Five Songs So We Never Forget The Atrocity Of Slavery
George N. Barnard
Since 1998 the United Nations has dedicated August 23 as International Day for the Remembrance for the Slave Trade and its Abolition. In case you're wondering why that particular date was chosen, it's because it was on that night in 1791, the slaves of Haiti rose up and began the movement that would see the only successful slave revolution in history. The uprising set off a chain of events that eventually crippled the slave trade.
Slavery was a formal institution in the United States from the nations colonial origins in the 17th century until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. Spanish colonies began the practice in the New World 100 years earlier.
A small number of free black slave-owners and white slaves have been recorded in North America, but the vast majority was the African thralldom by Caucasians most of us are familiar with from history class.
Though many slaves abducted from their homelands naturally brought with them their music, culture and religion, their descendants developed a hybrid based on the Christianity taught to them by their masters. The result is the Negro spiritual.
In 1867, abolitionists William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim-Garrison compiled Slave Songs of the United States, the first collection of African-American music ever published. It has since been re-edited and republished by Hal Leonard, and Rocks Off was able to use a copy we had laying about in the sheet music mines to put together a playlist of slave songs recorded by modern artists.
"Jacob's Ladder" explores the correlations between God's covenant with Jacob regarding the exiles of the Jews and the plight of the slaves in America. The Boss recorded his version of the track on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions in 2006. The album is the only album Springsteen has ever released without a single original song on it.
We're almost certain that San Francisco's experimental black metal pioneers Mamaleek own a copy of Slave Songs of the United States. A great many of their songs share the same names as Negro spirituals, but because of the guttural, droning vocals "No More Rain Fall For Wet You" off of 2008's Fever Dream is the only one we are absolute certain is an actual cover. The rest you'll have to judge for yourself.
Also known as "Kingdom Come" and "Doodletown Fifers," this isn't really a slave song. It was written in 1862 by Henry C. Work. Though it's stereotypical slave speech makes the song sound like a racist tune, Work was actually writing about slaves celebrating in the mansions of their masters who would flee the approaching Union army.
Admittedly, we know about this song more from its appearance in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs than from its place in musical history as one of the world's most enduring spirituals. Louis Armstrong did it the best, though, as with most things he tackled.
Not surprisingly, many slave songs deal with the idea that death is the only release from their plight, and that they will know reward in Heaven. It would very hard to express the sadness of this sentiment better than English folk singer June Tabor did with this track on her 1983 album Abyssinians.
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