Examining the Songs of Slavery In America
Examining the Songs of Slavery In America
For some reason, the last song you hear on the radio always sticks in your head. Later in the day, you catch yourself singing it…and you realize that it’s not even a song that you like! Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for all those around you, we can sing that song, no matter who, including yourself, cares to listen to it. No one is going to punish you for the quirkiness that goes with having the guts to actually sing a song that the guy in the cubicle next to yours just busted up the radio for playing. Music is part of our everyday lives.
It is something that most of us have never lived without. Something in a song empowers us, saddens us, angers us, and makes us fall in love. So many of us can link a special memory to a song…and that 4-minute composition of words written by someone whom you’ve never even, met can take you back to “that place”, if for only a moment, and make you feel “that way” again. Songs are a way of life for most of us, and they have been for many years. Today, we listen to songs freely. History, however, reveals that many of us were not born with the same freedom. Can you imagine being punished for enjoying music?
For history’s slave community, singing, humming, or listening to music was prohibited (Lang, p. 13). To slave owners, the practice of music portrayed a relaxed state for the slave. Most felt that carrying on with such “nonsense” would interfere with the slave’s focus, resulting in poor performance. The opposite, however, was the outcome. When they were allowed to sing, the slave found joy in the day Crane/Fleming 2 (Watts, p. 1). Singing was an outlet…a way to say how they felt about their owners, the job being done, family, God, and about dreams for themselves.
Originating during the Civil War slave days, singing soon caught on all over the South and beyond. It served both hidden and obvious purpose. Not only could a slave could sing a song, and feel relaxed performing assigned duties, a slave could also “chant” a song to communicate messages to fellow slaves. So much mystery lies behind this aged practice, and uncovering the mystery will leave you appreciating the creativity utilized, whether you are of slave ancestry or not. If you have ever been to a traditional, majority Black church, you would walk out feeling energized.
The energy exercised to convey God’s word is pretty unmatched by churches of other ethnicities. It’s as if the Black community has been doing this for years…and they have been. In early slave days, slaves were not allowed to read scriptures. Instead, they learned of God through “white folks’” church (Brown, p. 1). It was at these meetings that they listened to hymns, heard a few bible scriptures, and were told “mind” their masters. Soon, the slaves took it upon themselves to meet privately and discuss God and what he had planned for them.
After the meetings, several would stay behind and “ring shout”, or chant songs about God and His plan for them. Foot tapping and hand clapping were accompanied by paced singing, and as the song continued, the pace would increase (Watt, p. 1). Men and women slaves became so involved in the chanting that they would collapse in emotion to the ground. Ministers were disturbed by this unusual behavior and soon banned the practice of ring shouts. It was at these early gatherings when the historical slave songs evolved. The very nature in which they are practiced lead back to the days of ring shouts.
Soon, the topics of the shouts veered from being only about God, and began to include chants of hopes, prayers, and displays of confidence. Crane/Fleming 3 In the movie, Glory (Zwick, 1989) the men of the “Fifty-fourth” prepare to fight by performing a ring shout to bear hopes of success against the men they will soon face. These black men, formerly slaves, start slow and humble, and soon roar to a fast paced shout of faith in God, love of family, and belief in each other. Hands clap and legs are slapped for rhythm. This scene in the movie portrays the sole possession these men have to hold on to: each other.
With a bit of encouraging, one soldier is assisted by another to not just “say” his hopes for the battle’s outcome, but to “demand” them with confidence that his prayers will be answered. Although Hollywood glamorized this scene with embellishments such as a pre-determined beat and a chorus, this type of shouting is how it all began. Knowing how it all began leaves us with the need to know “why” it all began. Why did “slave songs” (Ware, Allen, and Garrison, p. I) become such a big part of history? No other group in history utilized song the way that history’s slave did.
Not only did singing pass the day, but singing helped the slave to identify with themselves. Bringing God into the lyrics, they created biblical images (Silverman, p. 79) of who they compared themselves to during biblical times. Many compared themselves to Moses, and sang of leading all slaves to freedom, just as Moses led the Israelites from Pharaoh’s captivity. This gave the slaves hope. Soon, this boost of hope led to singing songs about what it would be like when they were free. In Slavery Chain Done Broke at Last (Silverman, p. 83), the slave sings of how freedom is abound.
