Why it is that “man’s inhumanity to man” should often produce great art is one of the mysteries of the human spirit. Some deep wellspring of creativity has certainly been touched in the making of the songs of the Negro, or African-American people. Inspired by the Bible, by their work and play, by their own experiences and great expectations, they have formed a language which leaps over national and racial boundaries, speaking to all men in a uniquely rich and varied art.
Religious songs of the Negro slave, called “spirituals,” were the outpourings of a suffering people, but the dominant theme was one of joyful faith rather than resignation or bitterness. The great number of these religious songs is evidence of the Negroes’ response to the Bible, particularly the teachings of resurrection and life after death. The thought of death is much in evidence, but it was always approached with confidence as the release from bondage into everlasting love. As Biblical interpreters, Negroes were superb. The Old Testament figures sprang to life, as if the age-old heroes and the present-day narrators witnessed the miracles together.
The music for these various dramas can range from a somber “blues” to an exultant rhythmic chant. And the language, too, has a quality all its own. Most of the texts are very brief, having an improvised type of verse and a much-iterated refrain. Certain motifs appear again and again—the river Jordan, for instance, or more secularly, the train. To understand the spiritual at a deeper level, it is first important to understand the deep-seated evils and devastation caused by slavery, and how Negro music evolved out of that horrid institution.
Slavery was more than just working hard and not getting paid for it. It was a limitation on your dreams, on your hopes, who you could marry, who you couldn’t marry. It was an entire system, from the Federal Government all the way down to the slave owner, that kept you from having personality, that kept you from having a human life. Slavery was, in a word, hopelessness condensed.
Slavery was an unrelenting, unrewarded toil on the part of men and women who had no control over their own lives. It was being born, living one’s life, and dying without ever having control over one’s destiny, while at the same time living within a society in which individual freedom and liberty were the principles upon which that society was founded. How much more difficult, how much more cruel than being whipped was it to live contained in a society where you could see freedom all around and not be able to touch it?
Slavery was brutal; its system “bred indecency in human relations,” not only between black and white, but also between white and white, between man and wife, father and son, master and overseer. For the slave, music was one of the chief avenues of escape from a life that held little dignity and meaning. The slaveholders, realizing the power of music, encouraged its use, not only as a means of increasing the work output of the slaves, but more important, as a means of preventing depression and suicidal impulses.
There were several practices of slaves which affected their singing to such an extent that white churchmen protested vehemently. First, they held songfests away from proper supervision and this was undesirable to the “church fathers.” They sang songs of their own composing, which was even worse in the eyes of these officials. The texts of the composed songs were not lyric poems in the hallowed tradition of Isaac Watts, but a stringing together of isolated lines from prayers, the Scriptures, and orthodox hymns, the whole made longer by the addition of choruses or the injecting of refrains between verses. Finally, for their composed religious songs, slaves used tunes that were dangerously near to being dance tunes in the style of jubilee melodies. None of this was acceptable to these orthodox churchmen. Nevertheless, from such practices emerged a new kind of religious song that became the distinctive badge of the black slave.
In their songs, the slaves reflected their way of life. While the original inspiration for a spiritual may have been a Biblical story or a Protestant hymn, the poetic material was reshaped to the slaves’ own immediate concerns. We know from the testimony of ex-slaves that the religious songs, more than any others, often had double meanings and were used as code songs.
Again and again the same themes are represented in the folksongs, both religious and non-religious. Some of these themes can be anticipated, for they are the themes of any oppressed people who are determined “to overcome.” First, there is faith—faith that someday slavery will be no more. The slave knows that Jesus will come to his rescue, whether he is wrestling Jacob, fighting Satan, or searching for a way out of the wilderness. Closely associated with faith is optimism. A song proclaims that the winter will soon be over; other songs remind the slaves that the sun is shining and the bells are ringing. Patience is necessary. If one cannot depend upon his own inner resources, then one must pray to the Lord for help, ask Jesus to give more patience. At the same time, the song maker cries out, “how much longer?” He is discouraged, weary, and ill; his body is racked with pain and fever. He even welcomes death as a reliever of his misery. The weariness theme sounds in almost all the songs, sometimes in the opening verses but more frequently in the later ones. Surprisingly, for a so-called meek people, there is a great deal of emphasis on the theme of fighting. True, the fight is frequently symbolic—a fight with Satan or Jacob or sin. But in numerous instances all pretense is dropped; the slave plans to fight until he dies.
Rhythm is the most striking feature of the slaves’ music. Except for the field hollers, which have their own free rhythmic patterns, slave songs showed a decided preference for simple duple meters, as distinguished from triple meters. In performance, the steady beats of a song’s meter were maintained by hand clapping and foot tapping.
Typically, the slave melodies are marked by syncopation. As a consequence the melodic accents are shifted from the strong beats of the music to the weaker beats, and there is a conflict set up between accents in the melody and the foot tapping or hand clapping, which represents metrical accents.
The Negro composer was a slave composer. He had a very limited vocabulary. To convey a message, he had to be resourceful. And from this need came a unique, individual art and purity of expression.
There were at least three unique elements in Negro music.
- The music was moving and imperishable.
