Abolition, Music, and the Imagined Slave

When I set out to write this post, it was supposed to be about a review of the Hutchinson Family Singers that was printed in an abolitionist newspaper in Boston on December 30th, 1842. While exploring that issue of the newspaper, however, I discovered a reprinting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave Singing at Midnight.”1 The poem is such a good example of some of the issues we discussed in class earlier this semester that I could not pass it by.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Slave Sings at Midnight,” as published in the Boston newspaper the Liberator in 1842.

From the first line, “Loud he sang the psalm of David,” Longfellow establishes that the music of slaves was Christian. He repeats these Old Testament themes throughout the poem, likening African slaves to the Israelites fleeing Egypt. Whether or not Longfellow actually thought that the slaves songs were only Biblical, or if it was a metaphor, this association of slave music with Christian (meaning at this time European) themes is reminiscent of George Pullen Jackson’s problematic argument that slave spirituals are only of European origin.2 By placing the black slave in a European Christian context, Longfellow was telling readers not only to think of slaves as melancholic and noble, but also to think of their music within a European framework. While this is not surprising for a white New Englander at the time, is shows a consciousness for the genre of music that slaves were thought to sing.

Another theme in this poem is that of secrecy. For example, “in this hour, when night is calmest,” or in the dead of night, the slave sings “in a voice so sweet and clear/That I could not choose but hear,” showing that Longfellow may have been aware of the tradition among slaves to sing and worship under the cover of darkness so as to avoid the eyes of slaveholders. It is within this shroud of privacy that the slave is able to sing out clearly about the pain of slavery, and the desire to escape.

An excerpt from a review of a concert by the Hutchinson Family Singers in late 1842. The review was generally positive, but the author, Parker Pillsbury, hoped for more focus on abolition in the future.

At the end of the poem, Longfellow alludes to the abolitionist cause, asking the question so often repeated in abolitionist music: who will fight for the downtrodden slave? Returning to the review I originally planned to write about, we can see common thread between Longfellow’s question, and the reviewer’s wish that the Hutchinsons would take abolitionism up with more fervor.3 While the Hutchinsons were known abolitionists, their repertoire did not include any specifically abolitionist songs in 1842 (those would be added less than a year later.)4 Through both the poem and the review, we can see the abolitionist movement calling for more devoted action, and realizing that music would be important for both inspiring an empathy vision of slaves, and creating excitement for the cause.

1 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “The Slave Singing at Midnight.” From Poems on Slavery. Liberator. Boston, Dec. 30, 1842.

2 George Pullen Jackson. White and Negro Spirituals: Their Lifespan and Kinship. Locust Valley, New York: Augustin Publisher, 1943.

3 Parker Pillsbury. “The Hutchinson Singers.” Liberator. Boston, Dec. 30, 1842.

4 Dale Cockrell, ed. Excelsior: Journals of the Hutchinson Family Singers 1842-1846. Pendragon Press: 1989, 94.

The History and Reception of “Roll Jordan, Roll”

After a discussion on the origins of black spirituals I was left questioning the origins of specific spirituals like “Roll Jordan, Roll”. I found, although not very surprising, that “Roll Jordan, Roll” was created by an european man by the name of Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. He was a methodist preacher and after reading the articles by Jackson and Krehbiel, which have the goal of tackling this question of origin, I was not at all surprised that the origins of the song came from a white, protestant background. What I am left wondering is how “Roll Jordan, Roll” made it’s way to the slave south of the mid to late nineteenth century.
What I have found through my search in pursuit of answering my wonder is that the song may have been used as an effort to christianize the slaves. What I mean is the song wasn’t the sole proprietor in christianizing but was apart of a curriculum in doing so. It seems that the song had gone through an evolution and rather than being a christianizing song to the slaves, it was turned into a song of sorrow or conduit for abolitionism.
The religious allegories of the song had become a story of escaping slavery. There are many adaptations of the song, but the idea of the song being one of being delivered from slavery remains. The photo below is a documentation of one adaptation of the song. It was recorded into the Slave Songs of the United States (1867). 

Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen

“Roll Jordan, Roll” was eventually widely accepted as a former slave song rather than methodist spiritual. Below is a excerpt from a newspaper article from 1880. Whomever wrote it acknowledges that the songs sung by the Jubilee Singers, included “Roll Jordan, Roll” originated from “slavery times”, not the old English Methodists.
I suppose for me “Roll Jordan, Roll” can not be owned by any race. It is a black spiritual as well as a Methodist hymn.
Works Cited and Consulted:
“The National Capital. Wether–Society–The Jubilee Singers.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans), March 20, 1880. Accessed March 20, 2018. African American Newspapers.
“Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound.” The Black Atlantic. March 18, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/2014/03/18/roll-jordan-roll-a-community-in-song-and-sound/.
“The River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.” River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/river-jordan-in-early-african-american-spirituals.
“Slave Songs of the United South.” William Francis Allen, 1830-1889, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921, and Lucy McKim Garrison, 1842-1877. Slave Songs of the United States. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html#slsong1.

