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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Songs of the Slaves
(c.1780-c.1910)
Songs do not really exist on the printed page. Indeed, certain kinds of songs, notably those like spirituals given expression in congregational singing, do not exist even through music printed with their texts. For they live only in the process of their fresh creation each time they are sung. Thus, printing the texts of some representative songs being sung in the first part of the nineteenth century in a sense falsifies them, as well as the cultural history of the time. And yet, it would be equally false to omit them. For the United States had a vigorous popular culture—or, more accurately, cultures—in which songs constituted a major element.

Determining which songs to include in such a selection is equally problematic. While the composition of some songs can be dated with reasonable accuracy, many will have been sung for decades before they are noted by collectors. Furthermore, new versions are always appearing: an old tune may be resurrected with fresh lyrics; simpler texts can be set to differing melodies. In some degree, therefore, placing certain of these songs in this particular time frame is arbitrary—some may well have been around since the previous century, and the printed versions may reflect late nineteenth- or even twentieth-century variations. In addition, no selection can fully reflect the range of the American people’s cultures, even of the early nineteenth century. Here we have included a somewhat larger selection of African American songs of the time, in part because they represent the most characteristically “American,” as distinct from imported compositions, in part because of the enormous influence African American folk styles have had in the development of American culture generally.

Most of the songs in this section were not sung by performers observed and listened to by a silent audience. Singing was among the more vital activities people did together. In certain respects, as Bernice Reagon has put it, “the song is only a vehicle to get to the singing.” For the singing—in church, in the fields, at a quilting bee or a party, around a campfire or a piano—is what unifies, inspires, moves people to hope and to act. The singing defines the nature of the gathering, predominantly for those engaged in it. Some of these verses were sung in meetings, for worship or for politics; some, like “John Brown’s Body,” were chanted by soldiers marching to battle; some were set out to pace or perhaps to ease work. One needs to imagine the circumstances in which they were created and re-created to gain a real sense of most of these songs.

Like other kinds of poetry, these songs convey a broad range of human emotions—affection, aspiration, complaint—but they are often more explicit about the roles they play in the lives of the people who sing them. Some songs were designed to support political parties, others, like “Paper of Pins,” to give form to courting rituals. Some served multiple purposes: a spiritual like “Steal Away” could in some situations express the desire of slaves for a salvation beyond the oppression of daily life; in other circumstances, the song could serve as a signal for some to prepare to “steal away” literally on the Underground Railway. Often the songs voiced the common experiences and beliefs of particular groups of people—black slaves, Irish immigrants, Forty-niners—as well as embodying images, rhythms, and harmonies characteristic of their cultures. In that sense, songs functioned to preserve and sustain important elements of group culture against the homogenizing tendencies of the developing nation.

Groups did borrow language and music from each other, but many songs bear the distinctive marks of particular historical cultures. Most African American congregational songs, for example, display a call-and-response pattern, in which the song leader sets out a line or phrase and the group responds by repeating or working variations on it. In one of the more famous examples, the leader cries out “Swing low, sweet chariot” and the congregation responds “Comin’ for to carry me home”; or again, “When Israel was in Egypt land,” and the response, “Let my people go.” But the pattern of call-and-response is not limited to such fully structured lines; in fact, the essence of such African American congregational music depends upon many individuals extemporaneously singing out words or phrases—like “hallelujah” or “yes, Lord”—or even appropriate new lines. Many Anglo-American songs are marked by refrains whose “nonsense” syllables—e.g., “hoodle dang fol di dye yo, hoodle dang fol di day” in “Sweet Betsy from Pike”—vary according to the area of the country or the original nationality of the singers. In general, the language of these songs reflects the language of the people who sang them, just as the music significantly emerged from the European or African origins of the singers.

Most of the texts printed below are those of “folk songs,” though a few are the compositions of specific writers. That is, the authors of most are unknown, the language of the songs colloquial, their images drawn from the common stock available to everyone in the group. They are designed to be sung, and thus their words may differ from versions a reader might know. The texts of such songs often changed, in fact, sometimes by accident as a song was re-created by people who might not have remembered all of the version they had once heard. Sometimes, however, songs were consciously changed to reflect new circumstances or to broaden their appeal. “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” began as a sailor’s lament about burial at sea. Songs like “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Pat Works on the Railway” probably had dozens of verses added or subtracted at one or another time. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was composed by Julia Ward Howe after she had sung “John Brown’s Body” with a troop of Union soldiers and had been asked by her minister to set new words to that “stirring tune.” In still other cases, as with the version of “Go Down, Moses” included here, a song originally sung in dialect was later redone in more “standard” English when it began to be presented to a white audience. In the singing, then, the precise texts are less important than the process of reshaping the language to fit the inclinations of the singers.

In this respect, these texts represent snapshots of songs, freezing them into uncharacteristically stationary, historical forms. In fact, as readers will know, many of these songs have reemerged over the years as their sentiments or their phrases have come to echo the needs of new times and new singers.
Paul Lauter
Trinity College


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Deep River (1867)
Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel (1867)
Go Down, Moses (1867)
Lay Dis Body Down (1867)
Many Thousand Go (1867)
Michael Row the Boat Ashore (1867)
Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Had (1867)
Roll, Jordan, Roll (1867)
Steal Away to Jesus (1867)
There's a Meeting Here To-Night (1867)

Other Works



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Links

Jubilee Songs
(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/sfeature/songs.html)
A brief description of the diasporic slave songs and several audio files including Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray, Help Me, and more.

Slave Songs: Syncopation in Secret
(http://www.jass.com/syncopated.html)
A few words on the aspects of jazz which are traceable to slave songs.

Traditional Slave Spirituals
(http://www.lclark.edu/~ria/SPIRIT~1.HTM)
An introduction to spirituals and the commemorative work of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.


Secondary Sources





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