Great progress has been made since my last news entry. We have completed the recording of Songs of Slavery and Emancipation. What began with Alden “Max” Smith singing “Agonizing, Cruel Slavery Days” in Peterboro, NY, in April 2018, was brought to a rousing conclusion in Bern, Switzerland on March 5th, 2019. Shannon Callahan, Yvonne Moore, Joe Johnson, Helt Oncale, André Pousaz and I, performed “The Flight of the Bondman,” and “The Band of Thieves,” two abolitionist songs. The first of these was published in William Wells Brown’s, Anti-Slavery Harp, a songbook that appeared in 1848. It was composed by Elias Smith and was performed by The Hutchinson Singers, among the most popular groups of the era. “The Band of Thieves” originally appeared in Joshua McCarter Simpson’s The Emancipation Car published in 1854. It was composed by Simpson and set to the famous Scottish anthem, “Scots Wha Hae.”
The instrumentation of fiddle, contrabass and guitar was as close as we could get, at short notice, to the instrumentation often used by the Hutchinson Singers. Guitar was not yet as popular as it would become after the Civil War. In fact, guitars then in use did not have steel strings (as mine does). Nevertheless, the singers, Shannon, Yvonne and Joe, arranged the harmonies in the style then popular and Helt’s fiddle and André’s contrabass convey the musical ambience of a mid-nineteenth century performance.
The last song was without instruments to the tune of the world-famous “Marseillaise.” The new lyrics were composed by Joshua McCarter Simpson and published in his Emancipation Car under the unwieldy title of: “The Voice of Six Hundred Thousand Nominally Free.” This title refers to the population of free and fugitive black people whom Simpson was, in one sense, representing, in another, exhorting, to carry on the fight against slavery. While the “Marseillaise” is relatively easy to sing, Simpson’s version is lyrically complicated. It’s in english, for one thing, and though Simpson’s words read well enough on the page, they can be a mouthful when put to the melody. The problem, of course, was not only to convey the militant spirit of the song but to make its argument clear at the same time. Listeners will have to judge, but we were pleased with the result.
Christoph King was our engineer with Werner Hoffmann and Monika Brändli doing the filming. Thanks to all who participated!
Our next steps include editing and assembling all 30 of the songs in our repertoire, a task which we’ll complete March 25th and 26th. Following this procedure it’s on to writing the book and completing the film. Yvonne has already devoted most of February to writing grants. We need to raise an additional 20,000Sfr. to do the last filming and editing. Lily Keber will be traveling from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi to film an interview with Kali Acuno, director of Cooperation Jackson. Kali has graciously consented to discuss with me the relevance of our project to the struggles of black people today.
In June I’ll be interviewing Manisha Sinha, historian and author of the great book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition and Kazembe Balagun of the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. These interviews will provide historical background and international perspective. It is especially important to us that our work not be viewed as a “museum piece,” fascinating, perhaps, but dead. The songs in our collection have been systematically buried for a reason: they inspired resistance to slavery and called for the liberation of all humanity. Ultimately, they led to the Civil War and the legal abolition of slavery. They may do so again under new conditions.