Afro-American Folksongs - online book

A Study In Racial And National Music, With Sample Sheet Music & Lyrics.

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The editors of "Slave Songs" were liberal-minded per­sons, who, though engaged in philanthropic work in behalf of the freedmen, were prompted by cultural rather than religious motives in directing attention to negro songs. They deplored the fact that circumstances made the col­lection almost wholly religious. Mr. Allen wrote: "I never fairly heard a secular song among the Port Royal freedmen, and never saw a musical instrument among them. The last violin, owned by a 'worldly man/ dis­appeared from Coffin's Point 'de year gun shoot at Bay Pint' (i. e, November, 1861). In other parts of the South 'fiddle sings,' 'devil songs,' 'corn songs,' 'jig tunes' and what not, are common; all the world knows the banjo and the 'Jim Crow' songs of thirty years ago. We have succeed­ed in obtaining only a very few songs of this character. Our intercourse with the colored people has been chiefly through the work of the Freedmen's Commission, which deals with the serious and earnest side of the negro char­acter"; and, discussing the "civilized" character of the songs which he prints, he says: "It is very likely that if we had found it possible to get at more of their se­cular music we should have come to another con­clusion as to the proportion of the barbaric element." Then he makes room for a letter from "a gentleman from Delaware," who makes a number of shrewd obser­vations, as thus:
We must look among their non-religious songs for the purest specimens of negro minstrelsy. It is remarkable that they have themselves transferred the best of these to the uses of their churches, I suppose on Mr. Wesley's principle that "it is not right that the devil should have all the good tunes." Their leaders and preachers have not found this change difficult to effect, or at least they have taken so little pains about it that one often detects the profane cropping out and revealing the origin of their most solemn "hymns'' in spite of the best intentions of the poet and artist. Some of the best pure negro songs I have ever heard were those that used to be sung by the black stevedores, or perhaps the crews themselves, of the West India vessels, loading and unloading at the wharves in Philadelphia and Baltimore. I have stood for more than an hour, often, listening to them as they hoisted and lowered the hogsheads and boxes of their cargoes, one man taking the burden of the song (and the slack of the rope) and the others striking in with the chorus. They would sing in this way more than a dozen different songs in an hour, most of which might, indeed, be warranted to contain "nothing religious"—a few of them, "on the contrary, quite the reverse"—4>ut gener­ally rather innocent and proper in their language and strangely attractive in their music.
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