​Kevin's Culture Corner:

Music, Politics and American Culture

The Slave Songs: the Cornerstone of American Protest Music

By Kevin Comtois

The songs of American antebellum slaves are the root music to many contemporary songs in our popular culture.  Within America’s ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, slaves created specific traditions of singing songs that have been kept alive by artists immersed in many different musical genres.  Specifically, the drum and banjo have become instrumental components of American music; the use of double entendre was regularly used in popular music until the late twentieth century; and the use of the word nigger is common among modern songs from jazz to hip hop.  Not only is it amazing that African traditions survived under the conditions of slavery, but the fact that the cultural elements of slave songs endured and became a major cornerstone of popular music speaks to the strength of African American musical culture.  

There is no way a study of American protest music would be complete without understanding the slave songs of the African American.  This music was not only a collective cry for justice, it also influenced the music of an entire nation.  W.E.B. DuBois described this music as “not simply… the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas…. And the greatest gift of the Negro people.” [1]  In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass described how the slaves would create spirituals.  “They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out, if not in the word, in the sound; and as frequently in the one as in the other.  They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.”[2] These songs were beautiful and sorrowful while being influenced by the conditions of slavery, traditions of the past and evolved through improvisation.

Immediately following the Civil War scholarly collections of slave music began to appear in print.  In one such collection, Slave Songs of the United States, William Allen and his fellow editors concluded that this new American music was “partly composed under the influence of association with the whites, partly actually imitated from their music.”  While acknowledging the obvious influence from Christian hymns and European ballads, Allen and his fellow editors also concluded that the slave music “appears to be original in the best sense of the word, and the more we examine the subject, the more genuine it appears to us to be.”[3] 

Slave spirituals received the commercial recognition they deserved not long after the Civil War.  African American schools like the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute used “the singing of racial music (as) a part of the life of the school… (and were) given full freedom to expand and develop….”[4]  At Fisk University, however, slave music was taken to a whole new level.  In 1866 the treasurer of the school organized some of the students into a singing group.  George L. White first created the group to raise money by traveling through the country singing European choral music.  At first the endeavor failed.  It wasn’t until they started singing slave spirituals that the money started flowing in.  Many of the singers at first were hesitant to sing the songs of their parents from the plantations.   They preferred to leave that part of their past behind them and sing those songs in private.  Eventually they added some plantation spirituals such as “Steal Away” and “The Graveyard,” or the Abolitionist song “John Brown’s Body.”[5]  Whenever the singers finished a spiritual, the crowds wanted more.  In the words of Fisk Jubilee Singer Ella Sheppard, “the land rang with our slave songs.”[6] An important part of this experience was that this was quite possibly the first time that a white audience was exposed to African American slave music in a non minstrelsy format. [7]  White America had heard some of this music before, but it was either at a minstrel show (which approached African American musical culture with ridicule) or in the past on a southern plantation.

The study of slave songs became even more legitimate in 1888 when the American Folklore Society began to seriously examine antebellum slave music.  This Harvard University affiliated organization began what has become an ongoing study.  Ever since then, slave songs have been accepted as American “folk music.”[8]  This recognition continued with various magazines from 1914 through the 1930s that acknowledged “negro music” as “the only American folk music….”  Some of these journals included Musical America, Music Student, Current History, Annals of the American Academia and the Musical Courier. [9]

Twentieth Century musicologists have solidified slave spirituals as a valuable anthropological study. Harold Courlander wrote in Negro Folk Music USA that “the Negro folk music idiom is an integral and somewhat separate phenomenon and has a character completely its own.”[10]  In other words, this music is a combination of different styles and types that created a unique music the world had never heard.  In Negro Slave Songs, Dr Miles Mark Fisher wrote that there are five different cultural influences that contributed to the creation of African American slave songs.  The first is the strong tradition of using rhythm in a song carried over from Africa. The second was the influx of Irish and Scottish folk songs that were heard throughout the backcountry during the 1830s and 1840s.  The third influence began approximately in the mid 1750s in Virginia when Presbyterian Minister Samuel Davies introduced religious hymns to some slaves that set off the wave of spiritual singing.  The fourth category of influence on slave songs was the songs created in colonial America especially in the northern colonies of Massachusetts, New Amsterdam and Pennsylvania.  And finally, the fifth element of influence Fisher attributes to the creation of slave songs were the important events that affect the consciousness of the slaves such as slave rebellions.[11] 

Today the drum is easily recognized as an integral part of many genres of American music.  From jazz to rock and soul to hip-hop, the drum can heard as the main instrument as well as accompaniment in most modern American musical styles.  This was not so until the African brought it from Africa.  The Native Americans (American Indians) used the drum, but the interaction between the red and white peoples in America was limited, thus limiting the cultural diffusion.  The daily interaction between the black and white races in the British colonies in America was much greater and therefore the cross pollination of culture had a greater impact.

