ON THE TRAIL OF NEGRO FOLK-SONGS

A Collection Of Negro Traditional & Folk Songs with Sheet Music Lyrics & Commentaries - online book

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NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
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were forbidden to hold religious services. That was because the masters were afraid of gatherings which might lead to insurrections like some that had occurred. So the Negroes would gather in a cabin and hold their service by stealth. They would resort to a pecu­liar practice to prevent their singing from being heard at the big house. They would turn an iron washpot upside down on the dirt floor and put a stick under it, and would sing in such way that they thought the sound would be muffled under the pot. Dr. Boyd says that he had often gone to such services with his mother in his child­hood and seen this done. He said that, in fact, he believed the white people knew of the gatherings and allowed them, though the Negroes were fearful of being found out.
In this quest of mine for songs I have received friendly aid from many people, who have given songs and information of value. For instance, I appealed to the late Dr. John A. Wyeth, of New York, who was a Southerner and knew the South of antebellum days. He answered that he would get his old banjo out of storage and play and sing for me songs that he had learned in his childhood from old Uncle Billy on his father's plantation. I spent a rapt evening listen­ing to his songs and reminiscences.
He said of Run, Nigger, Run, a, famous slavery-time song, which I had heard my mother sing, that it is one of the oldest of the plantation songs. White people were always afraid of an insurrec­tion among the Negroes, and so they had the rule that no Negro should be off his own plantation, especially at night, without a pass. They had patrols stationed along the roads to catch truant Negroes, and the slaves called them "patter-rollers." The darkies sang many amusing songs about the patrols and their experiences in eluding them.
Dr. Wyeth told of Uncle Billy, who played and sang these songs and who taught them to his little master. When the boy became more proficient than the old men, Uncle Billy put away his banjo and never played again. Uncle Billy's throat was cut by a "scala­wag" not long after the war was over — a scalawag being a South­erner who turned Republican. This was a Republican Negro.
Dr. Wyeth gave a reminiscent account of Uncle Billy's playing. The old darky would sing and play for a while, then stop and talk, after which rambling recitative he would resume his singing.
" Golly, white folks, I went down to see Sal last night," he would grunt. (Sal was his sweetheart on another plantation.) "Nigger heels are the toughest part of the foot. I wuz ten years old befo* my mammy knowed which end my toes come out of. Dat heel stratched an' stratched till I got clear away."