needed someone to care for them, assuring them that she will guide them like Moses does in the Bible.
As well as these songs, which are still performed to this day, Samuel learned that Black music was later accosted by white performers, who took instruments like the banjo and made them their own.
Often associated with the deep South, banjo music was initially performed by African Americans, but was later appropriated by white entertainers, who would perform in blackface.
It proves how deeply embedded black culture is in America, without most even realising it.
Watching performer Rhiannon Giddens perform in a bar, Samuel said that he had ‘never seen a black person play the banjo before.’
Rhiannon then revealed that in her research she had actually discovered recordings of black banjo players.
‘It was known by everybody as a black instrument, the emblem of being black was the banjo,’ she explained. ‘Then you have a change. In the 1820s and 30s, that’s when white folk started going, “that’s really cool, I would like to play that”.
‘So, you have white entertainers picking up the banjo. The reason why we don’t talk about this shift is because the white folks playing this banjo would have been doing it in blackface.
‘This entire industry becomes the blackface Minstrel Show, and it’s the most popular form of entertainment for like over 60 years.’
Essentially, everything known as bluegrass music, was born out of a black instrument.
‘When you have nothing but dances as entertainment and you have plantations, the musicians for these balls are African American,’ she said. ‘So they are forced to learn European dances, European music, and then they are themselves, mixing it.
‘The thing that sets apart, American square dancing and country dances from Europe, is the calling you don’t have callers and that thing that you think those are “round and round and do-see-do and grab a partner”.’
Enslaved airs Sundays at 9pm on BBC Two.
Black History Month
October marks Black History Month, which reflects on the achievements, cultures and contributions of black people in the UK and across the globe, as well as educating others about the diverse history of those from African and Caribbean descent.
For more information about the events and celebrations that are taking place this year, visit the official Black History Month website.
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