Amazing Grace

The past has a voice in the present, and Mat Callahan seemed determined to produce the Songs of Slavery and Emancipation. The new release is historical with 16 songs about the burden of slavery, and 15 songs of Emancipation, which give voice to hope and the struggle for freedom.

According to the label, Jalopy Records, Callahan shares “recently discovered songs composed by enslaved people explicitly calling for resistance to slavery, some originating as early as 1784 and others as late as the Civil War.” And in the recording of this music, many musicians from New Orleans, New York, to Amherst, Massachusetts and Bern, Switzerland, were involved in the singing on this CD.

The music in the collection is moving, such as the lyrics from the track “The Negro’s Complaint,” “When stole and brought from Africa, Transported to America, Like the brute beasts in market sold, To stand the whip and the cold. To stand the lash and feel the pain, Expos’d to stormy snow and rain. To work all day and half the night, And rise before the morning light!...” The booklet also includes historical photos of the music sheets of that era.

Songs of Slavery And Emancipation
Callahan tells how he discovered some of the music, and also shares how other people and institutions were instrumental in this personal and historical collection of music, which reflects on the strength of a people and their will to move forward.

Jupiter Index: There was a great deal of work completed to produce this new CD. Talk about how you discovered the slavery and emancipation songs for this historical release?
Mat Callahan: I discovered a pamphlet in an antiquarian bookshop that contained the lyrics to a song said to have been composed and sung by slaves preparing an insurrection. This took place in 1813 in South Carolina. The lyrics were unlike any I'd heard associated with Negro Spirituals, work songs or for that matter, any vernacular Black music emerging from the days of slavery. The lyrics were explicitly revolutionary and anthemic in style.

This captured my attention as did the pamphlet itself: Negro Slave Revolts in the United States: 1526-1860. The pamphlet was old and battered by much use. It was published in 1939. I found it in 2015.

The combination of the pamphlet's title and the lyrics to this song raised important questions, the first being the subject of slave revolts. Most Americans have heard of Nat Turner and certainly John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid. Many may recall the film Amistad about that particular revolt. Perhaps more Black Americans know a few other famous names: Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and some others. But overall, the impression most Americans have is that the slaves did not rebel. In fact, recent histories that claim to be telling the true story of slavery reassert that claim. Yet, here was clear, documentary evidence of literally hundreds of revolts, spanning the entire duration of slavery in North America up to the Civil War, and these were continuous, indeed an ever-threatening presence.

This then led to the next question: why would there not be songs corresponding to the revolts. Songs commemorating rebel heroes, calling for unity, raising the battlecry of emancipation? For a people so deeply musical as African Americans it seemed strange that there were not more, many more, songs such as the one I found in this pamphlet. At that time, I had recently completed another historical-musical project about James Connolly, the Irish socialist revolutionary executed by the British for his role in the Easter Rising, and it is widely known how Irish rebel songs kept the flame burning for hundreds of years of British imperial rule. Where were the equivalent slave songs?

This is how the search began and it led to many more discoveries than just the songs I found.

JI: What are the ways African American slaves and free people used song and music in their lives?
MC: Music has always been a means of community-forming. Music gives expression to the suffering, struggling and rejoicing which are basic to the human condition. People in bondage had all the more reason to use music this way. Considering that slaves were deprived of almost all material possessions, it is not surprising that they would use those instruments available to them, namely, their bodies and their voices, for not only giving expression to their feelings, but strengthening the community necessary to survive as human beings. Collective singing is the cornerstone of the Spirituals. Of course, individuals sang alone and to themselves. But by and large singing was done together, for each other and for the group as a whole.

This remains the heart and soul of music-making generally. Music in this sense is an activity, not a product, and it is shared by a community and not owned by anyone. In the case of people of African descent in the United Sates, the musical sources were both specific and varied. On the one hand, there were undoubtedly some rhythms, melodies and musical instruments, such as the banjo, brought from Africa. On the other hand, there were other influences coming from, for example, church hymns written in England or ballads sung by European immigrants or music made by Native peoples.

In a fundamental sense, the slaves used whatever musical devices they could so it is not surprising that they would adopt and adapt church hymns and popular songs they heard in their environment as well as retaining elements passed down generation to generation. No doubt there were individuals we will never know who composed particular lyrics using well-known melodies, or musicians who invented tunes just because they were inspired or because there was a social need for a song. But overall, the source of the music was the needs and determination of the people themselves.

