American musical styles merge at Elon University

Billy Stevens cradles the banjo, the flagship instrument of American music. He explained that the instrument became popular through African Americans. Photo by Rebecca Wickel.

Elon University’s Whitley auditorium is accustomed to musical performances, but tonight’s gig incorporated lessons in geography, culture and history. And according to lecturer and musician Billy Stevens, these are the biggest factors in shaping the American musical tradition.

Stevens¬†visited Elon to discuss the unique culture of the American South, whose ties to slavery helped shape the country’s musical history. Stevens used rare recordings and live banjo performance to express the fusion between music genres in the U.S.

“Jazz, blues, gospel, and ragtime were all created when African Americans had an oppruntity to have a new life, to start over,” Stevens said. “They would express that through music.”

According to him, all new American music was created during a time of change for African Americans. Whether they were caused by the cruelty of slavery, the new freedoms of emancipation or the injustices Jim Crowe era, raw emotions flooded through black populations. Music was their way to cope.


Stevens began studying American popular music by deciding what separates it from European styles. He quickly found that there was no original American music at all, not until white musicians began to imitate styles brought by Africans on slave ships. With them, they brought a musical history that didn’t mirror the styles of the French or British. Together the two peoples created something new.

“What happened in the American south was unique to the world because of white culture and black culture fused in a very intimate way,” he said.

This didn’t happen overnight. By 1739, slaves were not permitted to play their instruments, dance or sing, because it gave them a community. ¬†Instead, they were allowed to entertain their masters. These hours of performing marked the beginning of a hybrid musical style–European instruments paired with African musicians.


Slaves were forced to play new styles, instruments and songs. They played the fiddle, but not without adding their own African elements. They changed the bowing, added blue notes, slurs and syncopation. They created a new genre.

“There was a demand among the white planters and people in general for the music they wanted to hear, which was played by black people,” Stevens said. “But when the Africans played it, they changed it and made it new. They made it American.”

This was the first original American music ever played, and it rapidly attracted audiences. With changing times came new instruments and new trends. And as more African Americans were performing, more wealthy whites were imitating them, creating new styles to be modified


The exchange of musical culture between white and black populations in America continues today. Jazz was born out of respected African Americans in Louisiana, while black laborers in the Mississippi Delta created blues.

According to Stevens, African Americans are always the first to start new musical trends, try new instruments and create new genres. Once they are established, they are adopted by white musicians, who further add to style. This, he said, is a rich part of our history even if we don’t notice.

“I thought that Elvis was doing something new when he played black music in 1950, but no,” he said. “200 years ago is when this all started.”

And it continues today. Rap started in Brooklyn when two African Americans made music on a turn table. It continued when Eminem learned about it from blacks in his Detroit neighborhood. The cycle remains, and Stevens said it will continue.

“Because whites and blacks are playing with each other, that’s why our music is always new,” he said. “It’s always different, it’s always fresh, and the whole world is inspired by it.”

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