In 1972, singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote an ironic song from the perspective of an eighteenth-century slave merchant trying to convince a little boy on the west coast of Africa to “sail away” with him to Charleston, South Carolina — the American center of the transatlantic slave trade.
In America you get food to eat Won’t have to run through the jungle And scuff up your feet You just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day It’s great to be an American
Ain’t no lion or tiger, ain’t no mamba snake Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake Everybody is as happy as a man can be Climb aboard, little wog,* sail away with me
*Old-fashioned British racist term for people of African origin.
The song was covered by several prominent black artists, including Ray Charles:
Bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee:
As well as some white artists, like Linda Ronstadt:
The Punch Brothers — in a nice touch, performing live in Charleston:
Do you think the sense of irony is present in each of these performances?
Do you hear more or less of it in the black or white performances?
What do you think each of these artists intended to convey?
What about this performance? Bobby Darin changes “little wog” to “little one.” How do you think this choice affects the meaning of the song?
It’s interesting, too, that Darin is the only one of the white artists who uses “blackvoice.”
In 2015, acclaimed children’s book author Emily Jenkins and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Sophie Blackall published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat. The book, named a “Best Illustrated Children’s Book” by the New York Times, was described by the publisher as:
While Blackall defended her work, the author, Emily Jenkins apologized for her insensitivity and pledged to donate the fee she earned for writing it to We Need Diverse Books. her share of the profits from the book to organizations working for diversity. Her apology, though, was itself treated with suspicion. As members of a group discussion on the blog Reading While White, written by a group of white teachers and librarians concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s books, said,
What do you think? Do you think A Fine Dessert should have been published? Do you think the illustrations should have been modified? Do you think the enslaved family should have been included? Do you agree with illustrator Sophie Blackall’s defense? Do you agree with author Emily Jenkins’s apology? If you were hired to write a book about the way an object (in this case, a recipe) or a cultural artifact (music, for instance) was passed down through generations across cultures, how would you do it?
I have put a copy of A Fine Dessert on reserve in the library.
In 2019, the Yankees #cancelled their tradition of playing Kate Smith’s stentorian recording of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Taking their cue from New York, the NHL team the Philadelphia Flyers not only #cancelled Kate Smith, but also covered (and later removed) a statue of her outside of the XFinity Live auditorium.
The reason for the cancellations was that in 1931, Smith recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which includes these lyrics:
Someone had to pick the cotton, Someone had to plant the corn, Someone had to slave and be able to sing, That’s why darkies were born; Someone had to laugh at trouble, Though he was tired and worn, Had to be contented with any old thing, That’s why darkies were born; Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and Sing when you’re blue, Sing, sing, that’s what you taught All the white folks to do; Someone had to fight the Devil, Shout about Gabriel’s Horn, Someone had to stoke the train That would bring God’s children to green pastures, That’s why darkies were born.
On the face of it, the lyrics are incredibly offensive. However, there’s more to them, in the historical context, than meets the eye. Bear with me as I unpack them.
When the song was written, statements like these were not considered overtly racist. Why is that?
First of all, if you read through the lyrics a second time, you begin to realize that they express a kind of ironic fatalism — “Someone HAD TO slave” — which can be read both as an acceptance of slavery as an institution, and also as a kind of meta-musical justification for it, because “someone” also “HAD TO . . . be able to sing.” Was the lyricist, Lew Brown, suggesting that the system of slavery was the thing that made the great musical traditions of African America possible? .
Secondly, the statement that “someone had to” do these things implies that the logic and necessity of slavery are so obvious that they shouldn’t even have to be mentioned. Is Brown being sincere here, or ironic? Even the most fire-eating pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South knew they had to work harder than that to justify their position that slavery wasn’t only a necessity, but even a positive good.
And finally, and most intriguingly, there is the concluding assertion that “someone” had to be able to sing. What does this mean?
Here Lew Brown is hinting at the “Magical Negro” trope: the longstanding theme in American literature and film that blacks (and people of color more broadly) are salvific, i.e., both capable of, and necessary to, the spiritual redemption of whites. “Someone had to stoke the train/That would bring God’s children to green pastures” is a reference to the many appearances of metaphorical trains, “bound for glory” — in other words, for heaven — that appear in gospel music.
Of course, in the antebellum South, pro-slavery whites accepted and advanced the idea that “someone had to” be enslaved. But they believed slavery was necessary for their economic and social institutions, not for their spiritual redemption. Pro-slavery apologists in the antebellum South often framed their support for the owning of other people in terms of the duty to “civilize” and protect the slaves, who, they claimed, were so childlike as to be unable to live free.
