Evolution of African American Music Genres

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Evolution of African American Music Genres

This lesson is an example presentation. The teacher will present taPowerPoint on the history of African American Spirituals, also known as Black Spirituals. The presentation then looks specifically at the history and adaptation of the song “Deep River,” a classic Spiritual that goes back as far as—or presumably further than—the first known publication of Spiritual music in print. Students will be asked to examine the lyrics to the song and answer questions about its meaning. The students will then listen to three versions of the song (one early choir example from the early half of the 20th century, one modern arrangement with a solo singer, and one recording of Marian Anderson). Students will be asked to compare and contrast the musical styles of the three versions of “Deep River.”

The teacher will use this presentation as an example with which to teach their students about online research resources, proper modes of citation, PowerPoint design, and presentation strategies. Students will then choose one of the following music genres of the African diaspora:  bluegrass, blues, R&B, funk, gospel, hip hop, jazz, soul, ragtime, rap, reggae, swing. Students will then conduct independent research and create their own PowerPoints.

Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?
How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?
What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?


Students will be able to:

  • Conduct independent research on an African or African American music genre of their choice by utilizing the suggested online resources, including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania digital library.
  • Analyze textual, visual, and aural primary resources and apply them to their presentation through document study.
  • Synthesize their primary and secondary source evidence into a coherent narrative to put into their PowerPoint through document study and the use of PowerPoint skills.
  • Evaluate different genres of African American music by comparing and contrasting primary sources.
  • Present on their research in a cohesive and coherent way by preparing their primary and secondary sources in a PowerPoint with a clear oral presentation.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. First, the teacher will present on the history of African American Spirituals.
  2. Students will then read the lyrics to a spiritual song, “Deep River,” and analyze it by answering the questions on the “Deep River” Lyrics and Worksheet.
  3. Afterwards, the teacher will play two YouTube clips of “Deep River.” The first is an early 20th century recording by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an all-Black a capella group made up of Fisk University students that was established in 1871. Next students will listen to a contemporary version of the song arranged by modern composer Moses Hogan and sung by Brysien Beer. The teacher will then facilitate a conversation where students compare/contrast the two YouTube clips based on style and tone. Ask students which they liked best and why.
  4. Next, students will listen to a recording of “Deep River” by Marian Anderson. The teacher will then facilitate a conversation about Marian Anderson’s style and use of Spirituals with the following questions:
    1. What do you notice about Marian Anderson’s style of singing compared to the previous two versions?
    2. Though Marian Anderson is considered an opera singer, how has she used Spirituals to influence her singing?
  5. The teacher will then present the remaining research resources on the PowerPoint and point them out to students on the sheet they received during the previous lesson.
  6. Students will now conduct independent research in the remaining class time or as homework. Students will choose an African or African American music genre and conduct research on it and add this information to their PowerPoint, using the teacher’s presentation as a model. Students will choose from the following genres:
    1. Bluegrass
    2. Blues
    3. R&B
    4. Funk
    5. Gospel
    6. Hip hop
    7. Jazz
    8. Soul
    9. Ragtime
    10. Rap
    11. Reggae
    12. Swing


Spiritual: A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South.

River Jordan: A river in the Middle East creating the border between the West Bank and Israel to the west and Jordan to the east. The River Jordan is where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land after their exodus from Egypt and where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Promised Land: Referring to the land in the Middle East that was, according to the Hebrew Bible, promised and given to Abraham and his descendants by God. It is also the place to which the Israelites return after their escape from Egypt and where they re-establish their people.