Black History Month & Music: Part 2 of 12

“The musical capacity of the negro race has been recognized for so many years, that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has hitherto been made to collect and preserve their melodies.”

-First paragraph in a book called Slave Songs of the United States, published 1867

The dark side of America’s history is not hard to find. The horrendous, forced importation of fellow human beings from the continent of Africa, which began in the 1600s, is one of the darkest.

Slavery in America.

I realize it may be easy for me to live in 2010 and see the unquestionable evil that pervaded(s) such a system; either way it’s amazing to me that someone, anyone, thought this was a remotely proper way of life. Amazing that someone thought the economic benefit outweighed the rights of a fellow man. Amazing that someone thought the black race needed to be kept away from the white race, or any related vice versa.

Anyway, we are here to talk about the music that came as a result of this reality. Not to praise the situation of whence it was born, but to begin to peer into the life of African-Americans that did live this life and the songs that emanated from them.

The day-to-day life of a slave in the U.S. between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was not pleasant. They had little, if any, control over much of anything. Communication became extremely important from slave to slave. However, due to the strict nature (of everything) enforced by the slave master, slaves had to get creative in how they communicated with each other, mostly to avoid raising suspicions of those keeping an eye on them.

Enter music. Enter work songs. Enter call and response songs. Enter art that literally changed the course of history.

“…Slaves had to depend on ingenuity, imagination, and the creative use of information. They also used whites’ racial stereotypes to their advantage whenever possible. Since slaveholders generally assumed that slaves’ singing connoted contentment and passivity, the slaves used music to pass along messages, to control the pace of work, to placate a suspicious master, or to subtly comment on a person or a situation for the benefit or amusement of fellow slaves.”

-From James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s Slavery and the Making of America

Music allowed some sense of normalcy to be maintained. Amidst chaos, the tender hum of a melody could simultaneously calm fears while bringing encouragement of a better life to come.

“Steal Away” is a beautiful and poignant example. The following video contains the amazing Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole singing the piece on Cole’s NBC television show in 1957.

In their book Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic share more about these types of songs, along with an explanation of “Steal Away.”

“The African-American spiritual Steal Away is located within the tradition of escape songs, a series of codes embedded in music and sung by slaves to alert each other to the time for escape from bondage to freedom. Slaves sang these songs under the very noses of their captors, who were unable to hear in the music any force that might subvert their own authority.

Escape songs present a dialectic of power, deceit, and identity. By appearing to live out the identity of beasts of burden, loyal and unintelligent, lowing to each other in soothing, unpolitical tones, slaves were able to carve out time and space for resistance and could formulate their escape plans in the very presence of their captors. The marginality of slaves made it possible for them to effect their escape from a destructive culture and to construct their own identities.

Steal Away is especially powerful in its use of theft imagery as a means of redemption. The song calls upon slaves to ‘steal,’ that is, to break the law in order to reclaim themselves. By stealing away, slaves took it upon themselves to subvert, by means of deceit, theft, and disruption, the oppressive institutions of the prevailing social order. Theft, disorder, and deceit, images we are trained to accept as incompatible with the law, nevertheless provided slaves and their descendants with a positive alternative to oppression. One hundred thirty years after emancipation, ‘stealing away’ continues to describe African-American culture and, by extension, all communities of color that construct cultural identities as outlaws in a radical and positive alternative to oppression and exclusion.”

“Steal Away” was (likely) written by freedman Wallace Willis, who is also credited with writing another important negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

The documentation of this time-period is unsurprisingly sketchy, but information does exist for those who desire to dig. The opening quote contained in this post is taken from arguably the first, official collection of these amazing, remarkable and timeless songs. In the following 18-minute video, from PBS’s program “History Detectives,” which explores historical mysteries, Wes Cowan explores the origination of the book.


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