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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Sorrow Songs

[6753] William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, Title page, Slave Songs of the United States (1867).

Drawing on both African musical styles and western European sources, black slaves in the antebellum South created a rich musical tradition of Sorrow Songs, or spirituals. These songs fulfilled a variety of functions within slave culture: workers timed their labor to the tempo of their music, preserved and articulated communal values, and transcended the restrictions of slavery through meaningful self-expression. As Lawrence W. Levine points out, despite their name, Sorrow Songs do not express only sorrow or despair, but can be “pervaded by a sense of change, transcendence, ultimate justice, and personal worth.” Characterized by their use of traditional West African rhythmic and harmonic patterns, the spirituals often employ a “call and response” pattern in which a leader sings or chants a few lines and the group repeats or offers variations on the lines in response. The songs thus draw upon many of the practices central to the African cultures the slaves had been forced to leave behind, emphasizing the primacy of the spoken word, celebrating verbal improvisation, and encouraging group participation. The spirituals included here were not rigidly codified or authored by a single person; instead, they are the result of communal authorship and a strong tradition of extemporaneous improvisations. Singers often mix lyrics from different songs together, graft lyrics onto new tunes, or create completely new stanzas in the course of performing a song. In some sense, then, the printed lyrics in this unit offer a false picture of the songs as “finished” or “frozen” when in fact they constantly change and evolve in performance.

The songs developed out of the slave tradition are mostly religious in nature, but their spiritual subjects often had concrete applications to the slaves’ daily lives and their concerns in this world. The songs draw primarily on images of heaven and stories from the Old Testament, especially the story of Moses leading the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt to freedom. In “Go Down, Moses,” for example, slave singers likened themselves to the Israelites and their oppressors to the Egyptian Pharoah. In this way, African Americans incorporated sacred prophecy into everyday life, articulating hope for both spiritual salvation and literal emancipation. Sorrow Songs could also function as a method of secret communication between slaves. Often incomprehensible to whites, the lyrics could protest slave conditions, mock masters and mistresses, call other slaves to secret meetings, and even aid runaways and revolts. The spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus,” for instance, was used as a code song to assist people escaping along the Underground Railroad.

Teaching Tips

  • Use the sound files in the archive to play a recorded version of at least one of the songs included in this unit so students can have an aural experience of the music. If you have a strong voice or musical accompaniment, you might consider leading your class in a spiritual. Encourage students to improvise if they are moved to do so. The experience of participating in a performance should help students understand the important role of audience and communal authorship in the development of this musical tradition.
  • Students may be resistant to the idea that songs and oral traditions should be studied in a literature class. Engage them in the question of what constitutes literature and what appropriate objects of study in a literature class might be. How are these songs different from more “formal” poetry? (You might distribute a copy of a more traditional poem such as a sonnet so that the contrast will be clearer.) Does it matter that the songs are constantly changing? How does our understanding of the songs change when we study them in a literature classroom rather than in a music classroom?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Paraphrase one of the Sorrow Songs in your own words, eliminating repetition and ambiguity whenever possible. Compare your version to the original and think about what has been lost in your “translation.” Why do you think repetition is central to many of the spirituals? What is the effect of repetition in the songs?
  2. Context: In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass points out that slave songs reveal “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness.” What does he mean by this? Explain how a duality of expression and purpose inflects these songs.
  3. Context: How do the spirituals challenge and protest the institution of slavery? What is subversive in these songs? Why do you think white masters and mistresses for the most part missed the rebellious implications of this music?
  4. Exploration: How does the Sorrow Songs’ use of Old Testament images–especially the image of the enslaved Israelites–compare to the New England Puritans’ use of such images? Do the slave songs engage in a form of typologizing? Why or why not?
  5. Exploration: Listen to a recording of one or more of the spirituals. How do you think these songs influenced the subsequent development of American musical culture? What is the relationship between these early African American songs and subsequent African American musical forms, such as jazz, blues, and hip-hop?

Selected Archive Items

[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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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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