Afro-American Folksongs - online book

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

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Closely related to this custom of "settin' up" apparently is one to which Mrs. Jeannette Robinson Murphy called attention in an interesting article, accompanied by songs and stories, which she published some years ago in "The Independent." In this custom the hymns which are sung at the deathbed become messages to loved ones gone before, which the departing soul is charged to bear to heaven. "When a woman dies," wrote Mrs. Murphy, "some friend or relative will kneel down and sing to the soul as it takes its flight. One of the songs contains endless verses, conveying remembrances to relatives in glory." Here, surely, is a lovely and truly exalted variant of the primitive custom of placing coins in the mouths of the dead to pay the Stygian ferryman, or slaughtering dogs, horses and slaves for a chiefs companionship on the journey into the next world.
And yet even this affecting ceremony may have had its origin in the awful practice which prevails in Dahomey, to which every year a large number of lives are, or used to be, sacrificed. On the death of a Dahoman king the "grand custom," as it is called, is celebrated, at which at times as many as five hundred captives have been slain to make up the household of the departed monarch in the other world. Besides this sacrifice there is an annual one at which from sixty to eighty are killed and sent as bearers of messages and news from the new king to his predecessor. Into the ear of each unfortunate the king whispers the words which he wishes to have reported, whereupon the executioner immediately strikes off the ghostly postman's mortal head.
Much more singular than this singing to the soul, is a custom which is said to have prevailed in South Carolina, where, on the death of the father of a family, his relatives, assembled around the coffin, ranged in order of age and relationship, sang the following hymn while marching around the body:
Dese all my fader's children.
Outshine de sun! My fader's done wid de trouble o' de world—
Outshine de sun!
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