The drum played an integral part in African culture.  It was used at almost all ceremonies, and for long distance communication.  Some examples of its uses in Africa were as a warning of an approaching fire, the announcement of someone’s death or warning of a stranger’s approach.  One drum from Africa actually had a name that identified it as a communication device.  It was translated to mean the “talking drum” (ntumpane) and was made from the skin of an elephant’s ear.[12]  The cultural significance, usage, and tradition of the “talking drum” were transported to America.

There are examples of Africans singing songs and banging their drum on their journey to the shores of America.  Slave ship Captain Theodore Canot was part of the triangular trade of slaves and molasses.  He experienced this first hand and wrote in his journal: “During the afternoons of serene weather, men, women, girls, and boys are allowed a while on deck to unite in African melodies which they always enhanced by (an) extemporaneous Tom-tom on the bottom of a tub or tin kettle.”[13]  The Africans came to America with melodies, rhythms, and even instruments.

This tradition of using the drum to communicate and celebrate survived the journey through the middle passage and caused fear in the minds of slave masters, as it was used by slaves to communicate with other plantations.[14]  Eventually many southern communities banned the drum because of its use in slave rebellions.  The following account is from the Stono Rebellion: “Several Negroes joined them, they calling out liberty, marched on with Colours displayed and two drums beating, pursuing all the white people they met with, killing man woman and child” [15](author’s italics).  The response of the slave masters was to ban the drum.  This slave code only succeeded in forcing the slaves to create and adopt a new way of providing rhythm.  They began to use their voice, feet and hands to maintain the beat in their songs.  The drum of course never disappeared.  It survived in places like Congo Square in New Orleans and become one of the main instruments of jazz.  Making something illegal doesn’t eliminate it; it only adds a level of mystery and danger. 

Another instrument that the Africans brought with them from Africa was the Banjo.[16]  Thomas Jefferson first noted it in his Notes on the State of Virginia, calling it a Banjar.  Referring to the slaves on his plantation, Jefferson wrote, “The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought wither from Africa….”[17]  The Rev. Jonathan Boucher noted it even earlier when he wrote Boucher’s Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words.  He wrote: “The favorite and almost only instrument in use among the slaves there was a bandore; or, as they pronounced the word, banjer.  Its body was a large hallow gourd, with a long handle attached to it, strung with catgut, and played on with the fingers.”[18] This knowledge of this instrument was passed onto white America through plantation music and minstrelsy.  It gained popularity in the latter half of the 19th Century and turned up as the main instrument of folk singer and political activist, Pete Seeger.  It can be seen today as the main instrument of Bluegrass revival bands and such jam-rock outfits like String Cheese Incident and Bella Fleck and the Fleck Tones.  There are hundreds of organizations, clubs and bands that are devoted exclusively to the instrument.  Some of these groups have names like the Jazz’n Banjos, Jubilee Banjo Band, Gulf Coast Banjo Band, Banjo Rascals, and Bill Bailey Banjos.

There is a key element of most slave spirituals that has permeated American music ever since colonial America; the use of double entendre.  It was necessary to keep the masters off guard.  The slaves were encouraged (and even expected) to sing while they worked.  It was a way the master could keep track of his slaves in the fields and allow a Forman or leader to keep them in time – thus working faster and more efficient.  It was also thought that a singing slave was a happy slave.  What the slaves knew, and what the white man didn’t know, was that they were singing for themselves and not for the master.  

