This past week one of the ETV channels was rerunning an episode of History Detectives. This particular episode had been produced to air during Black History Month, and featured stories about African American history. It originally aired in 2008, and I remember seeing it once before.
In the first segment investigator Wes Cowan visited Avery Clayton, president of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City, California. Clayton had found an old song book from 1867 entitled “Slave Songs of the United States,” and wanted to know if it might be the first collection of slave spirituals. The rest of the segment involved Cowan’s investigations into the origins of this collection.
Given my interest in old hymnals, this segment really caught my attention. There were other connections, as well – the investigations took them to Cal State Dominguez Hills, where Laura did her undergrad work, and to the sea islands of South Carolina.
The editors, William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, Lucy McKim Garrison, where staunch abolitionists. It was difficult to gain access to the Southern plantations in order to collect the songs. They had other problems, as well. In some cases the plantation owners tried to stamp out the music that might contain coded messages, such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” In post-Civil War South, some of the recently freed slaves themselves did not want to preserve the songs, because these reminded them of that time of enslavement. There was a real chance that much of this music could be lost.
Fortunately, Allen, Ware and Garrison were able to preserve 136 of these songs, many of them very well-known today. They also took great pains to record the lyrics phonetically, as they heard them. While this may seem borderline racist to our modern ears, the intent was to preserve a culture, and not to stereotype or make fun of a particular dialect.
“Slave Songs of the United States” is still in print today. While I would love to have an 1867 edition to add to my antique song book collection, I did settle for a more recent copy ordered from Amazon. However, facsimiles of the earlier editions are available online. The University of North Carolina has scanned version online. Google Books also has a version, which I’ve embedded below:
The video clip from that episode can be seen below:
As a follow-up to the segment the work of John and Ruby Lomax was also mentioned. The Lomaxes traveled through the Southern States in the 1930’s taking photographs and making field recordings of traditioinal music. They tried to cover all cultural aspects, both black and white. Below are two photos from their collection, one of a black farmer, and another of a baptism service at a white church:
The Library of Congress has preserved the Lomaxes’ work as part of their American Memory series. The collection includes not only photographs but audio recordings as well.