The Sorrow Songs

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W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. It remains a classic in the fields of both sociology and African-American literature.

Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” that defined the African diaspora in America, and, in a kind of meta-narrative, he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of the musical notation of each of these songs, all of them spirituals. In the last chapter, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of these musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of Black Americans contains a power that transcends the social-historical conditions of the practitioners of that music.

Du Bois also suggests that Black music can’t truly be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents it from being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the standard signs used to symbolize sounds. He does attempt to transcribe his memory — perhaps an imagined cultural memory — of a west African song, though neither the language or the meaning of the words have yet been identified.

Du Bois’s notation of the song he says his great-great-grandmother
“often crooned . . . to the child between her knees.”

Du Bois, born free in Massachusetts, went to college at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black university founded at the end of the Civil War to educated emancipated slaves. He was inspired in his writing by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the school’s renowned choir, which toured the world to raise funds for the university. As he writes in “Of the Sorrow Songs”:

When I came to Nashville I saw the great temple builded of these songs towering over the pale city. To me Jubilee Hall seemed ever made of the songs themselves, and its bricks were red with the blood and dust of toil. Out of them rose for me morning, noon, and night, bursts of wonderful melody, full of the voices of my brothers and sisters, full of the voices of the past.

Years later, when the Fisk University Singers performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the music critic for the New York Times gave them a bad review. He wrote that the “hymns and spirituals” sung by the choir lacked the emotion that he associated with Black expression, and he advised his readers instead to attend

a real religious revival up in Harlem . . . [where you] will hear hymns and spirituals [that] have an emotion that was not to be felt [at the Fisk concert] last night. That was one thing. Quite another thing is the wildness, the melancholy, the intense religious feeling communicated when Negroes sing in the sacred spirit and the uncorrupted manner of their race.

Du Bois countered, in the pages of The Crisis, the newspaper of the NAACP (of which he was co-founder in 1909), that the critic

really means . . . that Negroes must not be allowed to attempt anything more than the frenzy of the primitive . . . any attempt to sing Italian music or German . . . leads them off their preserves and is not “natural.” To which the answer is, Art is not natural and is not supposed to be natural . . . The Negro chorus has a right to sing music of any sort it likes and to be judged by its accomplishment rather than by what foolish critics think that it ought to be doing.

The Times‘s critic echoes what John Lomax wrote a year later in his essay “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”:

The Negro is going farther in becoming “mo’ lak white folks,”
than merely to modify his beautiful spirituals. Under the leader-
ship of his preachers, his teachers, and his men of education,
he is abandoning them as unworthy of perpetuation entirely.
During the past summer, Manassas, Virginia, was recommended
to me as a likely place to find genuine Negro spirituals. I made
a long drive to reach the church, only to be greeted, when the sing-
ing began, by a surpliced choir that marched into the church
to slow waltz-time music, derived from a book of cheap, white
revival-tunes.

What white critics expected from Black artists did, and does, not always align with the art and the artists themselves.

Here are recordings of most of the songs Du Bois references in “The Sorrow Songs,” in the order in which he mentions them in the chapter.

Lay This Body Down (The Moving Star Hall Singers of John’s Island):

You May Bury Me in the East (The Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen (Paul Robeson):

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Fisk Jubilee Singers):

Roll, Jordan, Roll (Topsy Chapman, from the film Twelve Years A Slave):

Been A-Listening (Five Blind Boys of Alabama):

My Lord, What a Morning (Marian Anderson):

My Way’s Cloudy (Marian Anderson):

Wrestling Jacob (Sunset Jubilee Singers):

Steal Away (Barbara Conrad):

Bright Sparkles (an Indian choir):

Dust, Dust and Ashes (Eschatos Bride Choir):

I Hope My Mother Will Be There (A bunch of people sight-reading and killing it):

Two of what Du Bois calls the “songs of white America [that] have been distinctively influenced by the slave songs or have incorporated whole phrases of Negro melody”:

Swanee River (also known as “Old Folks at Home”) by white composer Stephen Foster. TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY. It’s worth reading Michael Friedman’s article “Can’t Escape Stephen Foster” for some context.

Old Black Joe (also by Foster, sung by Paul Robeson):

No recording, but sheet music for the quotation:

Dere’s no rain to wet you,
Here’s no sun to burn you,
Oh, push along, believer,
I want to go home.

no more rain

Keep Me From Sinking Down (Robert Sims):

Poor Rosy (William Appling Singers)

The German folksong Du Bois quotes, “Jetzt geh’ i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net” (“Now I go to the little well, but I don’t drink of it”):

There’s a Little Wheel a-Turning in My Heart (Edna Thomas):

Michael Haul (or Row) the Boat Ashore (Glory Gospel Singers):

Incidentally, Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, was a composer and musicologist. She wrote an opera called Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, about the African diaspora, which premiered in Cleveland in 1932. Unfortunately, none of her music has been recorded.

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