“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.

Lullabies and Mother-Child Relationships in Slavery

The focus on slave songs this past week provided important insights into the lives of slaves in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In Eileen Southern’s book The Music of Black Americans, she details the ways in which the growing slave population in the South experienced music in their everyday lives.[1] It’s fascinating to learn not only about the songs’ significance, but also how this music has been recorded and preserved over time.

Southern briefly touched on the role of song in dance in recreation. This piqued my interest in one element of slave culture touched upon less in the readings for the week: slave family life. Those with only minimal knowledge of slavery in the United States understand that stable and cohesive families were rare. It was not uncommon for children and their mothers to be separated from their fathers.[2] Nevertheless, recreation and resilient familial relationships were an enduring silver lining.

Letter to President Taylor – The North Star – Mar 1850

While perusing the African American Historical Newspaper Collection, I came across one especially intriguing article that reflected this theme and, in particular, the mother-child relationship in slavery.[3] The excerpt displays a letter from Francis Jackson to President Zachary Taylor, calling for him to abolish slavery. In the letter, Jackson appeals to President Taylor by referencing the bond between slave mothers and their children.

Letter to President Taylor – The North Star – Mar 1850

He questions the President’s morals if he continues to permit slavery after acknowledging its cruelty, as evidenced in part by the separation of mothers and their children. This led me to wonder: in what ways did the mother-child relationship in slavery intersect with the music created and preserved on the plantation? Did parents, and more specifically – mothers – have a distinct way of connecting through music?

My research led me to an online feminism project from Brandeis University, which features a collection of information about slave lullabies.[4] Lullabies are typically thought of as soothing melodies sung to calm children. The authors here describe the ways in which slave mothers cared for and nurtured their children through lullabies, despite the lack of agency associated with their motherhood. One excerpt reads:

“Slave songs about mothering open a window into these women’s hearts. Many of these lullabies have come down to us as words only—their tunes are lost—but they resonate nevertheless. Their lyrics reveal an ever-present sense of danger and pain; they whisper sweet promises of a brighter future; and, as lullabies have always done, they serve the practical purpose of making children ‘sleep good, feel better and have something to hope for.'”

This project website includes several original texts written by slave mothers, many of which have been adapted and are recognizable today. Included below is believed to be one of these adaptation: a recording of a song from the 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou. These lyrics are similar to a poem entitled “Go to Sleepy,” written by Annie Little, who, reportedly, sang her 10 enslaved children to sleep with these lyrics.

Understanding the origins of songs and lullabies we know today, such as those derived from texts documented in this project, can go a long way in preserving slave songs. Lullabies were one way slave mothers could use music to provide comfort, and reflecting on this history allows us to appreciate how music played a part in the complexities of the slave familial relationships.

[1] Southern, Eileen. “Antebellum Rural Life.” In The Music of Black Americans: A History, 151-204. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

[2] Williams, Heather A. “How Slavery Affected African American Families.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1609-1865/essays/aafamilies.htm.

[3] Jackson, Francis. “Letter to President Taylor.” The North Star (African American Historical Newspaper Collection), March 22, 1850.

[4] Tick, Judith, and Melissa J. De Graaf. “Slave Lullabies in the American South: Mothers’ Voices Recovered.” The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://www.brandeis.edu/projects/fse/slavery/lullabies/index.html.

 

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and Their First Record

http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

In 1871, George White organized the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Tennessee, in order to raise money for the school. They were a group of black students from Fisk University who performed spirituals in the concert setting. While previous black concert artists performed standard white repertoire, the Fisk Jubilee Singers gave performances of black music, and this music did not follow the prevalent minstrel stereotypes. In 1898, John Wesley Work II, a later director of the group, helped get the Fisk Jubilee Singers recorded. This recording here is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was one of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ best tunes of the time.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers had a major influence on the introduction of the spiritual into American repertoire, but the group had to adapt their style in order to have that effect. The director of the group, John Work, carried out a deal with Victor Talking Machine Company in hopes of reaching a wider audience. In Richard Crawford’s America’s Musical Life, he states that the purpose of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was to bring the history of Southern slaves into the present culture of Northern urban Protestants. The Jubilee singers dressed very properly and were polished in both behavior and musicality. They also didn’t sing in a dialect. This recording from Victor seems to have the typical sound of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, but it may not be representative of how the slaves in fields would have sung these songs. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were working against preexisting stereotypes and a racist society, so they found a more appealing sound that still maintained the idealized fervor of slave music to resonate with the white audiences. This reflects the idea of white people adapting music from other cultures or forcing others to match their own tastes of music, like we can see with Theodore F. Seward’s arrangement of Go Down Moses, in that it takes a standard spiritual and sets it within white hymnody.

