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 sociology and African-American literature.

Du Bois believed that there were ten “master songs” of the African diaspora to America, and he prefaced each chapter of the book with a quotation of musical notation from a spiritual. In the last chapter, “The Sorrow Songs,” Du Bois discusses each of the musical excerpts, and makes the case that the music of black Americans contains a power that transcends the social and economic condition of the practitioners of that music.

Du Bois also suggests in this essay that black music can’t really be notated or transcribed, that its essence prevents its being noted down accurately — that, in other words, the soul of the music cannot be measured or contained by the signs and symbols of sounds. He also attempts to transcribe his impression of a west African language, though the language and the meaning of the words have not yet been identified.

For more on DuBois’s association of music and sound with black history, read this post on the sound studies blog Sounding Out!: “‘Music More Ancient than Words’: W.E.B. DuBois’s Theories on Africana Aurality.”

Here are most of the songs Du Bois references in “The Sorrow Songs,” in order of mention.

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 (Mahalia Jackson):

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

Swanee River (“Old Folks at Home,” by Stephen Foster). [TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: BLACKFACE MINSTRELSY]

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 title well, but I don’t drink):

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

Michael Row the Boat Ashore (Marion Williams):

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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More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by African slaves were generally functional form: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.

Antiphonal singing is a feature of many mountain cultures; yodeling developed, for instance, as a way of communicating from one Alpine height to another.

In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.

What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?

Call and response in the spiritual “Job, Job.”

Another version:

(A rendition which somehow always reminds me of this movie.)