Chapter 9: negro Spirituals.
The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days.
For instance, the present writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones.
It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy
, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.
This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years heard of this class of songs under the name of “Negro Spirituals,” and had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina
I could now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before seen as in museums alone.
True, the individual songs rarely coincided; there was a line here, a chorus there,--just enough to fix the class, but this was unmistakable.
It was not strange that they differed, for the range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina
, and Florida
seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.
Often in the starlit evening I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river, or on the plover-haunted
barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.
Writing down in the darkness, as I best could,--perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,--the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by. Or, summoning one of the men at some period of leisure,--Corporal Robert Sutton
, for instance, whose iron memory held all the details of a song as if it were a ford or a forest,--I have completed the new specimen by supplying the absent parts.
The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there were others that occurred only once or twice.
The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer.
I wished to avoid what seems to me the only error of Lowell
papers” in respect to-dialect,--the occasional use of an extreme misspelling, which merely confuses the eye, without taking us any closer to the peculiarity of sound.
The favorite song in camp was the following,--sung with no accompaniment but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet.
It was sung perhaps twice as often as any other.
This was partly due to the fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses of other songs might be combined at random.
This would be sung for half an hour at a time, perhaps each person present being named in turn.
It seemed the simplest primitive type of “spiritual.”
The next in popularity was almost as elementary, and, like this, named successively each one of the circle.
It was, however, much more resounding and convivial in its music.
Sometimes it was “tink ‘em” (think them) “fare ye well.”
was so detached that I thought at first it was “very” or “vary well.”
Another picturesque song, which seemed immensely popular, was at first very bewildering to me. I could not make out the first words of the chorus, and called it the “Romandar,” being reminded of some Romaic
song which I had formerly heard.
That association quite fell in with the Orientalism of the new tent-life.
By this time every man within hearing, from oldest to youngest, would be wriggling and shuffling, as if through some magic piper's bewitchment; for even those who at first affected contemptuous indifference would be drawn into the vortex ere long.
Next to these in popularity ranked a class of songs belonging emphatically to the Church
Militant, and available for camp purposes with very little strain upon their symbolism.
This, for instance, had a true companion-in-arms heartiness about it, not impaired by the feminine invocation at the end.
I fancied that the original reading might have been “soul,” instead of “soldier,” --with some other syllable inserted to fill out the metre,--and that the “Hail, Mary,” might denote a Roman Catholic
origin, as I had several men from St. Augustine
who held in a dim way to that faith.
It was a very ringing song, though not so grandly jubilant as the next, which was really impressive as the singers pealed it out, when marching or rowing or embarking.
I could get no explanation of the “mighty Myo,” except that one of the old men thought it meant the river of death.
Perhaps it is an African word.
In the Cameroon dialect, “Mawa” signifies “to die.”
The next also has a military ring about it, and the first line is well matched by the music.
The rest is conglomerate, and one or two lines show a more Northern origin.
“Done” is a Virginia shibboleth, quite distinct from the “been” which replaces it in South Carolina
Yet one of their best choruses, without any fixed words, was, “De bell done ringing,” for which, in proper South Carolina
dialect, would have been substituted, “De bell been a-ring.”
This refrain may have gone South with our army.
Sometimes they substituted “hinder we
,” which was more spicy to the ear, and more in keeping with the usual head-over-heels arrangement of their pronouns.
Almost all their songs were thoroughly religious in their tone, however quaint their expression, and were in a minor key, both as to words and music.
The attitude is always the same, and, as a commentary on the life of the race, is infinitely pathetic.
Nothing but patience for this life,--nothing but triumph in the next.
Sometimes the present predominates, sometimes the future; but the combination is always implied.
In the following, for instance, we hear simply the patience.
But in the next, the final reward of patience is proclaimed as plaintively.
This next was a boat-song, and timed well with the tug of the oar.
The following begins with a startling affirmation, yet the last line quite outdoes the first.
This, too, was a capital boat-song.
I could get no explanation of this last riddle, except, “Dat mean, if you go on de leff, go to ‘struction, and if you go on de right, go to God, for sure.”
In others, more of spiritual conflict is implied, as in this next.
In the next, the conflict is at its height, and the lurid imagery of the Apocalypse is brought to bear.
