, ,

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson

What is troping? In my opinion, it is an essential element and a most elusive quality of Afro-American music. When sound events signify on a time-line, against the flow of the music’s pulse, making the pulse itself lilt freely, the sound created is distinct to Afro-American music and prevalent in a variety of musical genres from gospel to jazz, where it is most prevalent. This troping of the time-line by the placement of events against its flow creates the slight resistances that result in the lilt that, while common to all black music, is most pronounced, evident and persistent in jazz where this driving, rhythmic persistence in a relaxed atmosphere is typical[1].

The ring-shout trope commonly used in jazz has early roots in 19th century gospel spirituals.  Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson witnessed and recorded “the ring-shout” during a trip to South Carolina. He described returning to the camp many nights and coming upon a circle of people moving in “the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a ‘shout’,” singing the music of their ceremony with the measured clapping of hands. As night wore on and the singing and dancing continued in deepening intensity, Higginson noted that eventually everyone present, of all ages, was “drawn into the vortex” of the music. “Such a response,” he wrote, “from the oldest to the youngest, could not easily have been evoked by an appropriation from another culture; rather the magical pull was an expression of traditional values of a people, those that moved the oldest to engage in sacred dance and the young to join them in the circle.”[2]

New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir

New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir

In this way then, ring shout tropes in both jazz and very early African-American gospel music function in exactly the same capacity. They are used as a direct line of communication between audience and performer that creates a distinctly unique culture for all involved. It’s almost like a secret language that only those who know and are in the tribe can interpret and be involved with. It is something very unique to African-American music, and since the tradition has endured for so long, a very key element.

For examples of ring shout tropes check out New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir – Souled Out .


Mak Kemenosh

[1] Ring  shout! Literary studies, historical studies, and black music inquiry. Black Music Journal; Samuel A. Floyd Jr., Spring 2002.

[2] The Story of the Spirituals, http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/Religion/development.cfm.