“Education is something [students] must labor to give themselves. . . Education is up to them as it was up to Socrates, Milton, Locke, and Lincoln.” (Mark van Doren) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” (Bob Marley)
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:
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 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.
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.
(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.
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.”
The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., has an exhibit of one of the three extant “slave Bibles” in the world until April 2019. 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 emphasizing obedience.
For more on Southern pro-slavery theology, read this.