Why, and What, Did the Slaves Sing?

Content warning: racist, disturbing language and imagery.


The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out–if not in the word, in the sound;–and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:–

“I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!”

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,–and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.”

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

— From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)


(Wedgewood china plate, early 1800s.)

In 1960, black folksong collectors Alex Foster and Michel LaRue (above) released an album called Songs of the American Negro Slaves. Listen to the entire album here; each song is very short.

Downbeat magazine called Foster and LaRue the leaders of “an organization of enthusiasts known as the Drinking Gourd Society” — a reference to the slave song “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which gives coded directions to escape on the Underground Railroad. Many, though not all, of the songs recorded by Foster and LaRue are spirituals. Similarly, nearly, but not all, of the songs transcribed in the first published anthology of Black American folk song, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, are spirituals.

One of the earliest known forms of the African-American spiritual is the ring shout, which syncretized West African dance forms with Christian worship.

Watch “The Ringshout and the Birth of African-American Religion.”

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., recently had on exhibit one of the three extant “slave Bibles” in the world. The slave Bible was a heavily censored version of the Bible which left out all references to the Hebrew slaves’ quest for freedom in the book of Exodus, and instead included only those books of the Bible that emphasized obedience.

For more on the practice of Christianity among the enslaved, i.e. the “invisible Church,” read here.

The “invisible church”: A Plantation Burial (John Antrobus, 1860).


For more on Southern pro-slavery theology, read this.

Some presentations of slave songs from films:

A work-song from 12 Years A Slave. Notice the similarities to the later prison work-songs of just a few generations after, with which you are already familiar.

Later in the film, a the community of slaves sings the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” after burying a fallen comrade. The River Jordan is a powerful and common metaphor in spirituals. In the Bible, the Jordan is the last frontier the Israelites must cross before they reach the Promised Land; for enslaved African Americans, the Jordan represents the last barrier to freedom — in this case, the freedom from slavery that comes with death. The main character, Solomon Northup, a free man who’s been captured and sold into slavery, struggles with his emotions and begins to feel himself a part of the community of enslaved people. His vivid emotional struggle suggests the emotional effects of enslavement on the interior life of the enslaved person.

“Run, N—–, Run,” here sung mockingly by the brutal overseer, was, according to John Lomax, an actual slave song. It first appeared in the 1830s after the Nat Turner Rebellion, when the consequences for escape became even more severe. The “patty-roller” is the patrolman.

The song survived well into the twentieth century. Here it is performed by a prisoner in a work-camp in Texas, from a field recording of the 1930s.

How does the meaning of the song change based on the time, place, and performer?

One song you may be familiar with is “Follow the Drinking Gourd”; however, the song’s authenticity as a slave song is disputed. Read the fascinating history of its publication here.

Browse St. Olaf’s College’s Musical Geography project for maps and more videos related to these and other songs of slavery.

Mapping “Slave Songs of the United States”

A brief excerpt from Brother Future, a film about Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion in Charleston, S.C. in 1821.




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