Edited by Azizi Powell
This is Part I of a two part pancocojams series on African American influences on American square dancing and American square dance music.
This post showcases a video of an interview with American square dance caller, dancer, researcher, and author Phil Jamison whose 2015 book Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance demonstrates the complex origins and evolution of Appalachian dance and provides information about its significant African American sources.
Click https://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2017/05/african-american-influences-on-american.html for Part II of this series. Part II presents information about and reviews of Phil Jamison's book.
Part II also showcases five videos of American square dancing, with particular emphasis on "the bird in the cage" figure which Jamison indicates is one of many square dance figures (movements) that is likely of African American origin.
The content of this post is provided for historical, folkloric, and cultural purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to the memories of early African American square dance musicians. Thanks to Phil Jamison for his research and writing about American square dancing. Thanks to all those who are associated with this interview and YouTube video.
SHOWCASE VIDEO: Phil Jamison 2 - African influences on American square dance
Square Dance Interviews Published on May 17, 2016
Phil Jamison discusses his research into the origins of American square dance in the south, and describes the key role that African-American musicians played . There are the well-known musical elements—the role of the banjo, for example—and Phil also points out that the first callers were African-American. Even some distinctive square dance features such as Birdie in the Cage may have African roots.
Recorded November 18, 2011, at the Dare To Be Square dance weekend, John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC. Interview conducted by David Millstone and videotaped by John-Michael Seng-Wheeler, with financial support provided by Country Dance and Song Society. This documentation is part of the Square Dance History Project...
Note that the title of this video interview is "African Influences On American Square Dancing" instead of "African American Influences.." The emphasis on "African influences" may be because in this interview Phil Jamisons indicates that the banjo, improvisational dancing, call and response, and imitative bird dances are central to African traditions. Also in this interview, and, presumably in his book which I've not read yet, Phil Jamison references Black fiddlers playing and calling quadrilles and other country dances in the Caribbean and not just in the American South and in other regions of the United States.
TRANSCRIPTION OF PHIL JAMISON's VIDEO ON AFRICAN AMERICAN INFLUENCE ON SQUARE DANCING
[Pancocojams Editor: This video provides portions of this interview. This is my unofficial transcription of these portions.. Additions and corrections are welcome.]
“I believe that the figure “bird in the cage” is African American-originally. I can’t find any dance in the European tradition that has an individual dancer improvising within a ring and yet that is very very common in African dances. And in this country, um, all the slave dances were basically like that- a ring with an individual dancer improvising and dancing like a bird. There are-ah-various bird imitation dances that come from the African tradition.
If you look at the Southern, Southern music, we have-the main instruments, were fiddle, of Northern European, ah, brought it over. Ah but then [there’s the] African derived banjo. And the combination of the banjo, the African banjo with the European fiddle is really what made the music distinctive. And I see a similar thing with the dances and that I believe that the first dance callers were African American and that dance calling comes from African tradition. Ah, there’s a very strong tradition in African of call and response and ah all, you know, back as early as 1690, slaves were playing fiddles for white people’s dances ah before you had um ah, ah obviously before you had ah recorded music. To be ah un, to be a musician was a ah a service position and if- surely White people were playing fiddles, but slaves realized that if you knew how to play the fiddle, you wouldn’t be working in the field, but you would be playing for the dances in the big house. And not just slaves but free blacks played fiddles too, And you were in a, in a different strata.