They purposefully kept the meaning of the songs to themselves, cleverly hiding the true meaning behind some other obvious context.  Religion was the most common theme in this musical phenomenon.  Frederick Douglass acknowledged that the song’s specific words didn’t reflect its true meaning to the slave.  Douglass used the song, “O’ Canaan” as an example of this.  He wrote that “O’Cannan” may really be about escaping to Canada and not the biblical story of the Israelites and Canaan.  An escaped slave himself, Douglass said “a keen observer may have detected Canada in our repeated singing of: O’ Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan.”[19] 

Another double entendre song that has survived and flourished in American popular culture is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  The song was inspired by the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot.  But the hidden meaning is about the desire for freedom.  Instead of thinking about the Jordan River, it was the Columbia River, instead of Elijah’s chariot, it was the Underground Railroad.  Instead of heaven being the end of the journey, it was the north and freedom.[20] 

Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin’ for to carry me home

I look’d over Jordan an’ what did I see,
Comin’ for to carry me home,
A band of angles comin’ after me,
Comin’ for to carry me home

If you get there before I do,
Comin’ for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m comin’ there too.[21]

“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” has been recorded in almost every genre of American music.  B.B. King brought us a blues version; Bill Monroe picked up the pace with bluegrass; Louis Armstrong interpreted the song with his Dixieland Jazz; Tommy Dorsey and Bennie Goodman gave us something to swing to; while the band Acoustix gave the world a smooth jazz interpretation; and Beyonce sang her heart out in an a cappella R&B version.   One of the more culturally trans-missive recordings was made live in Bethel New York in 1969 when Joan Baez performed this song to a quarter of a million hippies at Woodstock.  Even guitar legend Eric Clapton used the sounds of Jamaica and gave the world a Reggae version in the mid seventies while UB40 recorded their own take of this very old song.

Still popular in American music is another spiritual:  “Go Down Moses.”  The song uses the biblical story of Moses in Egypt to exclaim their own prayers for liberation from the clutches of slavery in America.  Most whites that heard the song recognized the biblical story, but when the slaves sang they identified themselves with the Israelites and wished for their own liberator.  The song calls “for a like deliverance from the hand of the white Pharaoh.”[22]  When the slaves sang about Moses, they were thinking of Harriet Tubman or Peg Leg Joe; when they sang about “way down” in Egypt they were thinking of the deep south; when they were singing about the pharaoh they were thinking about the their master or the President of the United States; some believe that Nat Turner was either the author of this song or its subject.  Turner was seen as Moses going to the white “Pharaoh” to free his people.  This song also has the distinction of being the first slave spiritual to be written down.[23]

Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell ol’ Pharaoh
Let my people go

When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go…[24]

“Go Down Moses” has continued in American culture in many different genres.  Guitar Frang created for us a blues version; Ralph Stanley sang country a cappella while Coda gave us a more pop a cappella interpretation.  Moses danced into Egypt with the Magic Swing Band, Elvis rocked it out and Louis Armstrong recorded it in jazz.

“Many Thousands Gone” (also known as “No More Auction Block”) was a song that protested the meager rations slaves received on many southern plantations.  The peck of corn is symbolic of the slaves’ daily food ration.  When they sang “no more, no more,” the slaves were expressing faith that one day a time will come when there is plenty of food to eat, and no more masters’ lash.  William Allen, collector of slave songs of the south, found a reference to the origin of this song in an “Address delivered by J. Miller McKim, in Sansom Hall, Philadelphia, July 9, 1862.”   When asked where the song came from, Prince Rivers responded “Dey make ‘em, sah… I’ll tell you, its dis way.  My master call me up, and order me a short peck of corn and a hundred lash.  My friends see it, and is sorry for me.  When dey come to de praise-meeting dat night dey sing about it.  Some’s very good singers and know how; and dey work it in – work it in, you know, till they get it right; and dat’s de way.”[25] 

No more peck o’ corn for me,
No more, no more
No more peck o’ corn for me,
Man-y tousand go
No more drivers’ lash for me…
No more pint o’ salt for me …
No more hundred lash for me…
No more mistress call for me….[26]

This song was still being sung by Americans in the twentieth century.  There are acoustic folk-style versions by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, blues interpretations from people like Matthew Sabatella and soul renditions recorded by groups like Sweet Honey in the Rock. 

