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Negro ‘spirituals’

Some of the negro chants or ‘spirituals’ are particularly interesting because of their direct connection with the incidents of the Civil War. Their sources were generally obscure; their origin seeming to be either by gradual accretion or by an almost unconscious process of composition.

Colonel T. W. Higginson told the story of the beginning of one of these slave songs as related to him by a sturdy young oarsman of Ladies Island.

‘Once we boys’ he said ‘went to tote some rice and de nigger driver lie keep a-callina on us; and I say, “O, de ole nigger-driver.” Den anudder said, “Fust ting my mammy tole me was —notina so bad as nigger drivers.” Den I make a “sing,” just puttina a word ana den anudder word.’ Thus, said Colonel Higginson, almost unconsciously a new song was created, which was repeated the second time with perfect recollection of the original melody and intonations.

The wild, sad strains of these primitive melodies, born of their desire for musical expression amid the dull, daily routine of cotton field and rice swamp, express above and beyond their plaintive lament, a simple trust in the future—in the happy land—the Canaan, toward which their yearning eyes were forever turned.

The enlisted soldiers

Sung by the Ninth regiment U. S. Colored troops at Benedict, Maryland, winter of 1863-4. General Armstrong calls this the negro battle hymn. At Petersburg, July 29, 1864, a trooper of General Henry G. Thomas's brigade sat before the Camp fire singing this negro battle hymn, they look like men of war. General Thomas describes the scene — the dark men with their white eyes and teeth, crouching over a smouldering Camp fire, in dusky shadow, lit only by the feeble rays of the lanterns of the first sergeants dimly showing through the tents. After the terrible battle of the crater they sang these words no more.

Hark! listen to the trumpeters,
They call for volunteers,
On Zion's bright and flowery mount—
Behold the officers!

They look like men,
They look like men,
They look like men of war.

My father, how long?

This primitive chant is thought by Mr. G. H. Allan, who wrote down the stanzas, to have originated from the Florida plantations. At the outbreak of the Civil war several negroes were thrown into jail at Georgetown, South Carolina, for singing the verses. Although the ‘spiritual’ was an old one, the words were considered as being symbolical of new events. A little colored boy explained the matter tersely to Mr. Allan. ‘Dey tink de Lord mean fo‘ to say de Yankees call us.’

We'll fight for liberty,
We'll fight for liberty,
We'll fight for liberty,
When de Lord will call us home.
And it won't be long,
And it won't be long,
And it won't be long,
When de Lord will call us home.

Many thousand go

This ‘spiritual,’ to which the Civil war actually gave rise, was composed by nobody knows whom, although it is perhaps the most recent of the slave ‘spirituals’ of which we have record. Lieut. Col. Trowbridge learned that it was first sung on the occasion when General Beauregard gathered the slaves from the Port royal Islands to build fortifications at Hilton head and Bay Point.

No more peck oa corn for me,
No more, no more;
No more peck oa corn for me,
Many tousand go.

No more driver's lash for me,
No more, no more;
No more driver's lash for me,
Many tousand go.

Pray on

This curious ‘spiritual’ is one of those arising directly from the events of the war. When the news of approaching freedom reached the sea island rice plantations of the Port royal Islands this chant was sung with great fervor by the negroes. The verses were annotated by Charles Pickard Ware.

Pray on—pray on;
Pray on, den light us over;
Pray on—pray on,
De Union break of day.
My sister, you come to see baptize
In De Union break of day,
In de Union break of day.

Meet, O lord

Meet, O Lord, on de milk-white horse
Ana de nineteen vial in his hana.
Drop on—drop on de crown on my head,
And rolly in my Jesus arm;
In dat mornina all day,
In dat mornina all day,
In dat mornina all day,
When Jesus de Christ been born.

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