He is sure to thank God, and vows to continue telling God his problems, in hopes of receiving more help when needed. In other songs, such as Oh, Freedom, (Ware, Allen and Garrison, p. 33), slaves give thanks at the end of a long and dangerous journey to freedom. On the other side of serious purpose, slave songs were not always sung just to say “thanks”. They were also sung as a way to Crane/Fleming 4 entertain, just as today’s music does for us. A good example of this is Now Let Me Fly (Brown, p. 1), where slaves sing of African people who could fly.
Songs like these were loved by children, as their imaginations soared with images of flying people. But along with singing about being thankful and creating silly images for children, these songs served another purpose…perhaps the most important purpose of all: they served as a form of communication among the slaves (Johnson and Johnson, p. 18). Slaves lived a hard life. Along with being “owned” by another human being, the slave’s owner employed harsh rules for the slave to live by. One of these rules was that they were owned property, and could not leave on their own accord to be a free person (Watts, p.
1). Discussions of being free were punishable by whipping, beating and starving the slave. The slave was forced to create a way to communicate ploys to escape, warnings of a master’s mood, new slaves joining the old slaves, and many other issues in code. The slave song was the perfect way to convey messages without being discovered. Many of the slave’s work songs were composed out of sheer desperation to warn others of trouble ahead, or to keep an escape attempt from getting botched. Let Us Break Bread Together (Allen, Ware, and Garrison, p.
34) allowed fellow slaves to know about meetings to be held in the early morning hours (before sunrise) to discuss concerns, share prayers, and plan an escape. These meetings were held far earlier than the master’s waking hours. Plans were made, escape routes were decided, and updates on other slave’s escape attempts were provided. Later in the day, in the fields, around the house, or where ever else work was to be done, the slaves sang their songs, inconspicuously passing messages to one another. Other songs, such as No More Auction Block for Me (Johnson and Johnson, p.
20) conveyed a message of weariness of a slave’s hope. This song was often sung under one’s breath, during or Crane/Fleming 5 almost immediately after being beaten. One slave could often recognize the beaten slave’s mouth movements, and gather the support of fellow slaves to encourage new hope if the beating was survived. Happy, sad, useful, or light-hearted, the hidden messages of these songs were understood among all those who sang or listened to them. Although creative in nature, and almost ingenious in creation, these songs were recorded in words for us to read today in the exact format in which they were written.
It is interesting to read some of the lyrics of these songs, spelling included, particularly because these songs were written down exactly the way they were spoken. The spoken English of some slaves could be somewhat choppy, and sometimes difficult to understand. Though the message is clear, songs such as Hear from Heaven Today (Allen, Ware and Garrison, p. 2) display a perfect example of how the words of the song were to be pronounced: “…a baby born in Bethlehem, and I yearde De trumpet sourd in the oder bright land My name is called and I mus go De bell is a-ringin’ in de oder bright world
My brudder, my brudder Joseph and sista Mary…” -Anonymous Though some are difficult to read, the authenticity of unedited lyrics links us to a part of history not to be misunderstood. While the level of education is evident, what can be proven is that slaves were absolutely not ignorant people. Sometimes the subject matter of a song is simple. An example of this can be found in Git De Chores Done (Brown, p. 1). The slave sings, “Did you feed my cow? ” “Yes, Maam. ” “Will you tell-a me how? ” “Yes, Maam. ” “Oh, what did you give her? ” “Cawn and hay. ” “Oh, what did you give her? ” “Cawn and hay.
” -Anonymous Crane/Fleming 6 The slave was encouraged by something as simple as a brief conversation between him and the slave’s owner to create a song that added motivation to the day’s duty. On the other side of the “work song” (Watt, p. 1) is a song far more complex. Codes were often sent through songs. In Get Dem Chilen Home (Brown, p. 1), the slave sings of certain obstacles to look out for: “…Take careful when you turn dat co’ner. He waitin’ fo you, waitin’ fo you, always watchin’. Get Dem Chilen Home by way of dem hills, But take careful when you turn dat co’ner. -Stephen Foster
In history, no other group of people made full use of song the way the slaves did (Watt, p. 1). Not only did they sing about what they did, they saved lives and led each other to freedom. Their songs changed what we know about history in a colorful way. Love it or not, music and song are here to stay. We have the great fortune to do with it what we will. Some will choose to listen, and others will choose to write. We may never again do with song what the slaves did with it, and that’s o. k. But who knows…maybe one day our children’s children will be writing a paper on what people of our time did to change music and song forever.