While they did everything they could to appeal to their white audience, and were successful in that, they were still not always taken seriously. Even the Victor record company claimed that “they sometimes excite to laughter by their quaint conceptions of religious ideas.” The white audiences thought of them as novelties. Yet, Victor praises the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ emotional appeal to all. We should be grateful for the contributions of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, as they helped with the acceptance, development, and preservation of spirituals. It is also important to acknowledge their struggles in promoting this music and how that has affected the development of the genre.

Sources

Brooks, Tim. Lost Sounds. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.5406/j.ctt2jcc81.19.pdf?refreqid=search%3Ab6add585f9e3810555f5c47c576075a2

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Fisk University Jubilee Singers. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Victor B-8420, 1909. mp3 Accessed October 2, 2017. http://media.loc.gov/playlist/view/5A9DB5B664340160E0538C93F1160160

Roy, William G. Reds, Whites, and Blues. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Accessed October 2, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt7rgqw.5.pdf?refreqid=search%3Aeac284c272f71c57421ddda9fc0c5238

 

Characteristics of Black Church Music

A new religious tradition emerged when slaves were brought to America, which blended elements of indigenous West African worship with the Protestant worship traditions of Euro-American whites.  Along with this new form of worship came a new form of music.  This African-American church music expresses both the deeply religious feelings of a passionate people and the profound pain and suffering of a people ravaged by years of enslavement.

As we explore some of the unique characteristics of Black church music, it is important to acknowledge that “Black music” is not a monolithic, homogenous entity: instead, it is made up of countless independent styles and traditions.  That said, many of these musical traditions share common cultural influences, and as such share some general stylistic qualities that are worthy of study and analysis.  It is in this spirit that we discuss the rich musical landscape of Black church music.

Rev. Haynes’s Methodist Church, Eatonville, Florida

Perhaps one of the most notable characteristics of African-American religious music is its vociferous, improvisatory quality.  This quality can be observed in the recording below; here, the Reverend Henry Ward leads a prayer in a chant style, similar to the way a white congregation might intone a psalm.  At the :54 second mark, however, a woman from the congregation chimes in with a response, weaving a florid melisma above the preacher’s chant.  Other voices join in, either adding to the melismatic accompaniment or offering a shouted “Amen!”  Later on, the florid melismas give way to a simple, passionate humming.  The resulting heterophony is both deeply moving and, presumably, entirely improvised.

These musical outbursts are no mere embellishments, but rather are integral parts of the worship experience.  In Shane White’s book, The Sounds of Slavery, he quotes Elizabeth Ross Hite, a former slave, who claims that “you gotta shout and you gotta moan if you wants to be saved” (102).  Indeed, the melismas, hums, and interjected “amens” are just as holy and full of meaning as the Reverend’s chant which they are decorating.

Another hallmark of African-American sacred music is its focus on Old Testament texts, to the near exclusion of the New Testament.  Slaves identified closely with the narrative of Exodus, seeing reflections of themselves in the enslaved Israelites.  Because of their constant yearning to escape captivity, many African-American spirituals use Old Testament language to describe themes of liberation and freedom.

Having examined just a couple of the many unique features of African-American church music, we can begin to understand how fascinating and complex this tradition is.  The collision of Indigenous African worship traditions with white Protestantism, when filtered through the horrors of American chattel slavery, produced a rich and multifaceted musical tradition which can still be observed in Black churches throughout America today.

 

Sources

Lomax, Alan, photographer. Rev. Haynes’s methodist church, Eatonville, Florida. June. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston, MA, Beacon Press, 2003.

Ward, Henry Rev., et al. Prayer. Livingston, Alabama, 1939. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

White, Shane and Graham J White. The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. Boston, Beacon Press, 2005.

The Preservation of Black Slave Songs: An Interview with Billy McCrea

Throughout history, many oppressed people have not received documentation or enough accurate documentation regarding their culture and other aspects of their lives.  Especially in musicology, documentation can be scarce and inaccurate.  For many sources that scholars depend on, it is crucial to think critically about the presumtions and backgrounds of those who created them. However, it is also important that we preserve the resources and works that we do have. Sometimes it is better to have semi-accurate interpretations of music and culture than nothing at all.  Even biased information can provide insightful information about who created it.  One effective way to avoid misrepresenting people is to interview and accurately preserve their traditions.

