H.T. Burleigh’s arrangements of these spirituals encapsulate the lives and struggles of enslaved people forced to work on a plantation. These two recordings are of the spirituals, Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen and Deep River, arranged by H.T. Burleigh, a prolific black composer, arranger and singer of the early 20th century. These tracks feature the voice of Oscar Seagle, a baritone and prominent musician at the time. They were both recorded in New York by the Columbia label. Burleigh arranges – and later records – these plantation songs as a way to re-popularize spirituals and to provide a rich sentiment to listeners of the culture of plantation songs. We have spent a while talking about spirituals and how they act as a lens into life on a plantation, talking in code to tell directions on how and when to escape enslavement. We also talked about the different kinds of plantation songs, those with stronger beats being work songs and others being different and more emotional. These pieces were likely not work songs, as they are melancholy and deeply emotional. Each of these pieces are also codes. Nobody knows concludes with a positive text, that soon the singer will be in heaven, and if anyone gets there before them, tell the singer’s friends that they’re coming. Deep River speaks of a campground and wanting to leave, which could have been code for if an enslaved person was going to leave. These are references to leaving enslavement and finding a better place, one without slavery, and with freedom. I wanted to look at these two pieces as they provide the listener with a deep context as to the struggles and lives of enslaved people and the looking forward that they would one day no longer be enslaved. This, at its core, is truly American music.
Burleigh, H. T, and Oscar Seagle. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. 1917. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-879940/.
Burleigh, H. T, and Oscar Seagle. Deep River. 1916. Audio. https://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox-655500/.