Is it possible, therefore, that Lew Brown’s lyrics actually invert pro-slavery arguments?
The “meta-musical” aspect of the song is in the fact that it is a song ABOUT music, and, therefore, is self-referential. And it’s not just about music in general; it’s about the folk music sung by American slaves. What’s more, the lyrics emphasize that the music sung by slaves is the vehicle for whites’ salvation: “Darkies were born,” it’s implied, because whites needed their souls to be saved. Is this an indictment of slavery? Is it an acceptance of it? Is it a justification of it? Do the lyrics go even further and suggest that slaveryitself was necessary for whites’ redemption?
These are disruptive and troubling ideas, but they weren’t new in 1931. In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
(Du Bois is suggesting that “Annie Rooney,” below, is vulgar and inane.)
The great spiritual “Steal Away”:
Complicating things further, the great African-American bass Paul Robeson also recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” in 1931.
Why do you think Robeson, who was a civil rights activist, recorded this song? How does his interpretation differ from Kate Smith’s? Does Robeson’s singing express irony? Does it express what John Lomax called “self-pity”? Does it express pride? Does it express rebellion?
Robeson sang it with just as much earnestness and dignity as he put into the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.” . . . How can we explain this? At the time, Robeson was outspoken in his declarations of racial pride. He espoused sympathy for southern blacks, who, under the systems of sharecropping and peonage, were still essentially enslaved. He had strong communist sympathies, which he did not keep hidden, that were a result, in part, of his rage at how white Americans treated blacks. Yet here he was singing songs that seemed to defend the continued oppression of his race. . .
[Nevertheless, according to music historian Will Friedwald,] “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” “presented the black man in a way that the multiethnic Tin Pan Alley [Tin Pan Alley was West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue in New York City, where the writers and publishers of popular songs had their offices — “Annie Rooney” is a typical example of a Tin Pan Alley song] could relate to — casting the ‘colored’ race in the same role as the Jews in the Old Testament. To take up the black man’s burden meant to shoulder both the suffering and the moral and religious obligations of the rest of the world” . . .
Perhaps “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” then, can be read not as a justification of slavery but as a portrait of blacks as Christ-like — they suffer, they endure, and they will eventually save the world. The song’s last line is “Someone had to stoke the train that would bring God’s children to green pastures.”
Why do you think Robeson recorded this song?
The notion of black Americans as essential to the salvation of all Americans will come up for us again when we study jazz. The composer and director Ed Bland, in his short film “The Cry of Jazz” (linked here), has one of his characters speak of “the terrible burden the Negro has of trying to teach white Americans to be human.”
The sentiment is also present in a 1947 children’s book by Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward, North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.
I came to the New World empty-handed, A despised thing, to be used and broken, Yet I brought immeasurable gifts . . . I brought to the New World the gift of communion. I was the Negro who by many a lonely campfire Learned to “steal away to Jesus” on wings of song. . . Out of loneliness, need, and anguish Was born the Spiritual, A ladder of beauty leading straight to God.
Do you think Hildegarde Hoyt Swift is echoing the sentiments of Lew Brown, the lyricist of “That’s Why”?
A similarly racist song of the early 1930s, “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” by white Tin Pan Alley songwriter Mack Gordon, also sentimentalizes southern plantation life, applying the tropes of happy, carefree, music-loving “darkies” to sophisticated black urbanites in Harlem, the children of the Great Migration. Some of the lyrics:
Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs, Rhythm in their feet and in their lips and in their eyes. Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies? Underneath the Harlem moon.
There’s no fields of cotton, pickin’ cotton is taboo; They don’t live in cabins like old folks used to do: Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue, Underneath the Harlem moon.
In a short 1933 film called Rufus Jones for President, the actress and singer Ethel Waters gives an updated version to an assembly of black U.S. senators. (Listen for the lines about drinking gin and puffing “reefers.”) Waters makes some sly references to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” with the lines “that’s why we shvartses [Yiddish for blacks] were born,” and “that’s how house rent parties were born.”
Here’s Rhiannon Giddens singing it:
What does Rhiannon Giddens do differently from Ethel Waters? How does she play with the meaning of the song? Is she signifying? Is Ethel Waters?
P.S. Your humble professor was interviewed about some of these issues on radio station WDEL-FM in Delaware in 2019. Listen to that interview here.