It is interesting to compare the music made in North America with that made in Cuba or Brazil or other countries, which maintained the slave system. The musical differences correspond not only to the ruling power, say Spanish, Portuguese or French, but also to the politics of maintaining the slave system; what was forbidden and what was encouraged. Drumming was forbidden in many colonies but singing Christian hymns was not-at least until Nat Turner's rebellion (1831) after which even church singing was carefully monitored in the US South.

JI: How did the spiritual songs come about to help and heal a group of people and aid them in moving forward?
MC: Well the answer is found in the Spirituals and work songs themselves, and these are songs with which many people are familiar. They were composed and sung in those places where people congregated for work and worship. They were, in the main, sung collectively and formed an integral part of daily life. There are many collections, for example: Thomas Talley's, Negro Folk Rhymes, Wise an Otherwise (1922), that give a fair representation of how songs were used.

Bear in mind, however, that the songs in our collection were both a part of this repertoire and deliberately excluded from it by a number of factors. To begin with, the slaves were punished for singing these songs. I found numerous references to this in testimony given by formerly enslaved people shortly after the Civil War. This testimony was given to abolitionists who the former slaves trusted enough to confide in. So the burial of songs of rebellion and resistance started with the slaveowners banning them in the first place. Following the defeat of Reconstruction, a more systematic erasure began whereby song collectors and the burgeoning music business excluded from consideration any song that did not fit an image of docility, subservience and childish exuberance designed to keep Black people "in their place."

We also have to consider the fact that slavery was more complicated than it is often depicted. Of course, the backbone of the slave system was the field hand: men, women and children, literally slaving in the fields. These were joined by other hands on the docks loading goods for transport, in workshops producing sugar, in swamp-clearing and construction. Basically, back-breaking, physical labor. But by the late 18th Century, there were also highly skilled workers, including poets and musicians, among the slaves. Often, slave-musicians were rented out by their masters to provide entertainment for other plantations or at public events in cities like Richmond.

Also, by this time, there were a significant and growing number of free Black people, especially in cities like Philadelphia and Boston where the first Black churches were organized. Among free Black people were those who had never been slaves, those who had bought their freedom or were otherwise manumitted and those who were fugitives. By the time of the Civil War, there were about half-a million free Black people in the US along with four million slaves.

Some free Black musicians were famous such as Francis Johnson who was a composer, band leader and renowned Kent Bugle player. More examples are provided in a book published in 1878 called: Music and Some Highly Musical People. This book offers biographies of many highly skilled African American musicians, some of whom were well known at the time. It was written by James Monroe Trotter. Trotter escaped slavery via the Underground Railway and served in the Union Army, eventually achieving the rank of Second Lieutenant.

The point here is that an image of Black music was created after the defeat of Reconstruction that was, at best, incomplete. This image ignores the diversity of conditions the slave system produced as well as the diversity of musical expression developed by African Americans whether slave or free. Furthermore, it completely separates the songs of the abolitionist movement from those of people still in bondage when, in fact, the abolitionist song books included songs composed by fugitive slaves as well as free Black people. And this, of course, is another way songs were used to build community and strengthen the spirit.

JI: Do you have a spiritual and an emancipation song that resonates with you as an artist?
MC: All these songs are important in both musical and historical senses. Had these songs been included in what might be called "The American Song Book" I might think otherwise and choose a favorite. Think of it from the opposite point of view. "Amazing Grace" is world-renowned and remains a staple. But it is forgotten that this is an abolitionist song. Of course it resonates with me but that is not only a matter of my personal taste. If all the songs in this collection-and others yet to be discovered-were part of what the world considers American music, "Amazing Grace" would be situated within its true family of songs. But the fact that these songs were systematically excluded from the Canon means that they have to be shared and enjoyed for some time before that can be said. They should be part of our heritage but they are not-or not yet. I hope young people will take these songs to heart, sing them and make them an honored part of the long and ongoing struggle for human emancipation.

JI: Would you like to add anything more to what you have already said about this new release?
MC: I would only like to add that this project is a result of a collective effort involving many people and institutions. It could not have been brought to fruition any other way. I hope readers will obtain the book and CDs and see for themselves who these contributors are.

by G.M. Burns