Dear Friends: I spent most of October on the East Coast of the US working on Songs of Slavery and Emancipation (see July/August news for background: I met historians in Poughkeepsie, musicians and filmmakers in Brooklyn and had several productive meetings with administrators and instructors at Berklee College of Music in Boston. In addition, I used library facilities at Tufts University to pursue more research, specifically, pouring through slave narratives compiled under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project of 1936-38. What led me to Tufts is a story in itself.
The Federal Writers Project sought to accomplish the twofold purpose of providing paying work to unemployed writers during the Depression and to collecting oral histories of the last living people who had been enslaved in the United States. More than six thousand interviews were compiled and published in different versions at various times.The result is a treasure-trove of information but it can also be confusing. For example, I had to find out exactly which collection was which, and whether or not any was truly comprehensive, since all come from the same source and bare similar names, such as, “American Slave Narratives.” Not long before traveling to Boston, I discovered that the most complete, to date, is the collection edited by George Rawick under the title: “The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography” (Greenwood Publishing 1972 with supplementary material added in1979)
As summarized in a Bowdoin College source report written by Rebecca Guendelsberger: “The complete series includes nineteen original volumes and two supplemental series of twelve volumes and ten volumes each. Included in these volumes is the before mentioned name index, and a manuscript written by George Rawick, the General Editor of the series. In his book, Rawick describes his theories on slavery and outlined and explained the questions that the interviewers asked the narrators…. (Rawick’s book, Vol. 1 of the series, is actually entitled: “From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community”)
“The American Slave volumes contain the printed form of the interviews made by the Federal Writers Project, a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration. The majority of the entries consist of interviews during the years 1936-1938. Each volume has a listing of all of the people’s names whose accounts are found in the book. These books are separated by the states in which the interview occurred, and represents South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Washington D.C., Maryland, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island. In order to help navigate these volumes, Howard Potts recorded all of the slaves’ names from the American Slave volumes and printed them alphabetically in the “Comprehensive Name Index for the American Slave” volume. This index is a comprehensive guide to the American Slave autobiographies. It separates the narratives in the American Slave collection into different sections, organized alphabetically by County and State, Narrator (former slave), Master, Interviewer, and Narrator Birth Year (if known).”
I include all this detail to give an impression of the labyrinth one encounters when pursuing reliable material concerning events that are, from an historical perspective, relatively recent. In other words, these interviews are for the most part well-preserved and legible, almost all have documentation authenticating both sources and methodology and the majority of them are, in fact, available to anyone able to venture into a university large enough to house this Forty One Volume set. That sounds simple enough but it took me more than a year to sort it out.
I began looking for this material in May 2016 during a visit to the Library of Congress. While the Library is in the process of digitizing their vast collection, some confusion remains as to what is available online and what can only be obtained by visiting the Library. This in turn makes the discrepancies between collections harder to identify. Thus, in my case, I thought I had the comprehensive collection when I went to the Library of Congress website with the listing: “Born in Slavery: From the Federal Writers Project, 1936 to 1938”. It took me a month of perusing this collection online to realize it was not the collection I was looking for and that an entirely different collection contained the songs and references I was seeking. The latter had been referenced in two key sources, namely “American Folksongs of Protest” by John Greenway, and “African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance, 1600s-1920 (An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks)” by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright. These two sources identified the location of particular songs and I hoped to go to that location, on the one hand, to verify their findings and, on the other, to see if there were any other songs of importance. By the time I figured out that it was the Rawick collection and NOT the Library of Congress collection to which both Greenway and Southern were referring, I was already planning a trip to Boston to solidify plans with Berklee College of Music. Fortunately, friends I was staying with live near Tufts and I was able to, at long last, lay my eyes upon “The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography.”
What I found was very helpful in two distinct ways. First, I did locate a few songs which I had previously known only by their titles. One of these, “Agonizing, Cruel Slavery Days,” I had previously heard on my visit to the Library of Congress in May 2016. But the audio recording was not the complete song, nor were the words clear enough to fully grasp. Furthermore, these recordings provided little information as to the origin of the song: when, where and by whom, the song was composed. The answer, including a complete text of the song, was provided in the testimony of one Elijah Cox, who was born free but wanted to contribute this song to the Slave Narrative collection because he’d heard it sung by ex-slaves when he was growing up. (besides, it’s a beautiful lyric expressing the attitude shared by former slaves toward their previous condition)
Secondly, I was able to determine the frequency with which different kinds of songs were sung as well as the geographical dispersion of many of them. For example, one song, “Run, Nigger, Run,” appears over and over again in narratives from South Carolina to Texas. The words vary from version to version but the substance remains unchanged, i.e., escape from bondage, hounded by the Masters’ patrols and, in many versions, the guile and ingenuity of the fugitive. In contrast, there were only scattered references to many songs with which we are today familiar as Negro Spirituals. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, is one example, “Many Thousand Gone” is another. Surprisingly, these only appear occasionally and not in every region. Mind you, these observations are superficial and were made doing a hasty scan of many volumes. It nonetheless surprised me to find that there was a preponderance of what I would call “topical” or “everyday-life” songs as opposed to ostensibly religious ones. These included children’s game songs, lullabies and dance tunes (often inferring flirtation or romance).
The conclusion I’ve drawn continues to support my original hypothesis which can be summarized: the great legacy of African-American song has been misrepresented and is incomplete. Even though we have today a large number of profoundly beautiful texts and melodies variously categorized as Spirituals, work songs, blues, jazz, etc, there are songs not included among these which can be characterized as explicitly “political” or “revolutionary” and are, furthermore, expressive of a sentiment much more common among slaves and free black people than has been previously acknowledged. I will write more extensively on this subject in future. Once we’ve completed the assembly of the repertoire and have recorded the music, then I will complete the accompanying book which will contain all these findings as well as the texts and sheet music to the songs themselves.
Meanwhile, the meetings I had definitely moved the project from the research phase into the production phase. Actually working on the songs relies on the aid of several musicians including Eli Smith in New York and Joe Johnson and Yvonne Moore in Switzerland. Together we’ve started the process of sorting through lyrics, melodies and multiple versions of each to arrive at the most satisfying representation of the feeling and thought contained. Aside from their intrinsic historical value, these songs are truly moving, conveying the spirit and determination of all those who fought for emancipation. And I have to add that after two years of burying my head in books and libraries it is a great relief to actually begin singing!