The Slave Trade

New Orleans was a port city. Tragically human beings were one of the largest commodities being traded in New Orleans. The New Orleans slave trade was home not only to a steady influx of slaves from the Caribbean and Africa but also from the Mississippi Delta. As the importation of new slaves into the United States was outlawed in the early 19th century, slaves from the Delta would readily be brought to New Orleans for trading and work.

With the slave trade came not only slaves but their culture. From the Caribbean and Africa they would bring a hard fast driving rhythm, and from the interior they would bring both harmonies and the call and answer of the Baptist Church. These would combine with other forms of music to form the "melting pot of music" in New Orleans.

Now I know this is slightly unusual for a web page on music but an examination of Mississippi River Delta geography is necessary to understand fully the role of the river in the formation of Jazz.

The Mississippi River winds its way through the heartland of America. Along the way it picks up lots of sediment. Over thousands of years it has deposited this soil in what has become some of if not the richest soil in the world. That soil quality combined with an almost tropical climate to make the vegetation of the Mississippi Delta. In his book Rising Tide, John Barry describes the harshness of clearing the Delta for farming.

The Delta, however, overwhelmed individual farmers. To take the land from the river, to clear it, drain it, and protect it, required an enormous outlay of capital and labor. From the first the Delta demanded organization, capital, and labor.

In a nation which tolerated slavery, it is not difficult to understand why slaves were so vital to farm the Mississippi Delta. The labor was cheap and plentiful, the conditions were horrible, a sort of scorching hot, humid, muddy, swampy hell. All of this meant the establishment of slavery was a large part of the antebellum Mississippi Delta economy.

All of this slave trade must be centered somewhere. While the slaves of the east coast plantations were coming in to America through cities like Charleston, South Carolina, it was much easier for the vast numbers of slaves needed to work the Mississippi Delta to come into the country through New Orleans. Thus the slave trade was centered in New Orleans. As was already said, these slaves brought with them a wide variety of music but most importantly the strong rhythmic music of the Caribbean and Africa and the slow emotional music of the Delta.

One of the most interesting aspects of New Orleans slave culture was Congo Square. A small area situated in what is now known as Armstrong Park (interestingly enough the area was never officially known as Congo Square), every Sunday Congo Square erupted into a microcosm of African culture. With primitive instruments, mostly drums, the slaves would dance and sing. The practice was officially restricted to Congo Square by a city ordinance in 1817. Not only did the activities at Congo Square influence generations of African Americans, keeping the rhythms they brought with them from Africa and those they learned in the Caribbean alive, it also had a tremendous impact on whites. There is evidence that the events became something of a tourist attraction. What is known for sure is that the rhythmic nature of the dancing at Congo Square infected the city of New Orleans with a beat that would help in the formation of Jazz.

The slave trade and slave population of New Orleans as well as their activities at Congo Square would not have occurred without the Mississippi River. Without the river there would have been no port for immigration. Without the Delta there would not have been nearly as much need for slaves. The Mighty Mississippi was well on its way to bringing about the right ingredients for Jazz.

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