“The Voice is not nearly so important as the Spirit”

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

The cover of the sheet music for “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. A recording of this arrangement can be found here.

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?

H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).

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.

Different Times, Different Troubles (Same Song)

“Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”, arranged by H.T. Burleigh.

It’s hard to definitely say someone should not sing certain music. When it comes to spirituals, we wonder if the music was supposed to be passed down the generations, or if it was supposed to be left behind, where it could only be associated with slavery and sorrow.

H.T. Burleigh thought such music should be remembered, as he is famous for having arranged the music for many spirituals, including “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen”. Burleigh and others published a variety of other arrangements for “mixed chorus, men’s chorus, and women’s chorus”.1
Therefore, it is clear he intended these songs to be sung by a variety of people for generations to come. He believed that spirituals have worth to anyone and everyone. He even made a statement on the second page of this sheet music, warning not to sing these songs as if a “minstrel” performance, mocking the mannerisms of African Americans while singing the song, but instead to respect the value of such musical works:

“Their 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. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man–every man–will be free.”2

If a choir of white people gave a lively and vigorous performance of this spiritual or any kind like it, it would come across as disrespectful. Slaves were not allowed to sing work songs mournfully, even though the songs were of sorrow and of trouble.3  “Douglass observed in the 1845 edition of his autobiography that slaves sang most when they were unhappy”.4 A smiley performance of such music seems inappropriate. People today cannot properly fathom the hardships that slaves endured back then, so for anyone other than slaves to sing these songs does not feel right. However, Burleigh might argue that spirituals transcend the history. The music can mean a lot to a lot of people, even if for different reasons.

Perhaps it would help to imagine slaves’ reactions to performances of their songs today. They could think it beautiful that their music has survived so long and that their time is not forgotten or brushed aside as insignificant in history. However, their reaction would probably depend on what performances they see–whose singing for whom and for what reason. They could definitely find it disturbing that their music is occasionally sung out of context for the pleasure of white people listening. But what would they think if they saw a choir in Taiwan singing one of their songs?

We can’t know for sure what they would think, but perhaps if the music is performed in a respectful manner, it can mean more for more people.

1 “H. T. Burleigh (1866-1949).” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035730.

2 Burleigh, H.T. Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen. New York: G. Ricordi & Co., Inc., 1917. Retrieved from Sheet Music Consortium, http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/23714.

3 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 161.

4 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1971), 177.

Transmission of “Nobody know(s) the(de) Trouble I(‘ve) See(n)”

As former slaves entered American culture and society as citizens with slightly more rights after the Civil War and Reconstruction they created bands and groups for themselves to play in. In the late 19th and early 20th century military bands, small orchestras, and “stock bands” were formed mostly performing popular music of the day as well as notable Classical music such as Mozart Operas.

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition

Claflin University Brass Band. Picture collected for the 1900 Paris Exposition <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001705781>


At this time spiritual music had long been co-opted by white culture with many former slave songs being compiled in “American” songbooks. In the 1920s black composers and arrangers were able to publish their settings for these groups. Composers Gussie Davis, M.L. Lake, Robert Cole, and others were very popular stock band composers and arrangers during the ’20s. Here is a setting of the familiar tune “Nobody knows de trouble I seen” from M.L. Lake.

Setting for small orchestra. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100010139/pageturner.html?page=2&section=p0001&size=640

Setting for small orchestra.


We can find the melody in the treble voice and this is a form of the melody that modern listeners would most likely be familiar with. However because of its setting it and acculturation it is rife with western harmonization and figuration. This adaptation of black folk songs is something that we are very comfortable with and reminds me of William Grant-Still’s Afro-American Symphony.

H.T. Burleigh (1866-1949) was an essential figure in bringing black folk music to the classical music scene in post-reconstruction America. He introduced popular singers to the literature and was well connected with influential musical big-wigs, including Antonin Dvorak.

H.T. Burleigh's setting of "Nobody knows" for voice and piano. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

H.T. Burleigh’s setting of “Nobody knows” for voice and piano.

The earliest notated record of this particular tune we have is from Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, the seminal work of collecting slave songs in the Antebellum South. This representation from the collection is not definite however, it is still subject to editing and doesn’t account for massive variation across the southern states. SlaveSongsThis post outlines how different settings of the same tune have been treated when brought into a western context and setting. First the tune is in its most original form (that we have available), then adapted to solo voice and piano for mass consumption and use in the home and then finally used as popular music that can be recognized by the populous who attend concerts.