African American Folk Songs

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Here in the UK we celebrate Black History Month each October, and with perfect timing Hal Leonard have recently launched a wonderful new sheet music collection. The African American Folk Songs Collection contains intermediate piano arrangements by Artina McCain of 24 traditional songs.

Dr. McCain, who comes from Arlington, Texas and is now based in Memphis, Tennessee, has won multiple Global Music Awards for her recordings of works by composers of African descent.

In her introduction to this new piano collection she tells us,

“African Americans created a rich history of song and dance. I am proud to say that I am the great-great-great-granddaughter of these strong and resilient enslaved Americans and can trace my origins in America back almost 200 years. In the late 18th century our musical history began with the African American Spiritual (or Negro Spiritual) and is the largest and most significant form of American folk song. There are over 6,000 or these anonymous masterpieces! Through oral tradition, they were passed down from generation to generation and brilliantly blended the rich musical culture of Africa with text describing hardships that they were experiencing in America.”

From this extraordinary treasury of song, McCain has selected her 24 classics for inclusion here, making original, wonderfully pianistic and pedagogically valuable arrangements.

I’m happy to tell you right away that this book is really outstanding, but let’s take a closer look…

24 Anonymous Masterpieces…

McCain’s book is the latest in a growing series of Folk Song collections from Hal Leonard which includes previous releases of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Malay and Irish folk songs. These are all superb, and I will look at the four Asian collections in a separate review soon.

The book has a glossy cover wrapping its 48 pages (printed on white paper). There is a full page introduction by McCain which goes into more detail about the background to the Spirituals tradition, noting that some are code or protest songs, some are sorrow songs, while others are jubilee songs.

After the table of contents, there is then a four-page section of notes, going into detail about each of the 24 included pieces, which are:

Reading McCain’s notes on each piece, both her academic expertise and personal identification shine through, making this an indispensable resource for anyone interested in African American music.

…in Superb Arrangements

The easiest pieces in the collection are suitable for Elementary players (find out about levels here), take up one page, and range in length from around 8-16 bars. Lovely line drawings appear on most pages.

Here’s a good example, the first piece from the book (courtesy of the publisher’s website):

Even early in the book, the pieces use a wide range of the keyboard, encouraging exploration of the instrument’s geography. A good amount of fingering is given, and a few pieces incorporate foot stomping. Syncopated rhythms are here from the start, which can comfortably be taught to younger players “sound before symbol”.

As the book progresses, so too does the difficulty. Later pieces in the book are mid-Intermediate level (UK Grades 3-4). Syncopations between hands become a little more complex, and these later pieces in the book mostly take up two pages, before the final few, which last for three pages apiece.

As you can see from the page examples, the presentation of the book is child-friendly, but not childish. I think these books would nicely suit players of all ages, and will be happily using them with adult learners.

McCain notes,

“The process of notating these spirituals for the intermediate level pianist has been deeply gratifying… I hope that this book will spark your curiosity to learn more about the wonderful history of these spirituals and other traditional songs by African Americans.”

Closing Thoughts

Artina McCain and Hal Leonard have done a wonderful service in providing these superb arrangements, in doing so making these beautiful and powerful melodies more accessible than ever.

Having played through the whole collection, I didn’t find any piece here that would be unenjoyable to teach or to learn. On the contrary, this is rewarding music in every way, and really does belong in every home that has a piano!

Simply superb!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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