This book, with the books of Moses
, constituted their Bible; all that lay between, even the narratives of the life of Jesus, they hardly cared to read or to hear.
“De valley” and “de lonesome valley” were familiar words in their religious experience.
To descend into that region implied the same process with the “anxious seat” of the camp-meeting.
When a young girl was supposed to enter it, she bound a handkerchief by a peculiar
knot over her head, and made it a point of honor not to change a single garment till the day of her baptism, so that she was sure of being in physical readiness for the cleansing rite, whatever her spiritual mood might be. More than once, in noticing a damsel thus mystically kerchiefed, I have asked some dusky attendant its meaning, and have received the unfailing answer,--framed with their usual indifference to the genders of pronouns,--“He in de lonesome valley, sa.”
The next gives the same dramatic conflict, while its detached and impersonal refrain gives it strikingly the character of the Scotch and Scandinavian ballads.
Here is an infinitely quaint description of the length of the heavenly road :--
One of the most singular pictures of future joys, and with a fine flavor of hospitality about it, was this :--
The chorus was usually the greater part of the song, and often came in paradoxically, thus:--
The next is very graceful and lyrical, and with more variety of rhythm than usual:--
But of all the “spirituals” that which surprised me the most, I think,--perhaps because it was that in which external nature furnished the images most directly,was this.
With all my experience of their ideal ways of speech, I was startled when first I came on such a flower of poetry in that dark soil.
“I'll lie in de grave and stretch out my arms.”
Never, it seems to me, since man first lived and suffered, was his infinite longing for peace uttered more plaintively than in that line.
The next is one of the wildest and most striking of the whole series: there is a mystical effect and a passionate striving throughout the whole.
The Scriptural struggle between Jacob and the angel, which is only dimly expressed in the words, seems all uttered in the music.
I think it impressed my imagination more powerfully than any other of these songs.
Of “occasional hymns,” properly so called, I noticed but one, a funeral hymn for an infant, which is sung plaintively over and over, without variety of words.
Still simpler is this, which is yet quite sweet and touching.
The next seemed to be a favorite about Christmas time, when meditations on “de rollin‘ year” were frequent among them.
The next was sung in such an operatic and rollicking way that it was quite hard to fancy it a religious performance, which, however, it was. I heard it but once.
“Tittawisa” means “Sister Louisa.”
In songs of this class the name of every person present successively appears.
Their best marching song, and one which was invaluable to lift their feet along, as they expressed it, was the following.
There was a kind of spring and lilt
to it, quite indescribable by words.
The next was one of those which I had heard in boyish days, brought North from Charleston
But the chorus alone was identical; the words were mainly different, and those here given are quaint enough.
The following contains one of those odd transformations of proper names with which their Scriptural citations
were often enriched.
It rivals their text, “Paul
may plant, and may polish wid water,” which I have elsewhere quoted, and in which the sainted Apollos
would hardly have recognized himself.
These golden and silver fancies remind one of the King
's daughter in “Mother Goose
,” and the golden apple, and the silver pear, which are doubtless themselves but the vestiges of some simple early composition like this.
The next has a humbler and more domestic style of fancy.
Among the songs not available for marching, but requiring the concentrated enthusiasm of the camp, was “The Ship of Zion
,” of which they had three wholly distinct versions, all quite exuberant and tumultuous.
This abbreviated chorus is given with unspeakable unction.
The three just given are modifications of an old campmeeting melody; and the same may be true of the three following, although I cannot find them in the Methodist
Each, however, has its characteristic modifications, which make it well worth giving.
In the second verse of this next, for instance, “Saviour” evidently has become “soldier.”
Some of the songs had played an historic part during the war. For singing the next, for instance, the negroes had been put in jail in Georgetown, S. C.
, at the outbreak of the Rebellion
“We'll soon be free” was too dangerous an assertion; and though the chant was an old one, it was no doubt sung with redoubled emphasis during the new events.
will call us home,” was evidently thought to be a symbolical verse; for, as a little drummer-boy explained to me, showing all his white teeth as he sat in the moonlight by the door of my tent, “Dey
tink de Lord
mean for say de Yankees.
The suspicion in this case was unfounded, but they had another song to which the Rebellion
had actually given rise.
This was composed by nobody knew whom,though it was the most recent, doubtless, of all these “spirituals,” --and had been sung in secret to avoid detection.
