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SONGS OF THE AMERICAN SLAVES
Civilization atrophies the faculty which creates this phenomenon as it does the creation of myth and legend. Sometimes the faculty is galvanized into life by vast calamities or crises which shake all the fibres of social and national existence; and then we see its fruits in the compositions of popular musicians. Thus the War of the Rebellion produced songs markedly imbued with the spirit of folksong, like "The Battle-Cry of Freedom," "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys-are Marching," and "Marching Through Georgia." But it is a singular fact that the patriotic songs of the American people during the War of the Revolution and the War of 1812 were literary and musical parodies of English songs. We took the music of "Yankee Doodle" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the lips of the enemy.
It did not lie in the nature of the mill life of New England or the segregated agricultural life of the Western pioneers to inspire folksongs; those occupations lacked the romantic and emotional elements which existed in the slave life of the plantations in the South and which invited celebration in song—grave and gay. Nor were the people of the North possessed of the ingenuous, native musical capacity of the Southern blacks.
It is in the nature of things that the origin of individual folksongs should as a rule remain unknown; but we have evidence to show how some of them grew, and from it we deduce the general rule as it has been laid down. Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his delightful essay "Negro Spirituals," published in "The Atlantic Monthly" for June, 1867, tells an illuminative anecdote. Speaking of "No More Peck of Corn for Me," he says:
Even of this last composition, however, we have only the approximate date, and know nothing of the mode of composition. Allen Ramsey says of the Scotch songs that, no matter who made them, they were soon attributed to the minister of the parish whence they sprang. And I always wondered, about these, whether they had always a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind or whether they grew by gradual accretion in an almost unconscious way. On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort to Ladies' Island, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song. One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession. "Some good sperituals," he said, "are start jest out o' curiosity. I bin a-raise a sing myself