On the new album Our Native Daughters, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (above), there is a banjo tune titled “Barbados,” believed to be the first western notation of a slave song in the new world. The melody was transcribed by one D.W. Dickson in Barbados in the 18th century. Giddens writes in the liner notes:
This scrap of melody has of course been through a lens – the man who wrote it down would have had a firm western sense of melody and rhythm, and most likely would have corralled any kind of partial tone to fit the western scale; and if he didn’t write it down on the spot [upon hearing a slave sing or play it], he was then relying on the imperfect human memory . . . that being said, it is still a portal, however imperfect, to a time long ago, and to a people whose lives often passed unmarked and unmourned by the society around them.
The song is bookended by two poems about slavery. The first, “Pity for Poor Africans,” an ironic 1788 anti-slavery verse by the abolitionist English poet William Cowper:
I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves, And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, For how could we do without sugar and rum? Especially sugar, so needful we see; What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes, Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains: If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will: And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.
The second poem is by the album’s co-producer Dirk Powell, updated for the modern age:
I own I am shocked at prisoners in the mines, And kids sewing clothes for our most famous lines What I hear of their wages seems slavery indeed It’s enough that I fear it’s all rooted in greed
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium The garments we wear, the electronics we own What – give up our tablets, our laptops and phones?
Besides, if we do, the prices will soar And who could afford to pay one dollar more? Sitting her typing, it seems well worth the price And you there, listening on your favorite device
This bargain we’re in – well it’s not quite illict So relax my friend – we’re not all complicit.
What do you think? Are we, in fact, all complicit?
At the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Joan Baez (above with Bob Dylan) led the masses in singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Baez, of Scottish and Mexican ancestry, was the daughter of a nuclear physicist, and had become a folk-music sensation while still in her teens.
As the Library of Congress describes “We Shall Overcome,”
In a 1965 speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. also referred to the song:
Yes, we were singing about it just a few minutes ago: “We shall overcome; we shall overcome, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.”
And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also referenced the song in a famous speech. As his biographer Robert Caro tells the story, Johnson was in his limo on the way to the Capitol on March 15 to give a planned speech in support of civil rights, when his car came upon a phalanx of protestors outside the White House gate, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Just a week earlier, police in Selma, Alabama, had beaten, tear-gassed, and shot protesters — including children — marching to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights for blacks.
Johnson hastily re-wrote his speech, ending it with the words: “And we shall overcome.”
Dr. King watched the speech on television at a friend’s house in Selma, surrounded by his aides, including John Lewis, who would later become a long-serving congressman.
“We Shall Overcome” is a song derived from multiple sources, including the slave song “I’ll Be All Right Someday”:
The slave song “No More Auction Block for Me (Many Thousands Gone)”:
The hymn “I’ll Overcome Someday,” (which was composed by pastor of the East Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Charles Albert Tindley, the son of a slave):
and a Catholic hymn to the Virgin Mary from the eighteenth century, “O Sanctissima.”
The song in its best-known version was sung by striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina in 1945. It spread to other states where workers were involved in union organizing, and Pete Seeger, one of the leaders of the folk music revival, who was also a musical presence at many union rallies, heard it, made a few changes, and began performing and teaching it to audiences around the country.
Bernice Johnson-Reagon, one of the founders of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, said about Seeger’s changes:
Johnson-Reagon led an all-star ensemble, including Joan Baez, in the song many years later on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday:
What do you think about Pete Seeger changing “We Shall Overcome,” and teaching his version to black civil rights activists?
What do you think about Joan Baez leading the March on Washington in singing it? Could a white-Latinx singer credibly do this today? Should they?
And it gets more complicated: a recent lawsuit alleges that “We Shall Overcome” was pirated from a similar song, “If My Jesus Wills,” composed by Louise Shropshire, a friend of Dr. King. Read the allegations and watch video here.
In those days the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) would not allow anyone to go on a demonstration if that person so much as confessed that he would entertain a thought about hitting a white person [back] who had struck him. You had to put your body in the struggle and that meant . . . entering the church and listening to prayers, short sermons on your courage and the cause you were fighting for, singing freedom songs — “Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round” . . . and, always at the end, “We Shall Overcome” with arms crossed, holding the hands of the person next to you and swaying gently from side to side, We Shall Overcome Someday, someday but not today because you knew as you walked out of the church, two abreast, and started marching toward town, that no matter how many times you sang about not letting anybody turn you around, rednecks and po’ white trash from four counties and some from across the state line were waiting with guns, tire chains, baseball bats, rocks, sticks, clubs, and bottles, waiting as you turned the corner singing about This Little Light of Mine and how you were going to let it shine as that cop’s billy club went upside your head shine shine shining as you fell to the pavement . . . singing I Ain’t Scared of Your Jail ‘Cause I want my Freedom.