- The dialect of the slaves was different from common English. The English language contains difficult sounds and letter combinations which resists an easy thoroughgoing mastery by foreigners. For the Africans, it was the sound of th that was especially difficult. So this became dis and with, wid. Final r’s caused trouble too, and so they were eliminated. Door and fear became doh and feah.
- The rhythm of Negro music was unique. The composer became a genius at forging lyrics in rhythmic repetition—and, in a sense, both melody and lyric were made subordinate to that pulsating life, underlying and urgent.
The planters frequently misunderstood the singing of the slave. Too often they saw the blacks on their plantations as “a large flock of cheerful and contented slaves…ever merry and ever working with a song.” On one occasion a slave, when questioned by Fredrika Bremer about his apparent good humor responded: We endeavor to keep ourselves up as well as we can. What can we do unless we keep a good heart? If we were to let it weaken, we should die.
Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup were the most articulate of the ex-slaves who tried to explain the meaning of slave songs. Douglass observed in his 1845 autobiography that slaves sang most when they were unhappy. He remembered in particular the singing of two slaves on his Maryland plantation when they made their monthly trips to the great House Farm for supplies:
A favorite air was, ‘I thought I heard them say, there were lions in the way, I don’t expect to stay much longer here. Run to Jesus—shun the danger— I don’t expect to stay much longer here.’
It had a double meaning. In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery.
The purpose of some songs was to alert the slaves that a “conductor” was on the way. Many conductors made trip after trip into the South to personally lead caravans of slaves off the plantations, the white operators posing as slaveholders, slave traders, peddlers, or anyone else they thought could gain the confidence of slave owners. This method os escape for Negroes was called the “underground railroad.”One of the leading conductors of the underground railroad was the ex-slave Harriet Tubman (1820?-1913), called the “black Moses of her race.” After escaping from slavery herself, she made innumerable trips back into the South to help others to escape. It is said that she always used a special song to disclose her presence to the slaves.
Those who were left behind would have been consoled by some songs. Many of the old songs that the slaves had been singing for years must have been sung with special meaning when an escape plot was in the air. Others undoubtedly served as “alerting” songs. Still others were songs that served as “maps,” the best known of which was “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, which directed the fugitives to always travel in the direction of the Big Dipper.
It is possible that when an escape plot was in the air, traditional songs were provided with parody verses specifically stating meeting places and departure times. No such versions survive, however. Most of the record of underground railroad activities were systematically and carefully destroyed and understandably so, for the penalties of discovery were too great to risk taking chances.
In the fall of 1862, President Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation stating that on January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever, free.” Black men assembled in “rejoicing meetings” all over the land on the last night of December in 1962, waiting for the stroke of midnight to bring freedom to those slaves in the secessionist states. At the contraband camp in Washington, D.C., the assembled blacks sang over and over again the well-known spiritual “Go Down Moses.”
The year 1865 brought to an end the enslavement of four million blacks. By the thousands the ex-slaves fled the hated plantations to urban areas of the South, to the North, and out into the great plains of the West. Inevitably there was a tremendous amount of suffering, for the freedmen were suddenly thrust without preparation into a new way of life.
Despite the migration of thousands out of the South, within a few years most of the newly freed slaves were resettled there and engaged in agricultural occupations as before. They worked under a system called “sharecropping,” wherein the landowner provided land and tools for the worker, whose responsibility it was to raise crops. At harvest time the worker was given a share of the crops as pay for his labor. The built-in evils of the system militated against the ex-slaves’ prospects of improving their lot. In some ways they were worse off than under slavery. The southern states began to pass the so-called Jim Crow laws that infringed upon the freedmen’s rights in every area of daily life. Their precarious situation was not helped by the emergence of white secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan, whose avowed purpose was to establish control over the black population and maintain “white supremacy.” Under cover of darkness, hooded white riders tore black men from their homes—beat them, tarred and feathered them, lynched them.
In keeping with his traditions, the ex-slave sang about his experiences—his new freedom, his new occupations, the strange ways of the city, current events, and his feelings of rootlessness and loneliness. Above all, he sought a self-identity. Slavery had deprived him of a name, a homeland, and a family. The original African names of his forbears had long ago been forgotten, the land of Africa no longer beckoned after almost two hundred and fifty years of exile, and his relatives had been dispersed because the slave auction block had separated husband from wife, mother from child, brother from sister, and lover from lover. Now that freedom had come, some freedmen set out in search of long-lost loved ones. The black singer recounted their adventures, too. In an uneasy society that used the slightest pretext for putting black men in prison. Consequently, a new type of song was born: the prison song.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers. It was the Negro Spiritual that became this nation’s first musical export to gain the praise of European audiences. In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers made their first tour to raise funds for the newly-established Fisk University, ultimately touring the United States and Europe, singing command performances whereever they went, selling their collection of spirituals around the world. They sang before crowned heads of Europe and before the common people in Germany, Switzerland, and Great Britain. They were the first choral group to go out and sing in places in the United Sates that had never before heard the black man’’ folk music.
To be sure, the spirituals performed on the concert stage represented adaptations of the folksongs rather than the genuine product. When the spirituals were removed from the original setting of the plantation or the Negro Church and sung by people who had not directly experienced slavery, these songs no longer served their primary function. Concert singers could present to the public only an approximation of how the spirituals had been sung by the slaves.