Since the American Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, no survey of Civil War music can be complete without careful attention to slave music. Slave music didn’t arise from the war, of course. It had existed in one form or another for the entire two-century history of slavery. The war itself, while it was in progress, had little effect on slave music.
Afterwards, when the slaves received their freedom, most of them were anxious to leave slave culture, including its music and performance practice, behind them.
Slavery as an institution
In the course of the American Revolution, many slaves managed to achieve freedom either in exchange for military service or simply by running away. Importation of slaves from Africa became illegal in the United States in 1808. If anyone hoped that the ban would cause slavery to wither away, they must have been very disappointed.
Georgia had about a third fewer slaves after the Revolution, but by 1810, it had three times as many as it had had before. Similar rebounds occurred in other Southern states as well.
Even as late as the Antebellum period, some aspects of African culture remained. Slave owners sought to wipe them out. Many forbid slaves to use drums, for example. After all, in Africa, drums were communication tools. Slave owners couldn’t risk having their slaves partaking in communication they themselves couldn’t understand.
Of course, the more slaves suffered from oppression, the more determined they became to communicate behind their owners’ backs. With or without drums, their music became part of this clandestine communication.
Kinds of slave songs
It’s convenient to divide slave songs into three groups: work songs, religious songs, and recreational songs.
Work songs had at least two functions. One benefitted the slaves, and the other the overseer. If gangs of slaves collaborated on a difficult project such as hauling a heavy load, singing would provide a rhythm that enabled them to coordinate their movements. They didn’t need music for picking crops, but as Frederick Douglass recalled, silence made the overseers uncomfortable:
Once on the road with an ox team, and seated on the tongue of his cart, with no overseer to look after him, the slave was comparatively free; and, if thoughtful, he had time to think. Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in southern states.
Southern slave owners frequently reported that their slaves were happy and content. Perhaps the singing gave them that impression. Douglass, on the other hand, detected a profound melancholy in even the most boisterous of slave songs. After leaving slavery, he never heard such plaintive songs again–except when he visited Ireland during the potato famine of 1845-46. “Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.
When slaves were captured in Africa, they knew nothing of Christianity. Most of them were either animists or Muslims. Some owners took slaves to church in the attempt to destroy any vestiges of African culture among them. Others did so taking seriously the mandate to “make disciples of all nations.”
Whatever the reason, slaves were encouraged to attend church. They found the grace and freedom preached in church both very attractive and very different from the lives they actually led. When they attended their masters’ churches, they learned the same hymns.
When they met together, they developed their own style, both of music and text. One style of music, the ring shout, was a vestige of African dances. The slaves would form a ring and move to the music, which consisted of a single phrase repeated over and over for hours.
It would start off slow and then quicken in pace. At first it produced an ecstatic state, and then eventually a physical exhaustion that caused people to fall out of the ring one by one.
Masters didn’t like it and tried unsuccessfully to repress it. Ironically, when whites and blacks attended the same revival meetings, the whites adopted their own version of the ring shout. Meanwhile, the slaves and free blacks who received formal education came to disapprove of such primitive behavior.
Slaves’ songs gave voice to their longing to experience freedom. By the 1840s or so, they knew that slavery was illegal in northern states and that many northerners wanted to abolish it entirely. So when they sang of heaven, they meant not only heaven, but the possibility of escaping to the north.
A network of safe houses and secret routes known as the Underground Railroad developed in the early 19th century. It was not by any means the first organized method of smuggling slaves to freedom, but it had a great impact on slaves’ religious music.
Nowadays, some people seem to have the ridiculous impression that the Underground Railroad was something like a modern subway. In fact, escaped slaves traveled on foot at night, often wading in streams to prevent dogs from following their scent. When they met up with an Underground Railroad representative, they would receive transportation to a safe house.
Any mention in spirituals of trains, stations, chariots, etc., refers directly to the Underground Railroad. “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” therefore calls for the Underground Railroad to carry the singers to the north.
To many masters, these songs just sounded like the slaves singing about heaven. That was the idea. Others surely caught on eventually. In any case, most attempted escapes were unsuccessful. Douglass describes captured slaves singing as they were marched to prison.
Despite the fact that few slaves received any formal education, they developed a very sophisticated understanding of Scripture. Here is an explanation of “There is a Balm in Gilead” from negrospirituals.com:
The “balm in Gilead” is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.
So, in the book of Jeremiah, several verses speak about Gilead. In chapter 22, v. 6 and 13: The Lord says (about the palace of the king of Judea) “Though you are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, like towns inhabited… Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”.