There’s hundreds of instances that I could cite of slave fiddlers and free blacks playing the music for white people’s dances. And-think of it like this, if you’re ah un, if you’re going to have, if you are just going to have a dance in your house for your family and friends, you might play the fiddle, your music yourself. Um just like if you’re going to, ah have friends over for supper, you might cook the meal yourself. But say it’s a bigger event, like, ah ah wedding- you hire a caterer. You have somebody else do the cooking. And the same thing if it’s a public dance, or in the South, plantation balls, so obviously, the musicians were invariably black. And this is true for two hundred years. And these black musicians, ah, learned the European dance tunes so that they could play the European ah fiddle. Ah and, you know, many many slave advertisements, you know “Slave for sale, plays the fiddle really well” , ah, notes of runaway slaves “plays the fiddle”- you’d see those all the time. And ah, dancing masters owned slaves. They didn’t have a boom box- they had a slave who could provide the music for their dancing schools. And as early as the seventeen hundreds, there are references to slaves in the South doing country dances and cotillions. And the slaves didn’t go to dancing school to learn those things. And the only way they could have done them is for somebody to be prompting them.
The white people did not have-I mean I’m sure that the dancing masters may have prompting their students in the dancing school, but at a public dance, it wasn’t something you did. You learned the figures at dancing school and then you went to the ball. And ah, the very first documented dance callers were all African American musicians. The earliest I know about is about 1819 in New Orleans and ah the architect Latrobe was down there. He went to a dance and he said “This annoying musician up here is calling out the figures to the quadrilles. This is just not right. “ And within a few years, in the 1820s there are other references as far North as New York state and other places in the South ah where the references to black fiddlers who were calling out the dance figures at public dances. By the 1840s, 50s there were white people doing it too. And by mid century, dance manuals are giving instruction on how to prompt quadrilles. And the dancing masters of course didn’t like it because it’s going to put them out of business. Once, once you could call the dances, dancers didn’t have to go to school anymore. And it let the dances pass, you know, just out into the countryside and they could be spread through the folk tradition. You didn’t have to have the dancing masters.
And so, what this did was to, it, it made the dances more impromptu, improvisational- which is an African dance, music and dance tradition. And it really separated them from the European tradition. And to me the, the dance calling which is African American, is the single biggest ingredient that separated, you know, made this an American dance form as opposed to a European dance form.
And there were black fiddlers in New Hampshire, in the seventeen hundreds, and un ah and there was slavery in New England, so there were slave fiddlers in New England as well as in the South. And they were playing for the dancing schools, so obviously they were…, and they were playing for the dances. Ah, they were around these dances, they- and this was happening in the Caribbean too- we talk about the Caribbean quadrilles. Same thing happened there ah where there were slaves who were doing the European country dances and quadrilles and, basically adopted that. And but the slaves were not sent to dancing schools so the only way they could do these was by prompting them, shouting out the figures at, while they are doing the dances.
[Interviewer David Millstone] - So the early calling is African Americans calling for their people
Jamison – Sure
[Interviewer] – in settings like that but then starting to call at white, at white events.
Jamison – True. And, and the reactions of the whites, in particular the visiting Europeans was that is not right, this is not the way it should be done. And the dancing masters were saying we hope this will go away soon. But it didn’t. It caught on.
And ah, and to me, that’s that’s the biggest secret about these dances. And when you think about it, it’s, it’s the African banjo is what transformed the music and made our fiddle music American, as opposed to, it’s not, is no longer British fiddle music, but it’s American. Um, and, and frankly, if you think about, if you were to list the different kinds of music that are really, truly, America, what would you think of? You’d think of jazz, blues, rock and roll, tap dance
[Interviewer] – Bluegrass
[Jamison] – Bluegrass. And they all have black influence. So, it, it made me think, well it’s, you know these square dances, we think of as American, and ah, they are an American dance form, but what makes them American and sets them apart from the European dances is the black influence.
The thing about the Black square dance calling, I know, just ah, I should say, ah, this is what I say the evidence suggests, and you know, I have no proof, but um, it, cert- I’ve done a lot of research and this is certainly what it looks like. And if someone can find an example of a white caller that precedes these black callers, I’d love to hear about it, but I, I haven’t seen it yet. You know, surely the dancing masters prompted their students, but that’s different than calling out figures, spontaneously at a dance."
This concludes Part I of this two part series on African American influences on American square dancing.
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