jubilee (Biblical) – 1. in Hebrew Scriptures, a year of rest to be observed by the Israelites every 50th year during which slaves were to be set free. 2. celebrations held by African-American slaves, usually at Christmas and Easter, which included respite from labor, feasting, music and dancing.
The first Africans arrived in the English colonies at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, a full year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The first African-Americans were not slaves, but indentured servants, required to work off passage to the New World within a specific amount of time, usually 7 years. But, within a generation, in 1638, the first slave ship docked in Boston harbor and the American colonies were well on their way to becoming a slave society. By 1860, about 4,900,000 African-Americans lived in the United States and about 90% of those people were slaves living on plantations in the South. And also by 1860, a uniquely African-American folk music with its own traditions had established itself in the United States. This music was predominantly African in form, but it was also influenced by European traditions. Our people, who were stripped of property, family, and humanity when brought to the New World, held onto a piece of our homeland and identity by retaining African traditions in our music and dance.
Music was a primary form of communication for slaves, just as it had been for our African forebears. Through songs we could comment on problems and savor the few pleasures allowed, could voice despair and hopes, assert our humanity in an environment that constantly denied our humanness. As in the African tradition, the songs of the slaves told our history and revealed everyday concerns. Sometimes songs were cries in the field – “cornfield hollers” “whoops” or “water calls.” Slave labor was the engine of America — the 19th century’s glorious promised land, with the most successful economy in the world – the engine of America was stoked with the blood, sweat, tears and songs of our people. Songs accompanied every task. Music alleviated the monotony of the work and inspired more work, even when exhausted. Music also set a rhythm to increase the efficiency and extract maximum labor from a group of workers.
In addition to work songs, spirituals were a mainstay of African-American music during the time of slavery. In Africa, religion was a crucial part of our existence, as intrinsic and essential as breathing. Forcibly removed from our homeland and denied our rituals of worship, African-Americans adapted to the imposed Christian religious teachings of our captors. European psalms and hymns were melded with the songs, rituals and deities of our homeland. The Biblical stories of the Israelites’ slavery and deliverance especially resonated with the slaves. The European sacred music references to “deliverance”, to “a better world coming by and by”, to “crossing the waters of Jordan” – these were all references that could be easily applied to our thirst for freedom and those songs were often used as code communication in escape or revolt plans.
Twice a year in the South, at Christmas and at Easter, slaves were given a respite of several days to celebrate “jubilees.” Jubilees were filled with music and dancing. The music was a hybrid of songs remembered from the motherland, European psalms and hymns, and the popular songs of the day, which were usually, and ironically, songs from minstrel shows — performances by blackfaced white actors that caricatured the singing and demeanor of slaves. The dancing of slaves’ jubilees was based on African traditions mixed with the jigs and reels of European tradition. There were laws that expressly prohibited slaves from “using and keeping drums, horns or other loud instruments which may call together or give sign or notice to one another.” Drums were replaced by hand clapping, foot stomping, or “pattin’ juba” — beating hands on thighs and chest and stomping heels as accompaniment to trading tall tales and doling out humorous verbal abuse in rhymes — a direct ancestor of hip-hop’s rapping and human beat box sound effects. We would use any kind of material that could be found around the plantation to produce a musical sound: iron scraps, sheep ribs, cow or horse jawbones, hollow logs, anything that made noise. Music was often a slaves’ only comfort in a brutal and harsh reality. The “weariness, fear, suffering and unremitting labor” of slavery would have been unendurable without a few homemade instruments and a song to remind African-Americans of their history and humanity and to inspire faith in a future free of bondage, either on the earth, or in the “by and by.”
— Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame