The spiritual, “Oh, Freedom”, popularized during the civil war, is American folk music at its core. In his book, Afro-American Folksongs, Musicologist Henry Krehbiel cites W. E. B. Du Bois when mentioning this song and its influences.
“The song ‘Oh, Freedom over Me,’ which Dr. Burghardt du Bois quotes in his ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ as an expression of longing for deliverance from slavery encouraged by fugitive slaves and the agitation of free [black] leaders before the War of the Rebellion, challenges no interest for its musical contents, since it is a compound of two white men’s tunes- ‘Lily Dale,’ a sentimental ditty, and ‘The Battle-Cry of Freedom,’ a patriotic song…” 1
Here are recordings of the two “white men’s tunes” Du Bois mentions, “Lily Dale” and “The Battle-Cry of Freedom” as well as “Oh Freedom”-
The Battle-Cry of Freedom (1907)
A casual listener can hear the melodic similarities, especially between the choruses of “Lily Dale” and “Oh, Freedom”. Lyrical ideas are also shared between “Battle-Cry of Freedom” and “Oh, Freedom”.
O Freedom, O Freedom,
O Freedom over me!
Before I’ll be a slave.
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord,
And be free!
“Battle-Cry of Freedom”
We will welcome to our numbers
The loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom;
And although they may be poor,
Not a man shall be a slave,
Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.2
So, is “Oh, Freedom” an appropriated song? Sure, but at the end of the day, isn’t everything?
Enslaved black people took the white man’s songs and reappropriated them. “Battle-Cry of Freedom” was a song that swept over the north and united the union after Lincoln’s call for 300,000 volunteers for the union army. The enslaved took this power the song created and used it for their own gain in this emancipation song.
The many influences of “Oh, Freedom” from existing songs, as well as the lived experiences of the enslaved, highlights that at its core, it is a folk song.
1Henry Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 17.
2 “Civil War Music: The Battle Cry of Freedom.” American Battlefield Trust. The History Channel. Accessed October 4, 2021, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/civil-war-music-battle-cry-freedom.