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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   



7. Slavery and
Freedom


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Activities: Author Activities


Sorrow Songs - Selected Archive Items

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[6753] William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, Slave Songs of the United States (1867).
Title page of early collection of Sorrow Songs.
Former abolitionists transcribed lyrics of the songs of ex-slaves to appeal for funding from northern whites to establish schools for freedpeople.

[7131] Anonymous, Many Thousands Gone (c. 1861-65),
courtesy of Henry Edward Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (4th ed., 1914), Fisk University.
Sorrow Songs often referred to current events through religious language. The lyrics of "Many Thousand Gone" refer partly to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped to the North, with some joining the Union Army during the Civil War. Simultaneously, the song refers to the many who have died and gone to the afterlife.

[7132] Anonymous, Steal Away to Jesus (n.d.),
courtesy of John Work, Folk Songs of the American Negro (1907), Fisk University.
The lyrics to this song remind listeners that those who obey the Lord are assured of ultimate salvation, while unredeemed sinners, whether slaves or "masters," have cause to tremble. It might also refer to "stealing away" to forbidden worship meetings, or it could be an Underground Railroad code.

[7133] Anonymous, Go Down, Moses (n.d.),
courtesy of Natalie Curtis-Burlin, Negro Folk-Songs, Hampton Series 6716, G. Schirmer (1918).
Slaves used Old Testament texts to reject slave owners' claims that Christianity justified slavery. Singers adopted the voice of God commanding Moses to carry a message to Pharaoh (the slaveholder) to let "my people" (the slaves) go. The song is an example of the African tradition of Nommo, or the belief in the power of language.

[7134] Anonymous, Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel (n.d.),
courtesy of James Weldon Johnson, The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), Viking Press.
These lyrics speak of African Americans' hope for delivery from both the enslavement of sin and human enslavement. Compiler James Weldon Johnson, a New Negro Renaissance intellectual and author, took pride in slave ancestors and their creations.



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