HARLEM LATE NIGHT JAZZ Presents:
The Jazz History Tree
The ring shout is a spiritual expression in dance. It has its origins in a dance form, indigenous to much of Central and West Africa, in which the dancers move in a counterclockwise circle. “Wherever in Africa the counterclockwise dance ceremony was performed,” Sterling Stuckey wrote, “the dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods, the tempo and revolution of the circle quickening during the course of the movement.”1
The ring shout as practiced by slaves was a religious activity, with Christianity augmenting the African elements. Participants moved in a circle, providing rhythm by clapping their hands and patting their feet. One individual would set the tempo by singing, and his lines would be answered in call-and-response fashion. In some cases, another individual rhythmically beat the (usually wooden) floor with a broomstick or other piece of wood.2
In his book, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory & the Foundations of Black America, Sterling Stuckey proposes that ring shout was a unifying element of Africans in American colonies from which field hollers, work songs, and spirituals evolved, followed by blues and jazz. Samuel A. Floyd Jr. takes it a step further in suggesting that many of the stylistic elements observed during the ring shout later laid the foundations of various black music styles developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to Floyd, “all of the defining elements of black music are present in the ring.”3
These basic elements of ring shout—dance, calls, cries, and hollers; blue notes; call-and-response; and strong rhythmic aspects—are still alive and expressed today in this music. Improvisation remains an essential element. From the cakewalk of the 1890s to breaking in the 2000s, to dancing and shouting at black churches every Sunday, ring shout is still present and still evolving today.
1 Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory & the Foundations of Black America (Oxford University Press, 1987).
2 Art Rosenbaum, Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. (University of Georgia Press, 2013) 168–170.
3 Samuel Floyd Jr., “Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry,” Black Music Research Journal 22: 49-70, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College of Chicago and University of Illinois Press, 2002.