( Originally Published 1920 )
BY CARL HOLLIDAY, M. A., INSTRUCTOR IN ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.
DOUBTLESS the most spontaneous outburst of song known to modern days is found in the plantation melodies of the American negro. Unfortunately for our poetry at least, the United States sprang into existence, a civilized, intelligent, prosaic nation, almost entirely devoid of the national body of folk-lore which every great European people considers a priceless treasure of antiquity. And in the years which have followed that sudden appearance of a new commonwealth there have been among the whites-with the possible exception of a few ballads found among the mountaineers of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina-no melodies unique and springing from the people. The conditions that led to an Iliad, a Beowulf, a Nibelungen Lied, a Song of Roland, an Arthurian Legend, or a Robin Hood Ballad have never been present to bring forth a song of America's birth and childhood. Of all the builders of the nation the negro alone has created a species of lyric verse that all the world may recognize as a distinctly American production.
The black men are undoubtedly the best natural musicians and orators among modern peoples. Under the stress of religious emotion the most illiterate of their preachers may startle the listener by a wonderful power in word-painting, while their ear for music is so true as to enable them to form without a moment's hesitation correct harmonies for almost any melody. Song is to them the very soul of life; it is an ever-present companion; it is a helper in toil, a pas-time in idleness, a comforter in times of sorrow. Sometimes amidst the city's hurrying throng a long line of negroes may be seen silently and doggedly working on the track or in the trench. Suddenly above the multitudinous sounds of the quivering street there will burst forth a strange great chord like the peal of a mighty organ; scores take it up, a hundred, five hundred, all along the far-stretched line of bended backs; and, as the picks clink and the shovels grate, a chorus is lifted that carries the soul far away from the hot walls and echoing pavements. How strange, how weird is that harmony, so unmodern, so redolent of an age long past ! And down on the gray, sweltering dock and far away at the cabin door by the cotton-field, the same melodies are arising-the folk-songs of a people united by their love of music. Suddenly, while the soul is in the midst of such meditations, the chorus ceases, and once more the listening ear hears among the babel of sounds, the clink of the picks and the grating of the shovels.
Perhaps the song was some mournful refrain bearing the memories of a pagan religion of fear:
"I am sinking,
I am sinking,
I am sinking
Down in death!
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy
On my soul!"
Perhaps it was the more triumphant theme of Roll Jordan, Roll:
"My bruddah sitting on de tree of life An' he hyeah when Jordan roll. Roll, Jordan,
Roll, Jordan, roll:
Oh, march de angel march,
O my soul, rise in Heaven, Lord, For to hyeah when Jordan roll I"
Again, it may have been that crooning lyric, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, with its drawn-out refrain:
"Oh, de good ole chariot swing so low,
I don't want to leave me behine, Oh, swing low, sweet chariot, Swing low, sweet chariot,
I don't want to leave me behine."
But whatever the song, there is ever a quaintness, a sense of some-thing not belonging to this age and place, -a something that fills the unfamiliar listener with an emotion of pity. In the words, indeed, the melody may be a reckless, rollicking one, such as the old Savannah Freeman's Song:
"Heave away, heave away:
I'd rathah court a yellow gal than work fah Henry Clay: Heave away, heave away ! Yellow gal, I want to go,
I'd rathah court a yellow gal than work fah Henry Clay!"
But the minor key so suggestive of mourning, and the weird ending, ceasing, as it always does, on just the note least expected and thus causing us to wait involuntarily for the next, these turn every song into a thing of strange pathos.
However, the theme is seldom of such a rollicking nature as that in the example just given. Religion has been the most fascinating subject that ever held the attention of the black man; and to the ante-bellum negro, especially, it constituted the ruling passion of life. The revival, the "protracted meeting," the soul-terrifying conviction of sin, the shouting conversion, and the religious trance were to him, never shams and hypocrisies, but rapturous realities. But even here sadness prevails :
"Bending knees aching, body racked with pain,
I wish I was a chile of God, I'd git home bimeby! Keep praying, I do believe,
We're a long time wagging o'er de crossing; Keep praying, I do believe,
We'll git home to heaven bimeby!"
Again, notice the cheerful conception of death in such lines as these :
"No mo' peck of corn fah me,
No mo'; no mo';
No mo' peck of corn fah me,
Many thousand go !
"No mo' auction-block fah me, No mo'; no mo';
No mo' auction-block fah me, Many thousand go !"
And what longing for Heaven-the old-time bejewelled, glittering, material Heaven-found expression in these rude chants ! As with all primitive races, the Scriptural figures of speech are taken literally, and the home over yonder is a place of surprising wealth.
"I ain't been thah,
But I've been tole
(Histe the window, let the dove come in!) The gates am pearl,
The streets am gole,
(Histe the window, let the dove come in!)"
Heaven is also a land of meetings, of eternal union with loved ones:
"I have a fathah ovah yondah, I have a fathah ovah yondah, I have a fathah ovah yondah,
Way ovah in de promis' lan'! Bimeby I'll go to see him, Bimeby I'll go to see him, Bimeby I'll go to see him,
Way ovah thah!"
And thus the family death-record continues until the mother, sisters, brothers, wives, sons, daughters, and sometimes even the nephews and cousins have been remembered aloud.
Judgment Day was the inexhaustible subject of the ante-bellum negro exhorter, and, once under its influence, his imagination ran riot. The thunder of Gabriel's trumpet resounded; the lightning flashed; the moon and the stars turned to blood; the sun went out; the earth shrivelled as a parchment; and the dead of all ages arose and walked in their funeral shrouds. In all seriousness, some of the sermons on this subject as preached by negroes even of the twentieth century are so startlingly vivid as to compel sympathy with the groaning and hysterical audience. In speaking thus of the sermons, we likewise describe the songs of resurrection.
"Gabriel, blow youah trumpet, Lord, how loud will I blow it ? Loud as seven peals of thundah, Wake de sleeping nations,
Den you see po' sinnahs rising, See de dry bones a-creeping,
In dat great Bitting-up morning. Fare you well! Fare you well!"
It is a time of tumult. Phrases must express the meaning of whole sentences:
"In de morning,
In de morning,
Chil'en? Yes, my Lord!
Don't you hyeah de trumpet sound? If I had a-died when I was young,
I nevah would had de race fah to run. Don't you hyeah de trumpet sound?"
Such were the melodies born of slavery. In them are the heart-cries of a nation living under a cloud, the vague, half-conscious gropings for something unattained. The note of sadness is sincere. Here is indeed little of the character found in the counterfeit "coon-song" so popular in these first years of the twentieth century; the two are not of the same spirit. Nor are the beautiful lyrics, Suwanee Ribber, Old Kentucky Home, and others composed through the art of the white man, in the same class as the real plantation songs. In their half-expressed thoughts, their minor keys, their swaying rhythm, and their unexpected endings, they are absolutely unique; they defy imitation; and musical instruments founded upon the prevailing tonic scale cannot repeat their harmonies. They seem destined, therefore, to perish with their quaint and melodious singers. In them America has had a rich but now, alas ! surely vanishing treasure.