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

7. Slavery and

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Lorenzo
- Lydia Maria
- William & Ellen Craft
- Frederick
- Briton Hammon
- Helen Hunt
- Harriet Jacobs
- Abraham Lincoln
- Sorrow Songs
- Harriet Beecher
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Sorrow Songs

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

Sorrow Songs Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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