Billy McCrea in Jasper, TX 1940

In this recorded interview with ex-slave Billy McCrea, McCrea elaborates about his experiences as a slave working on a Steamboat as a cook.  Upon request, McCrea sung the steamboat song, “Blow Cornie Blow” for the interviewer John Avery Lomax.

Blow Cornie Blow

“I think I hear the captain call me, blow cornie blow. 
I think I hear the captain calling, blow cornie blow.
A blow cornie blow.
Blow cornie blow.
A blew it cold, loud and mournful.
Blow cornie blow.
I think I hear the captain??? –blow cornie blow.
They carried lo-o-o-o-ong onto bend.
Blow cornie blow.
They soon will be to the landing corner.
Blow cornie blow.
De captain hand me down my ???
Blow cornie blow.
Oh, blow boy and let them hear you.
Blow cornie blow.
Oh, blow loud and ???
Blow cornie blow. 
Oh, blow loud just so he can hear you.
Blow cornie blow.
I think I hear the captain call you.
Blow cornie blow.”

He explained that he and “the boys” would tote salt from the boat to a warehouse while singing.  Upon hearing McCrea sing, it is tempting for scholars and students alike to want to notate “Blow Cornie Blow.” This stems from a western presupposition that written forms of preservation are more superior, accurate or long lasting than preservation through oral tradition.  Is written preservation of oral tradition inherently problematic? Because scholars notated slave songs using a western notation system, they were limited because they could not capture all of the musical nuances and emotions of the slave songs. Notating slave songs is useful to provide context to people who were more familiar with European music, but what is problematic is imposing western traditions on slave songs and adapting them.  Many slave songs were published with harmonies that were not originally sung. This act of “fixing” or refining slave songs to conform to a western ideal of beauty contributes to the erasure and inauthentic representation of black folk music.  Many debates regarding notation must address the issues of preservation, authenticity and erasure of tradition.

Eileen Southern’s book, The Music of Black Americans: a History, recalls a quote from Frederick Douglas remembering the songs as “they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with bitterest anguish…The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

Interviews like McCrea’s are so important regarding of preservation of history and prevention of erasure of people, or distortion of their stories.  Lomax’s work positively contributes to the study of slave music because he gives voice to the people whom we draw from in music and culture.

Works Cited

Lomax, John Avery, et al. “Interview with Uncle Billy McCrea, Jasper, Texas, 1940 (Part 1 of 2).” The Library of Congress: National Jukebox, 1940, memory.loc.gov.

Southern, Eileen. “Chapter 5 Antebellum Rural Life.” The Music of Black Americans: a History, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 177–178.

Are There “Unreal” Slave Songs?

According to the music review in The Scranton tribune, 1899, with the growing of market of black slave songs and spiritual songs, some composers (non-black) started to produce these kinds of black music. However, the critique pointed out that many of these “new productions” were obvious “fake”, by failing to use “correct” words for pop black culture. Among these new productions, the song “Old Black Joe” was one of the few successful examples that true to African American’s life.

image_681x647_from_250,2991_to_1280,3970

“Old Black Joe” is a song composed by by Stephen Forster (1826–1864) and it was published by Firth, Pond & Co. of New York in 1860. Foster wrote it as a synthesis of his ideals for stage and parlour ballads. The lyrics for the song was from first person recount, describing sadness of losing friends “in the cotton fields”, without any use of Black slangs or tones. The oldest version of notated music of “Old Black Joe” that held in Library of Congress showed a solo male voice line (marked as Joe) with chorus of SATB. Audiences can hear “call and response” in the music in a specific Jubilee Singer’s performing style.

image_681x648_from_3321,2333_to_5765,4661

 

Recording: http://www.loc.gov/item/jukebox.1814/#rights-and-access

However, the “real negro music”, described by the writer of Modern Negro Songs, should be in chorus setting rather than solo and should be sung by men rather than women. As the writer said, “It seems absurd for a female to sing the song of a Negro man, for it is well known that in every age of the Negro song the Negro has prided himself on his bass.” However, evidence from members of The Jubilee Singers and recordings of early work songs can prove he wrong.

image_681x647_from_159,4540_to_1337,5659

Women sang a work Song:

Bibliography:

Evening times-Republican. (Marshalltown, Iowa), 08 Feb. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85049554/1919-02-08/ed-1/seq-8/>

The Scranton tribune. (Scranton, Pa.), 16 Jan. 1899. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026355/1899-01-16/ed-1/seq-5/>

Deane L. Root. “Foster, Stephen C..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.<http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/10040>.

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

 

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.
http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_n0737/

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.