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Title page for Slave Songs of the United States
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Slave Songs of the United States
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Gospel Music Heritage Month

In June 2008, Congress recognized September as Gospel Music Heritage Month, observing in its legislation that the message, rhythms, and melodies of gospel music "can be traced to multiple and diverse influences and foundations, including African-American spirituals." Documenting the American South commemorates this celebration of American art by examining the musical tradition from which gospel greats like Thomas A. Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson emerged.

Music served a variety of functions in the antebellum African-American community. Slaves frequently sang to communicate in code when their overseers and masters were listening; when Harriet Tubman wished to inform her fellow slaves that she planned to escape to the North, she could not speak plainly because her master was present, so she sang: "I'm boun' for de promised land, / On the oder side of Jordan" (p. 18). Singing also served as a medium for the preservation of African culture. The enslaved great-grandmother of W.E.B. Dubois sang the African song "Do bana coba, gene me, gene me" to her children, and her descendants preserved the song until Dubois published it in The Souls of Black Folks in 1901. Dubois finds echoes of that "primitive African music" in later songs and traces a gradual development from African chants to African-American spirituals in the songs "You may bury me in the East," "March on" and "Steal away"; "[t]he first is African music, the second Afro-American, the third is a blending of Negro music with the music heard in the foster land" (pp. 254-56). On the plantation, work songs, the ring shout and African rhythms were infused into the more staid Protestant hymnody of Isaac Watts, creating spirituals—a new genre of music that conflated European and African traditions to produce a uniquely American art form.

In 1801, Richard Allen published the first known instances of musical worship that specifically recounted the experiences of African-American persecution. Allen published his hymnal for the Bethel congregation of African-American Methodists that later became the African Methodist Episcopal Church and included several hymns of his own composition, including "The God of Bethel Heard Her Cries" and "Ye Ministers That Are Called to Preaching." Writing about the difficulties his own church had encountered, Allen thanked God that when "Bethel [was] surrounded by her foes," He "sav'd them in the trying hour, / Ministers and councils joined / And all stood ready to retain / That helpless church of thine" (p. 21). Most African-American spirituals describe the persecution of slaves, not churches, but Allen's hymns set a precedent for the songs of worship that moved from churches to plantations in the early nineteenth century.

William Frances Allen published his collection of Slave Songs of the United States, in 1867, hoping to preserve "genuine slave songs" and "the creative power from which they sprung," which the public "had well-nigh forgotten" after the Civil War (p. i). Allen takes great pains to emphasize the fact that these spirituals are the product of two distinct cultures; the songs have "the mode and spirit of European music" but retain "a distinct tinge of their native Africa" (p. viii). For each song, Allen provides a melodic line and lyrics; there are no other parts, because Allen had never observed slaves singing in harmony. Instead, the lead singer would start "the words of each verse, often improvising, and the others, who 'base' him, as it is called, strike in with the refrain, or even join in the solo, when the words are familiar" (p. v). Frequently, these hymns were "made up as the singer went along," an improvisational style that was later popularized in jazz and blues music (p. 68). Allen's collection includes gospel tunes still popular today, such as "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Had," but some of his selections, such as "I an' Satan Had a Race," are more obscure.

Seven years after Allen's collection first appeared, Mary Frances Armstrong and Helen Ludlow published Hampton and its Students (1874), a history of the Hampton Institute—a secondary school serving the African-American community. That volume included fifty "Cabin and Plantation Songs" arranged by Thomas Fenner, who ran the school's Musical Department (p. 173). In contrast to Allen, who only preserved the lyrics and melodic lines of slave songs, Fenner added harmony to many of his selections. Fenner understood that sheet music could not capture the essence of a slave song "in its absolute, rude simplicity" because the song's "effectiveness, in its home, depends upon accompaniments which can be carried away only in memory"; "the swaying of the body; the rhythmical stamping of the feet; and all the wild enthusiasm of the negro camp-meeting—these evidently can not be transported" or duplicated in sheet music (p. (172). Unable to render the melodies in their original form, Fenner adapted them, converting melodic lines into four-part harmonies and hoping to make "more than has ever yet been made out of this slave music" (p. 172).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the slave songs and African-American musical tradition that Allen, Fenner and White introduced to popular culture had become thoroughly integrated via periodicals such as The Musical Million, which had more than ten thousand subscribers, and songbooks like The Temple Star (1877), which sold more than half a million copies. In the two centuries since Richard Allen published his first collection of hymns, the definition of gospel music has grown to include a variety of musical and religious traditions. But most listeners of gospel music still recognize the genre's debt to African-American slaves, for whom music was a form of escape from the cruel realities of slavery, and "the true Negro folk-song still lives in the hearts of those who have heard them truly sung" (p. 253).

Works Consulted: Abbington, James, Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, Chicago: GIA Publications, 2001; Blackwell, Lois, The Wings of A Dove, Norfolk: Donning, 1978; Darden, Robert, People Get Ready!, New York: Continuum, 2004; Hillsman, Joan R., Gospel Music, Washington D.C.: Middle Atlantic Regional Press, 1990; McNeil, W. K., Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Zachary Hutchins