It is certainly plaintive enough.
The peck of corn and pint of salt were slavery's rations.
Even of this last composition, however, we have only the approximate date and know nothing of the mode of composition.
says of the Scotch songs, that, no matter who made them, they were soon attributed to the minister of the parish whence they sprang.
And I always wondered, about these, whether they had always
a conscious and definite origin in some leading mind, or whether they grew by gradual accretion, in an almost unconscious way. On this point I could get no information, though I asked many questions, until at last, one day when I was being rowed across from Beaufort
to Ladies' Island
, I found myself, with delight, on the actual trail of a song.
One of the oarsmen, a brisk young fellow, not a soldier, on being asked for his theory of the matter, dropped out a coy confession.
“Some good sperituals,” he said, “are start jess out oa curiosity.
I been a-raise a sing, myself, once.”
My dream was fulfilled, and I had traced out, not the poem alone, but the poet.
I implored him to proceed.
“ Once we boys,” he said, “went for tote some rice and de nigger-driver he keep a-callin‘ on us; and I say, ‘O, de ole nigger-driver!’
Den anudder said, ‘ Fust ting my mammy tole me was, notin‘ so bad as niggerdriver.’
Den I made a sing, just puttin‘ a word, and den anudder word.”
Then he began singing, and the men, after listening a moment, joined in the chorus, as if it were an old acquaintance, though they evidently had never heard it before.
I saw how easily a new “sing” took root among them.
It will be observed that, although this song is quite secular in its character, yet its author called it a “spiritual.”
I heard but two songs among them, at any time, to which they would not, perhaps, have given this generic name.
One of these consisted simply in the endless repetition — after the manner of certain college songsof the mysterious line,--
Rain fall and wet Becky Lawton.
But who Becky Lawton
was, and why she should or should not be wet, and whether the dryness was a reward or a penalty, none could say. I got the impression that, in either case, the event was posthumous, and that there was some tradition of grass not growing over the grave of a sinner; but even this was vague, and all else vaguer.
The other song I heard but once, on a morning when a squad of men came in from picket duty, and chanted it in the most rousing way. It had been a stormy and comfortless night, and the-picket station was very exposed.
It still rained in the morning when I strolled to the edge of the camp, looking out for the men, and wondering how they had stood it. Presently they came striding along the road, at a great pace, with their shining rubber blankets worn as cloaks around them, the rain streaming from these and from their equally shining faces, which were almost all upon the broad grin, as they pealed out this remarkable ditty:--
My presence apparently checked the performance of another verse, beginning, “De buckra ‘list for money,” apparently in reference to the controversy about the pay-question, then just beginning, and to the more mercenary aims they attributed to the white soldiers.
But “Hangman Johnny” remained always a myth as inscrutable as “Becky Lawton
As they learned all their songs by ear, they often strayed into wholly new versions, which sometimes became popular, and entirely banished the others.
This was amusingly the case, for instance, with one phrase in the popular camp-song of “Marching along,” which was entirely new to them until our quartermaster taught it to them, at my request.
The words, “Gird on the armor,” were to them a stumbling-block, and no wonder, until some ingenious ear substituted, “Guide on de army,” which was at once accepted, and became universal.
We'll guide on de army, and be marching along
is now the established version on the Sea
These quaint religious songs were to the men more than a source of relaxation; they were a stimulus to courage and a tie to heaven.
I never overheard in camp a profane or vulgar song.
With the trifling exceptions given, all had a religious motive, while the most secular melody could not have been more exciting.
A few youths from Savannah
, who were comparatively men of the world, had learned some of the “Ethiopian Minstrel” ditties, imported from the North
These took no
hold upon the mass; and, on the other hand, they sang reluctantly, even on Sunday, the long and short metres of the hymn-books, always gladly yielding to the more potent excitement of their own “spirituals.”
By these they could sing themselves, as had their fathers before them, out of the contemplation of their own low estate, into the sublime scenery of the Apocalypse.
I remember that this minor-keyed pathos used to seem to me almost too sad to dwell upon, while slavery seemed destined to last for generations; but now that their patience has had its perfect work, history cannot afford to lose this portion of its record.
There is no parallel instance of an oppressed race thus sustained by the religious sentiment alone.
These songs are but the vocal expression of the simplicity of their faith and the sublimity of their long resignation.