Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance.
I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment.
Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular songs, but they managed to offend the many who did not share their abolitionist viewpoints. That same audience embraced “Kingdom Coming” without hesitation.
So I assumed I’d be writing about forgotten historical relic. And then when I looked it up online, I found it has its own Wikipedia page! It made sense when I picked a video and listened.
Unless you have special interest in Civil War songs, you’ve never heard the text. But believe me, you know the tune! It’s been in movies and cartoons, among other popular media.
In colonial America, only the Quakers stood against slavery, although evangelical Christians in England had already began to agitate for abolition of slavery. The ideals of the American Revolution as expressed in the Declaration of Independence began a change of heart, at least among northerners.
The American abolitionist movement began as an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s, and as such it, too, had its roots in evangelical Christianity. But slave owners also espoused evangelical Christianity.
The abolitionist movement began to fracture when William Lloyd Garrison turned away from churches. It fractured further because some male abolitionists welcomed women activists and others opposed them. One wing of abolitionism turned violent under John Brown.
Taken together, the various strains of abolitionism never constituted more than a vocal minority of Northerners. Although abolitionists comprised a cross section of all American society, most of the leadership represented the social upper crust.
U.S. Navy, slaves, and the musical response
In November 1861, the Union Navy seized the harbor at Port Royal, South Carolina. The area, which included barrier islands along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, was home to some of the wealthiest families in the state, owners of large plantations.
These people had eagerly embraced secession as early as the 1830s.
With the harbor in Union hands, the plantation owners fled their property, leaving behind as many as 10,000 slaves. The navy declared the slaves “contraband of war.” That designation conveniently sidestepped the slaves’ ultimate legal status.
Because of the Confiscation Act of 1861, slave owners could not reclaim them, but the Emancipation Proclamation was still in the future.
As contraband, the black people now under Union control were neither slave nor free, a handy ambiguity considering that the cause of abolition was not very popular even in the North. In fact, “contraband” equated them with property seized from the enemy.
Anti-slavery organizations in major Northern cities quickly began the mission of educating and proselytizing the former slaves. It was primarily members of the middle class engaged in this work, and for many, it was their first personal contact with black people. The press eagerly published their first-hand accounts of their experiences and observations.
The contrabands soon became the topic of popular songs, few of which actually owed their origin to slave culture. Today’s scholars consider “Let My People Go,” otherwise known as “Go Down Moses” an authentic slave song. But most contraband songs were written by whites, many of whom knew of black people only by reading about them.
“At Port Royal,” a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier published by Atlantic Monthly exemplified the abolitionist point of view. Its outer sections were written in standard English, but the central part, subtitled “Song of the Negro Boatman” was written in black dialect. Set to music, it became very popular, and the two outer sections of the poem quickly disappeared from public consciousness. But Whittier’s abolitionist sentiments made many Northerners uncomfortable and even offended some.
Henry Clay Work: a different kind of abolitionist
From the 1840s through the Civil War, minstrels shows were the most popular stage entertainments in America, although the impersonation of black characters by white actors traces its roots to colonial times.
Although some of the precursors and leaders of minstrelsy attempted accurate portrayals of the slave dialect, no one was particularly interested in accurate portrayal of slave culture and experience.
White men with faces darkened with cork cared only about providing humorous entertainment, and the laughs came through appealing to racial stereotypes and assumed white superiority.
Alanson Work, Henry’s father, was an ardent abolitionist who became involved in the Underground Railway, but the family lived in relative poverty
Young Henry inherited both his father’s hatred of slavery and his social class’ enjoyment of minstrel shows, which the wealthier abolitionists disdained. The power of minstrel show’ influence appears in his earliest songs.
About the same time Work joined the publishing firm of Root & Cady, he submitted “Kingdom Coming” for publication. Hamm writes that it was “Kingdom Coming” that persuaded Root to hire Work. McWhirter says it was “Brave Boys Are They,” but that Work had already written “Kingdom Coming.”
In either case, Root considered it “exactly suited to the times” and immediately began an advertising campaign. The words “Kingdom Coming” appeared on posters and in newspapers all over Chicago, without a word of explanation of what they meant. The song went on sale on May 7, 1862.
It sold 8,000 copies by July 1862, and it hadn’t even appeared in music stores on the east coast yet. It was highly popular in both the army and the civilian public. By the end of the war, 75,000 copies of the song had been sold in sheet music. That figure does not include the number of times it appeared in anthologies, songsters, or instrumental arrangements.
Note that of the four covers shown on this page, three of them appeared in 1862: the 11th, 14th, and 17th thousands! The other appeared in 1863. “Kingdom Has Come” by “Sambo” and published by Henry Higgins is but one of many songs that unsuccessfully tried to capitalize on the popularity of Work’s song.
Unlike Whittier, Work made no attempt to challenge anyone’s racial attitudes. He simply took advantage of an already popular racial stereotype to gain extraordinary popularity for his songs.
That and the fact that it was a minstrel song may explain why abolitionists didn’t embrace “Kingdom Coming” as readily as they embraced other more overtly abolitionist songs. . One important exception: the Hutchinsons quickly added it to their road show.
(The Hutchinsons’ performance of a yet unpublished song to a text by Whittier, “We Wait Beneath the Furnace Blast,” caused a near riot and played a role in Lincoln’s dismissal of General George McClellan.)
The runaway slave was a common figure in the popular imagination of both Northerners and Southerners. “Kingdom Coming” turns the image on its head. The master runs and the slaves take over the plantation.
Whittier never could have gotten away with that. Even though Work echoes a line of Whittier’s somewhat earlier poem, by conforming to the conventions of the minstrel song, he allowed anyone who did not share his own abolitionist views to think of the song as nothing more than a good joke.
But in contrast to Stephen Foster’s minstrel songs, the slaves in “Kingdom Coming” clearly resented their masters and their status as slaves. The text matter-of-factly describes the slaves derisively calling “massa” contraband for running, while they move their things into his parlor. Then they lock the overseer in the cellar and throw the key down the well.
Oddly enough, the New Orleans publisher A. E. Blackmar published a version (minus the last verse, about the overseer’s fate) that enjoyed some popularity among the Confederate population and army. They viewed the song as just another minstrel song. The soldiers probably also enjoyed the depiction of plantation owners trying to avoid military service.
The song was among those prominent at rallies held to support the Emancipation Proclamation. The Freedmen’s Bureau made creative use of it. Union soldiers heard slaves sing it in Louisiana.
After the war was over
On the anniversary of the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, black people sang it with great delight, as what had at first seemed humorous and satirical became, in essence, a living reality.
After the war, it became a campaign song for the Republican presidential ticket of Ulysses Grant and Schyler Colfax. It remained popular as long as people who personally remembered the war were still alive.
Two recordings were issued in 1927. Then the text sank from the national memory almost without a trace until the recent revival of interest in Civil War songs. The tune, however, appeared in cartoons and movies as late as 1959. It was the theme song of radio programs including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Multiple versions, with and without text, are available on YouTube. Several have been viewed thousands of times.
A Brief History of the American Abolitionist Movement / Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Michael C. Cohen. “Contraband Singing: Poems and Songs in Circulation during the Civil War” American Literature 82 (June 2010): 271-304.
Charles Hamm. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (Norton, 1979)
Christian McWhirter, Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Kindle Edition.
Library of Congress Civil War sheet music collection.