Another slave song that was remembered and passed on while going through contemporary changes is “Oh Freedom.”  This song has call and response structure and was passed on through the twentieth century as the sound track of the civil rights movement.  Its call-and-response musical format allowed for easy adaptability to contemporary circumstances.  The song was perfect for marches, strikes and sit-ins.  There are recordings of people singing “Oh’ Pritchett” (the Albany Police Chief in Georgia), or “Oh’ Wallace” (four-term governor of Alabama).  Groups ranging from the Freedom Singers and Resurrection Singers, to the folk icon Pete Seeger (who made it a staple at his concerts), sang this song throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  It was sung on the plantations as a cry for justice, in the streets as a call for justice, and in the music festivals as a reminder of the promise of America.  

O freedom, O freedom, O freedom over me over me
And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my lord and be free
No more mournin’…
No more weepin’…
No more misery…
No more conformin’…
No more violence….[27]

Another slave song that had hidden meanings and was important to the hope of the slave was “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”  For many slaves, escape to the north was the only way to freedom.  Rebellion and resistance at home would result in death or more repression, and the stories of reprisal and punishment were well known among the slaves.  Because of this reality, escape was the only reasonable course of action and the Underground Railroad was the communication network that could pull it off.  While not clearly a map of escape, its primary purpose was delivering a guide to slaves contemplating such action.  When singing the line: “follow the drinking gourd,” the slaves were referring to the Big Dipper constellation.  In the first verse the runaway is told when and how to escape.  “When the sun comes back” is after the winter solstice when the sun rises higher and higher The singing slave is then told to find the “old man” who “is waiting” to help in the escape.  This “old man” is represented by a man named Peg Leg Joe who could be played by any member of the Underground Railroad.

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is waiting for you to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd

Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd

The next verse tells the escapee to follow the Tombiggee River north from the Gulf of Mexico to Tennessee.  The freedom seeker would then have to follow the dead trees and charcoal drawings of a peg leg foot made to lead him to the next destination.

The riverbank will make a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot traveling on,
Follow the drinking gourd

The next river the slave would have to reach is the Tennessee River where he could follow toward Kentucky.

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd,
There’s another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd

The final verse describes the last leg in the journey.  The meeting of the two rivers described in the song is best crossed in the winter.  If the slave begins his escape when the song indicates (a couple of months after the winter solstice), it will take about a year to reach this point in the journey.  At this time he can cross parts of the Ohio River because it’s frozen and a conductor in the Underground Railroad would meet the runaway slave and help him get to a safe location in one of the northern states of Canada.

Where the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the drinking gourd
The old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the drinking gourd. [28]

“The Drinking Gourd” has also been sung in the twentieth Century.  The Weavers recorded the first commercially released version, other folk singers like New Christy Minstrels continued to perform the song years later; Taj Mahal sang the blues while Shore Grass approached the spiritual with a country flair; John Coltrane and Wynton Marsalis contributed their jazz interpretations while Jorma Koukonen and Hot Tuna recorded some jam rock.  This song has also made it overseas with Spiritual Kvintet singing in Czech and the Motor Totemist Guild recording a Cambodian/Laotian interpretation in English.

The songs of the twentieth century and today may not be a literal map to freedom, but music is still used as a guide to a better life free of conformity or fear.  Music can enliven, encourage and even guide people’s lives.  Christian rock for example takes its pride from having a moral message about the life and teachings of Jesus.  Songs call people to action like Neil Young’s “Ohio” released in the midst of student protests of President’s Nixon’s policy of invading Cambodia.  Aretha Franklin instilled pride in a whole generation of black women in America with her song “Respect.”  Rappers NWA helped African Americans find a voice of solidarity in a culture that traditionally repressed these rights of black Americans with “Express Yourself.”

Just like the songs of protest and empowerment, songs with double entendre did not end with the singing slaves.  Jazz artists used the concept with songs like “Black and Blue,” blues artists with songs like “Terraplane Blues” and “Little Red Rooster,” folk singers with songs such as “Midnight Special,” “Black Betty” and “King Henry,” and rockers created songs including “Rocket 88,” “White Rabbit,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”  While the double meaning was not necessarily political in nature (it was often about sex or drugs), the fact that this type of song creation survived in America is a testament to its cultural power.  

