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Southern Slave Music
Transcript of Southern Slave Music
By Charles L. Blockson
This song is not a spiritual, but tells the story of the Underground Railroad through music. As the song traces the slaves’ flight to freedom, it refers to the spirituals the slaves used to communicate information on the Underground Railroad to each other. There are references to “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” , with its emphasis on following the North Star.
The Underground Train,Strange as it seems, Carried many passengersAnd never was seen
It wasn’t made of wood,It wasn’t made of steel;A man-made train thatRan without wheels.
The train was known By many a name.But the greatest of allWas “The Freedom Train”
The Quakers, the Indians,Gentiles and Jews,Were some of the peopleWho made up the crews.
Free Blacks and ChristiansAnd Atheists, too,Were the rest of the peopleWho made up the crews.
Conductors and agentsLed the way at night,Guiding the trainBy the North Star Light.
The passengers wereThe fugitive slavesRunning from slaveryAnd its evil ways.
Running from the whip And the overseer,From the slave blockAnd the Auctioneer.
They didn’t want their mastersTo catch them again,So men dressed as womenAnd the women dressed as men. Steal Away
This spiritual was sung by Nat Turner as a signal. Nat, a slave from Virginia who organized a slave revolt against slave owners, used this song to alert other slaves to meetings. After the failed revolt and Nat’s death, slaves everywhere were forbidden to speak his name. It was, however, worked into the lyrics of another slave song.
Lyrics:Chorus:Steal away, steal away!Steal away to Jesus!Steal away, steal away home!I ain’t got long to stay here!My Lord calls me!He calls me by the thunder!The trumpet sounds in my soul!I ain’t got long to stay here!Chorus:My Lord, he calls me!He calls me by the lightning!The trumpet sounds it ina my soul!I ain’t got long to stay here! The Gospel Train's A'Comin'Slaves sung the spiritual, The Gospel train’s a’comin’, to alert other slaves that a group was preparing to escape and travel north to freedom. “Gospel Train” was code for the Underground Railroad.Plantation owners would be unaware their slaves were planning to escape; slave songs were part of the day’s routine. A plantation owner would simply hear the religious and Biblical references and assume the slaves were singing for spiritual reasons.
Lyrics:The Gospel train’s a’comin’I hear it just at handI hear the car wheel rumblin’And rollin’ thro’ the landChorus: Get on board little childrenGet on board little children. Get on board little children. There's room for many moreI hear the train a’comin'She's comin' round the curve. She's loosened all her steam and brakesAnd strainin' ev'ry nerve
Chorus:The fare is cheap and all can go.The rich and poor are thereNo second class aboard this train.No difference in the fare How did jazz begin? The story of jazz is rooted in the story of slavery in America, in particular in the United States and, further back, in Africa. It is the story of the music of Africa and how it was transformed by the experience of slavery.
All of those musicians who contributed to the early days of jazz, to its formation, were the children or grandchildren of slaves.
“Jazz was not an accident. It appeared when it did because of what had gone before, and it spread through the culture with amazing spread because the American people were prepared for it – in fact, were actively searching for it, or something like it.” - James Lincoln Collier,Jazz, the American Theme Song (OUP, 1993)
The music we know today as jazz arose out of the black experience in the United States, an experience of violent dislocation and cultural deprivation, an experience of survival in the most cruel of human situations, an experience of spiritual and psychological oppression. To get an idea of the magnitude and shape of this black experience in the United States it is necessary to look at slavery and the slave trade, to understand its implications for the people involved and how they responded to it. It is this response that is so important for an understanding of jazz.
The slaves also used music functionally as work songs and the like. This too was a reflection of the functionality of music in African society.
Jazz today comes in a sometimes bewildering array of colours and flavours, constantly renewing itself and finding new ways of expression. It has also spread across the world in most wonderful ways.
Fascinating examples of the music creating feedback loops for itself are found, like the hip-hop music that grew out of jazz and then started to influence jazz players. Like the way that many jazz players from the US have gone in search of their African musical roots and had their music challenged and changed by their experiences. Effects on Modern Music
The supervisors allowed, and even encouraged, the slaves to sing. The singing contributed them to overcome the monotony in the work out on the field, in a way it raised the work ethic. This was how the concept ‘plantation songs' started. The work song did not only function as a stimulant, where the rhythm of the song subsidized the work-rhythm, but also as a news channel. This was the only way the slaves could talk to each other during work; by singing.
Here, in the songs, the slaves learned about topical occurrences, narratives and the word of God.
The new work songs that came into being among the Blacks in America, were the foundation for the later to be known Afro American music.
The Gospel Music had its fountain in the Work Songs. The blues is the most independent type of black music in the African -American tradition. The musical style wasn't really developed before after slavery had been embellished in 1865, but the blues is deeply rooted in the slaves' work songs, gospel and Negro spirituals. Some say that the blues was born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta where cotton choppers and pickers sang to make the work go easier. These songs were influenced by African tribal songs, work chants and "hollers". But even after the slaves were given back their freedom, they were not considered as equals by the rest of the population. Most of them were poor and their living accommodations were bad, they were illiterate and despised. It was under these circumstances the term "being blue" appeared. The colour blue expressed a feeling of sadness and depression, and of being lonely. While Negro spirituals lent itself to a choral treatment and expressed the blacks' need for spiritual guidance, the blues was about people and their everyday struggles. Blues lyrics was about money problems, broken hearts, loneliness and sickness. The songs of the slaves evolved into popular music that was recorded and played in all households white or Black. Most people do not realize that this music is at the root of Rock n'Roll. The songs evolved into Blues music, which was made popular by African American musicians and singers. Rap is another effect of slavery that has come from African Americans as is Break Dancing.