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How To Interpret What’s Written

How we play music matters. The techniques we use—or don’t use—can give our audience a feeling of closeness or distance to a particular historical moment. “That singing reminds me of my grandmother,” or “I’ve never heard a violin and a singer make that kind of sound together,” or even “that sounds weird” – these are all useful audience reactions that make listeners lean in and hear something deeper: Andersons Reel the similarities and differences between the present and the past.

What can you do with your voice or your instrument to make this music resonate in deeper ways? Here are our thoughts on some basic interpretive questions: what instruments to use, how to use them, and how much to elaborate on what’s written. The goal with these suggestions is to provide a set of tools that have expressive power—tools you may not have otherwise been encouraged to apply in performance.

All of our suggestions are informed by sources, but we make no claim that we are setting you on a path of historical re-enactment. These are all expressive tools that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Black Americans probably used. What decide to do with them is in the realm of interpretation.


This is the most obvious instrument. From Sloan to Frederick Douglass, the sources all describe singing in various contexts: in the field, on boats, lullabies, celebrations [FN Epstein]. There was so much singing observed that there are numerous transcribed texts to songs whose melodies have been lost.

Written documents don’t give us a clear picture to the most essential way a voice communicates: its quality. Rough or smooth? Hiccups or whistling? Growling or breathy? All are possible. Our best option is to rely on early twentieth-century recordings for inspiration. In particular, we turn to recordings made by various artists in cooperation with John Lomax in the 1930s.

Here’s a list of techniques with sound examples. Many of them, like raspy or whistling tone, may sound like mistakes on first hearing. They are qualities that modern ears are often taught to filter out. But we invite you to listen closely to how these artists apply them for expressive purposes.


A delicate application of glottal stop, this technique may be known to you from soulful country ballads. It’s audible in almost every phrase of Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Early recordings of Black artists suggest this technique had origins in songs of the enslaved. In “She Brought My Breakfast” (0:23-30), Jim Henry “Duck” Horn hiccups at the end of the line “grey mule’s hame.” At the end of the recording, he reports to Lomax that he sang this song “in the field.” (Recorded in Alabama in 1939.) Similarly, Abraham Powell hiccups several times at the start of his Cornfield Holler. (Recorded in Arkansas in 1939.)

A singer wishing to apply this technique could start by imitating these recordings and then choose a particularly poignant word at the end of a line. Songs with corn or field work as a theme would be especially appropriate.

Whistling in voice

It can be quite expressive to combine breathy and raspy approaches towards the top of a singer’s range; the result is something that sounds like whistling but isn’t. Listen to Ross “Po’ Chance” Williams in “Got a Woman up the Bayou” (esp. around 1:30) 

Jagged register shift

Raspy tone

  • Other? 

Juba/body percussion/other percussion 

Whistling in voice

It can be quite expressive to combine breathy and raspy approaches towards the top of a singer’s range; the result is something that sounds like whistling but isn’t. Listen to Ross “Po’ Chance” Williams in “Got a Woman up the Bayou” (esp. around 1:30) 

Group singing: How do voices relate and interact? 

  • Some of these techniques could apply to groups of instruments as well 
  • Some types of things to listen for: 
  • Heterophony coming in and out of focus. Which notes/words are coordinated, which tend to have a lot of variation across the group? 
  • Calling/interjecting over group singing (“Big Leg Rosie”) 

Banjo [ & guitar?]

Great research has emerged recently that reveals just how integral and widespread banjo playing was among free and enslaved Black Americans. Some performers today may have a banjo accessible; some may have guitar. Either way,  In particular Kristina Gaddy’s book


[Several great articles to reference here, esp. Jacqueline Djedje.]


[link to Willi Ruff’s page in this section]


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All of these instruments can be used in combination. Particularly authentic, according to both written and iconographic records, would be to combine any instrument with voice. [Description of typical combinations and how to adapt a simple tune from the How to Find Sources section]

  • Relationship between instruments and voice 
  • Play along with melody (“I used to work on the Tractor,” FRV) 
  • Static chord (“Twas on a Monday,” J. Wilson, FRV) 
  • Stomp feet (“Thought I heard my banjo say,” FRV) 

Graphic here


The sources as written are all fairly basic. Transcribers and composers don’t record much intricate melodic variation. There are not a lot of written out turns, scoops, decorative changes in tone—and yet we suspect that a wide range of expressive tools were used with music of African Americans, just as unwritten expressive tools were often applied by performers of the music of Northern Europeans. [thoughts on elaboration, drawing on what we know took place in the European tradition, how that expectation would have affected notation; some evidence of elaboration, FN Graham and Southern, for instance]

What kind of melodic variation do these performances use?  

  • Pay attention to how performers change melodic ideas that repeat across a single song. 
  • Some types of variation to listen for 
  • Alteration of text