Another part of contemporary popular music derived from slave songs is the use of expletives.  There have been movements to limit, ban and label songs that have lyrics that are offensive.  A group led by Tipper Gore in the 1990s succeeded in getting record companies and retailers to label recordings that contained offensive lyrics.[29]  The N-word has been a major target of this attempt at censorship.   In an article in the National Post May 11, 2002, Robert Fulford wrote “Even in the censorious atmosphere of public education, nigger stands alone.  It retains a terrifying grip on the imagination.”[30]  (author’s italics)

It has been seen in American literature from science fiction to political prose.  This is only a selection of works where the term is used: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stow, Huckleberry Finn, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad, Adventure by Jack London, Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ain't I a Woman? By Sojourner Truth, The Gold-Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

The history of the word has evolved over time through American culture.  It was derived from the term Negro that was also used by Europeans to describe people they saw in India, Australia, and Polynesia.   It was used in the south as a derogatory term against people with African heritage until in the mid 19th Century.  It was at this time that the target of this term, American blacks, began to co-op the word in their own vernacular as a term of endearment.  This new usage spread throughout the United States during the first and second Great Migrations ending up in the northern states and the west coast.  This term of endearment was then adopted by urban blacks and ended up in the music of jazz, rock, funk, soul and hip hop musicians.  

The use of the N-word is prevalent in titles of songs.  A search in itunes for songs with the N-word in the title will return over 150 songs available for purchase.  There are at least fourteen different styles of music that contained nigger in the title.  There was a classical number titled “Crazy Nigger” by Lester Donahue and a blues song called “Running in the Nigger Night” by The Kofma Bandit.  Also listed was the jazz artist Sandra Weckert with “No Vietcong ever called me a Nigger”; Admiral Tibbe with a reggae song called “Old Nigger”; Earl Johnson and his Bluegrass songs “Nigger on the Woodpile” and “Nigger in the Cotton Patch”;  Lord Melody with a calypso song called “Hi Nigger”;  John Lennon and Yoko Ono and their rock song “Woman is the Nigger of the World”;  a Punk band the Oblivions had “Nigger Rich”;  Funk artists Sly and the Family Stone did “Don’t Call Me Nigger Whitey”; and a hard rock band named the Anti-Heroes had a song called “I’m a Rock and Roll Nigger.” This is only a sampling of the different genres of songs with titles using that word.

The music of NWA and Public Enemy are probably well known specifically for their controversial lyrics that use expletives and the word nigger.  NWA’s songs that use the word (nigga or niggaz) include the big hits “Straight Outta Compton,” “Appetite For Destruction,” “Real Niggaz,” and “Real Niggaz Don’t Die.”   Public Enemy recorded songs with the word such as “Welcome To The Terrordome,” “War At 33 1/3,” “Anti-Nigger Machine,” and “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga.”

In the summer of 2008 the rap artist Nas put out an album he wanted to simply call “Nigger.”  Starting in the fall of 2007, it was rumored to have track titles like “You a Nigger Too” and “I’m Black.”  Along with these songs and the proposed title, the album created controversy before it was even released.  Nas was quoted saying about the controversy: “You ain't got no business worrying about what the word 'nigger' is or acting like you know what my album is about without talking to me. Whether you in the NAACP or you Jesse Jackson.”[31]  Because of public outcry, and at the insistence of his record company, Def Jam, Nas changed the name of the album.  Officially listed as an untitled album, most fans refer to it as Nigger.  Nas said following its release: “The people will always know what the real title of this album is, and what to call it.”[32]  The official title may not be the N word, but those who purchased it certainly don’t call it “Untitled.”

The use of the N word is nothing new in American songs.  Early slave songs included the word in many instances.  One such song was sung in parts of Tennessee, Arkansas and along the Mississippi River.  Here the black man is assumed to be guilty because of who he is.  If you were a black man, you were guilty of whatever you were suspected of doing.  It was the color of your skin that determined your guilt.

O some tell me that a nigger won’t steal,
But I’ve seen a nigger in my cornfield;
O run, nigger, run, for the patrol will catch you,
O run, nigger, run, for ‘tis almost day.[33

Here is a post Civil War song that showed the continued drive to move north, in which slaves believed to be the land of opportunity.

Abe Lincoln freed the nigger,
With the gun and the trigger;
And I ain’t going to get whipped any more.
I got my ticket,
Leaving the thicket,
And I’m a-heading for the golden shore. [34]

Here is another song from the reconstruction era that illustrated the new reality of the American Negro.

