After relentless, long and hard days working in the fields, enslaved black people had little in forms of comfort. Singing spirituals was one way for enslaved people to come together, to sing about their hardships, to praise God, and to lift their spirits. Although some scholars, such as George Pullen Jackson,1 have argued that spirituals stem directly from white Protestant music, spiritual songs centered on Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery, such as “Go Down, Moses”, highlight how the slave experience distinctly shaped African American spirituals.
In the numerous songs featuring the biblical character of Moses, “Go Down, Moses” is the most popular. This as well as other Moses songs directly reflects enslaved people’s longing for freedom. For many enslaved people, Moses was representative of the brave “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, that guided enslaved people to freedom.2 The lyrics of “Go Down Moses” indicating that Moses, someone who did not have as much power as the Pharaoh, could defy him and demand “to let [his] people go!” was incredibly powerful for enslaved people who dreamed of defying their master. In many ways it became a way of defying their master even if they did not run away.3
Although this version of “Go Down Moses” remains the most popular, other versions also highlight connections between the African-American slaves and the Israelites. In John Davis’s version of “Go Down, Moses”, he reveals that the chariot symbolizes the Underground Railroad and the “rivers rolling” as the rivers that runaway slaves would cross though to lose their scent.4 Although the lyrics are different, the message remains the same: a dream and a reflection on the fight for freedom.
Krehbiel’s assertion that “Nowhere save on the plantations of the south could the emotional life which is essential to the development of true folksong be developed”5 rings true in “Go Down, Moses”. Although whites may have shared Christianity with enslaved blacks, they could not emote the same connection with the enslaved Israelites. The emotion present in the slow, melancholy song in the video and sheet music above reveals the deep sadness of living in slavery and a longing for freedom that only enslaved people could understand.
1 Jackson, George Pullen. “Negro-Borrowed Tunes are Traced Back to Britain: Did the Black Man Compose Religious Songs?,” in White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1943): 264-289.
After reading Eileen Southern and Dena Epstein’s accounts of American slave songs and particularly spirituals, my curiosity was piqued. I set out to see what sheet music for spirituals looked like from the days of the sheet music craze and naturally ran across something I wasn’t really expecting.
What I found was H. T. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” for low voice and piano.1 One thing that initially struck me about the song was that it fit with what Epstein wrote about as a common theme in slave songs, that is the repetition of the same line of text several times in a row. Another common characteristic was syncopation, which is also an important driving characteristic of this song.2
However, arrangement is also interesting because it has been written in the style of arias and art songs. The melody is written out clearly, omitting some of the vocalizations that perhaps would have been sung by slaves. It is also made clear that the song does not perhaps fully fit a European method of transcription by the footnote on the first page which offers an alternate rhythm for one of the measures. Additionally, the arrangement contains a simple piano accompaniment consisting mainly of repetitive chords on the beats. This makes sense as the arranger, H. T. Burleigh studied on scholarship at the National Conservatory of Music in New York and ultimately became famous for being the first to arrange spirituals in the style of art songs, allowing for their entry into recital repertoire.3
The other interesting aspect of this sheet music is the arranger’s note that precedes it. In it, Burleigh gives a brief history of spirituals and claims that they are “practically the only music in America which meets the scientific definition of Folk Song”. He then goes on to advise the would-be singer that “the voice is not nearly so important as the spirit” when preforming, and that rhythm is the critical element. He admonishes that spirituals should not be linked with “minstrel” songs and that one should not try to imitate “Negro” accent or mannerisms in performance.
Ultimately, this got me thinking again about our discussion question of who gets to sing these songs and who gets to decide who gets to sing them? This arrangement was obviously originally intended for a white audience because of its warning about trying to perform them imitating the ways that are “natural to the colored people”. Written as it is in the style of an art song, means it caters to recitalists. Most recitalists of the time were white, as Burleigh himself is regarded as one of the first African American recitalists. Can white performers sing these songs that came out of the deep anguish of slavery and do them justice?
Burleigh also adds an interesting dimension to the puzzle. As a black man born after the abolition of slavery, does he still have a right and connection to these songs? After all, he came from a poor family and learned many of his spirituals from his grandfather, who had been a slave.4 Furthermore, Burleigh still lived in a time of deep racial inequality and probably experienced ugly racism and discrimination in his own life.
Perhaps Burleigh, in is own way, provides a bit of an answer to this quandary in his performance notes when he remarks that spirituals’ “worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man”. It may not be a perfect answer, but it is something.
1Burleigh, H. T. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” from Negro Spirituals. New York: G. Ricordi, 1918. http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15037coll1/id/5400. Accessed March 19, 2018.
2Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
3““Harry” Burleigh (1866–1949).” In African American Almanac, by Lean’tin Bracks. Visible Ink Press, 2012. https://ezproxy.stolaf.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/vipaaalm/harry_burleigh_1866_1949/0?institutionId=4959. Accessed March 19, 2018.
4Snyder, Jean. “Burleigh, Henry [Harry] T(hacker).” Grove Music Online. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-1002248537. Accessed March 19, 2018.
People of color are often treated as as outsiders and struggle to be viewed as fully American, rather than a hyphenated version of it. Much of this is rooted in the fact that it was not until relatively recently that people of color in the United States were even considered citizens. Now, even those who are American citizens constantly have to prove that they are “American” enough. A key characteristic of a “normal” American that is implied but never explicitly stated is that one must be white. Without whiteness, loyalty to the United States as well as true “Americanness” is always questioned.
The assumption that one must be white to be American is visible in the history of black spirituals. In Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music by Henry Edward Krehbiel, the exclusion of black spirituals within the label of “American folk music” is highlighted. Krehibel explains how many writers acknowledge the “interesting character of the songs, but refuse them the right to be called American” (Krehibel, 1962). This denial of “American” status is continually brought up throughout Krehibel’s writing. After all, “they were created in America with American influences and by people who are Americans in the same sense that any other element in our population is American” (Krehibel, 1962). Well, all except one thing: they weren’t white.
Creating boundaries to determine who is and is not really American is evident in this article from a newspaper from the Freedom’s Journal written in 1828. This was written by a black man educated in the North about his travel experience to Maryland, a state where slavery was still widely present at the time. When describing his experience in Baltimore he states that a black man from the north can never feel at home because:
“when we come to talk of liberty – of the rights of citizenship – of his evidence in a court of justice against his fairer brethren, we cannot but perceive that there is little justice doled out to [a man of colour]”
It does not matter that this man is from the north and educated. He still will not be treated as having the same rights of citizenship as a white man. This history around citizenship and rights of black people contributes to the modern conception of who is “American”. The deeply embedded racism in slavery and later in determining citizenship status caused black people to struggle to gain American citizenship. This contributes to the reason why the default race of an American is white. This notion, however, is not only attributed to citizenship status, as even currently, people of color who are American citizens since birth still have to prove that they belong. Maintaining whiteness as the norm prevents people of color from being included in the status of “American” just as black spirituals were excluded from being considered American folk music. This exclusion helps to maintain the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States by pinning them as outsiders and not truly American.
Fort Dearborn Publishing Co. Map of the United States of America. 1901. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/3f4636795.
Henry Edward Krehbiel. Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962.
“Travelling Scraps.” Freedom’s Journal (New York, NY), August 15, 1828.