In the same book of Jeremiah, chapter 46, v. 2 and 11, “This is the message (of the Lord) against the army of Pharaoh Neco … Go up to Gilead and get balm, O Virgin Daughter of Egypt, but you multiply remedies in vain; here is no healing for you”.
In the New Testament, the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people whatever their conditions: he can heal the poor. A Christian who feels the Spirit must share its faith and “preach”, like Peter and Paul.
If many slave owners attempted to forbid drums and other vestiges of African culture, they didn’t seem to mind if slaves learned European instruments. Slaves learned to play European music, too. As string players, slaves were sometimes invited to play for the entertainment of white audiences. In parade-loving New Orleans, all-black marching bands existed before the Civil War.
Douglass reports that owners gave slaves the week between Christmas and New Years as a holiday. Slave families owned by different masters could reunite that week. Otherwise, of course, no one could go anywhere. Some made craft items, but the masters despised these industrious slaves.
Most slaves therefore spent recreational time playing sports, dancing, and drinking whiskey. The masters approved. They must not have paid careful attention to the songs, though. Douglass records a particularly sharp rebuke to the injustice of slavery:
We raise de wheat, dey gib us de corn;
We bake de bread, dey gib us de cruss;
We sif de meal, dey gib us de huss;
We peal de meat, dey gib us de skin;
And dat’s de way dye takes us in.
We skim de pot, dey gib us de liquor;
And say dat’s good enough for nigger.
Walk over! Walk over! Tom butter and de fat;
Poor nigger you can’t get over dat; Walk over!
After the end of the Civil War
After slavery, there was no point in singing songs about yearning for freedom. There was no point in singing derogatory songs about masters. Freed slaves soon enough had new problems and had no interest in singing the old songs.
As some blacks gained formal education, they became ashamed of both the dialect and the very wildness of slave music. Even before the war, educated free black ministers tried to introduce English hymns by Isaac Watts and others. Black churches may have adopted more formal hymns, but they did not adopt the standard white performance practice in the process.
A slow kind of singing known as Dr Watts developed after the war. The texts may have been English hymn texts by Watts and others, or they may have actually been adapted from old slave texts.
In churches with no hymnals, a song leader would call out the words. The congregation would repeat, with melismatic decoration and improvised harmonies (mainly as those who found the melody too high or too low sought more comfortable notes).
The singing in these churches tended to have a hard full-throated and/or nasal quality. Singers frequently explored the falsetto register and added the growls and moans they had used for generations as slaves.
Ironically, it was actually higher education that preserved the plantation spirituals. First, William Francis Allen, a music professor at the University of Wisconsin, and two collaborators compiled a book of Slave Songs of the United States in 1867. Although Allen paid tribute to the “musical capacity of the negro race,” his references to their “barbarity” showed little sympathy for the culture that produced the songs.
Fisk University, established in 1866, was the first American university established to give blacks a liberal arts education. After five years of struggle, it nearly went bankrupt. George L. White, the school’s treasurer and music professor, assembled a choir of nine singers and took them on tour, along with a student pianist, to raise money.
These students had begun to share their ancestral music with White. It seems to me that I read years ago that they were reluctant to do so. But White arranged such songs as Steal Away; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; and Deep River as choral pieces.
Initially, the mostly white audiences were surprised to hear cultured, trained voices coming from black singers. They had expected something more like the old minstrel shows. At first, they were disappointed, or even hostile.
The choir members themselves became both physically and emotionally drained. Not only did they suffer the ordinary hardships of touring, but because of their race, White could not always find food and accommodations for them.
When White gave them the name “Jubilee Singers,” it both encouraged the choir and helped them promote the tour. Eventually they succeeded in raising enough money both for their expenses and to save the university from collapse.
Ironically, along the way they made spirituals that had formerly had to be sung in secret into standard music for worship in black and white churches alike.
Choirs from other historically black colleges and universities likewise sang choral arrangements of traditional negro slave songs. Both white and black arrangers published collections not only of spirituals, but work songs and recreational songs as well.
Something of the original performance practice survived in rural black communities , but it was not until the end of the century that “respectable” black society showed any interest in readopting it.
Holiness churches and later Pentecostal churches arose among both black and white Christians beginning in the 1890s. In their different ways, they introduced a more exuberant worship style than was practiced in traditional Protestant churches. Especially among the black churches, something of the shouts, hand-clapping, and foot-stomping of the old plantation praise tradition resurfaced.
We can probably never completely reconstruct the sound and style of the slaves’ music making, but on the other hand, that style has left no aspect of American music untouched. Today’s popular music may well be more African in heritage than European.
Sources: excerpt from Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, in Judith Tick (ed.), Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 219-24.
“The Origins and the Nature of New World Slavery,” Digital History