Indeed, young, increasingly radicalized SNCC activists had accompanied Dr. King on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The marchers camped in the fields at night, and, when Stokely Carmichael, the new head of SNCC (he had followed later long-serving congressman John Lewis in his leadership role), heard “We Shall Overcome” being sung around the campfire, he and his SNCC colleagues drowned it out with their version: “We Shall Overrun.”
“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Read the facsimile of Dr. King’s suggestions for black riders of the newly-integrated Montgomery, Alabama buses in 1956:
In addition to being a writer and activist, Julius Lester was also a folksinger, who collaborated with Pete Seeger on an instruction manual for the 12-string guitar.
Recently, in Portland, Oregon, the white parishioners of St. Francis Catholic Church sang “We Shall Overcome” to protest liturgial changes made by their more traditional African pastor.
What do you think of this use of “We Shall Overcome”? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it ironic?
Addendum: a scene from the opera Freedom Ride by my friend, Dan Shore. Read more about the opera here.
Questions for discussion:
As the Civil Rights Movement began to decline in the mid-1960s and to be replaced by the Black Power Movement, how did the goals and aspirations of black activists change?
How were these changes reflected in the music associated with these movements? Use a song associated with each movement as an example.
One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.
The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”
Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.
The great African-American poet Ishmael Reed wrote, in his 2016 poem “The Diabetic Dreams of Cake”:
The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazine called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s song attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.
A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:
Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.
White composers still attempted to capitalize on ragtime’s popularity by appropriating the form and fitting it with lyrics of shocking bigotry. The 1900 rag “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon” inspired Marcus Garvey to create the Pan-African flag, shown below.
Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.
Scott Joplin also wrote an opera, Treemonisha, in 1911, which included ragtime numbers. The opera didn’t receive its first full performance until 1972, and Joplin received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition posthumously for the opera in 1977.
Here is one of the opera’s most famous numbers, “A Real Slow Drag,” from the finale.
The trailer for a 1977 biopic of Joplin, featuring Billy Dee Williams as the composer.
Finally, Binghamton has a forgotten, but special, connection to the music of ragtime.
Georgia-born pianist and organist Charles Cohen, the son of slaves, made his way to Binghamton, where he lived on Haendl street on the West Side until his death. He is buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Johnson City. For more, go here:
Two of his best-known rags are “Riverside Rag” and “Fashion Rag.” The sheet music cover for “Riverside Rag,” seen in the video below, features a picture of the Riverside Amusement Park, which was once on Riverside Drive in Binghamton. That’s right — a rag about Binghamton!
(U.S. Marines attack John Brown’s encampment at the Harper’s Ferry armory in West Virginia, 1859.)
John Brown (1800-1859) was a radical abolitionist who believed that armed revolt was the only way to end slavery in the United States. He led a raid on the U.S. armory at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, with the intention of commandeering weapons to lead a slave rebellion, but the raid was put down by the U.S. Marines, and later that year Brown was hanged for treason.
Soon afterwards, the members of the 2nd Infantry Battalion of Massachusetts fitted their own words to the folk hymn “Say, Brothers,” and turned it into “John Brown’s Body.”
The new lyrics went:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3×)
In 1861, Julia Ward Howe, the wife of abolitionist Samuel Gridley Howe, who had funded John Brown’s efforts, wrote new lyrics to the tune:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.
Howe’s lyrics are a paraphrase of an apocalyptic passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 63:
(Portrait of Julia Ward Howe painted by John Elliott, 1925.)
The song became known as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and was the most famous Union marching song of the Civil War.
Here, a Georgia-based choir called the Sons of Lafayette, at least some of whose members are no doubt the descendants of Confederate soldiers, sing it with the men of the glee club of Morehouse College, the famous historically black college in Atlanta.
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.
You will notice that many, though not all, of the songs recorded by Foster and LaRue 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.”
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.
Here it is performed as an up-tempo dance by the early bluegrass ensemble the Skillet Lickers in the 1920s.
How does the meaning of the song change based on the time, place, and performer?