I went to Atlanta,
Never been there befo’
White folks eat de apple,
Nigger wait fo co’…

I went to Charleston,
Never been there befo’
White folks sleep on feather bead,
Nigger on de flo’

I went to Raleigh,
Never been there befo’
White folks wear de fancy suit,
Nigger over-o’ [35]

Some of these post-emancipation songs used the word in the process of self-ridicule as a cover for their distrust of the white man.  The following two songs, “Nigger Be A Nigger” and “Oh, It’s Hard To Be A Nigger”, collected by John Greenway’s 1953 American Folksongs of Protest, used this process to a startling effect.
Nigger be a nigger whatever you do,
Ties red rag round de toe of his shoe,
Jerk his vest on over his coat,
Snatch his vest on over his coat,
Snatch his britches up round his throat,
God make a nigger, make ‘im in de night;
Make ‘im in a hurry an forgot to point ‘im white.

White man goes to college
Nigger goes to fiel'
White man learns to read an' write
Nigger learns to steal.

Oh, it’s hard to be a nigger!
Oh, it’s hard to be a nigger!
‘Cause a nigger don’t get no show.

I went walking one fine day;
I met Mis’ Chickie upon my way.
Oh, her tail was long and her feathers were blue-
Caw, caw, Missis Chickie, I’m on to you.

Oh, it’s hard to be a nigger!
Oh, it’s hard to be a nigger!
And you can’t get your money when it’s due. [36]

This late 19th Century verse exhibits the bitterness of the African American regarding their economic and social condition.  The song was allows the singer to use any city as a point of reference.

Nigger and white man
Playin’ Seven Up
Nigger win de money
Skeered to pick it up

Aught for Aught
And figger for figger
All for de white man
Nothin for de nigger

Went down to ______
Never been thee before
White folk on the leather bed
Nigger on the floor

Nigger plow de cotton
Nigger pick it out
White man pockets money
Nigger does without. [3

Here is another rendition of the same song that was collected by John Lomax early 30s.  This song evolved and combined with other songs to create something new.  The use of the word nigger remained throughout this process.

Well, it makes no difference
How you make out your time
White man sho’ to bring a
Nigger out behin’

Ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard?
Ain’t it hard to be a nigger? nigger? nigger?
Ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard?
For you can’t get yo’ money when it’s due.

Lemme tell you, white man,
Lemme tell you, honey
Nigger makes de cotton,
White folks get de money.

Ef you work all de week
An’ work all de time,
White man sho’ to bring a
Nigger out behin’

Ef a nigger gits ‘rested
An’ can’t pay his fine,
They sho’ sen’ him out
To the country gang.

Naught’s a naught,
Figger’s a figger,
Figger fer de white man,
Naught fer de nigger.[38]

The following verse is a fragment from an early 20th Century song that uses the term.  It shows the limited opportunities of the African American.  Most black Americans were limited to the service professions, such as cooks and domestic servants.  The only avenue out of these dead end jobs was acting and dancing in variety shows known as Minstrels.  This next song clearly is singing about the early twentieth century entertainment known as vaudeville.

Oh little nigger baby
Black face and shiny eyes
Better than po' white trash
In the sweet bye and bye
Black face born that way, brains all in his feet
That's the song of the little nigger baby
Down on Market Street... [39]

The study of American slave music is important because it gives us a glimpse at a major foundation of contemporary American music.  Slave spirituals have been accepted as something unique and worthy of academic study as well as admiration as a beautiful art form.  They were proven to be commercial when organizations and artists used this music to make money.  Many musical instruments in American music can be found in the instruments of the singing slaves such as the drum and the banjo.  The use of double entendre which was integral in spirituals were then used in jazz, blues, and rock n roll music.  The songs themselves have survived the test of time and have crossed paths with most, if not all, forms of American music.  They have been recorded and performed in front of millions of people in at least a dozen different styles of music.  The language used in the songs created by slaves, such as the word nigger (that many today find offensive regardless of what context) is also used in today’s contemporary music.  The many components that make up slave music will continue to be a part of American musical culture for many years to come.  So for us as Americans, in order to understand the cornerstone of arguably the richest element of American culture, its music, we need to understand and appreciate the slave spirituals that gave our contemporary music its birth.


[1] W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York, New York, Fawcett Publications, inc., 1903, 1961) 182.

[2] Frederick Douglas, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Document maintained at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/02.html by the SunSITE Manager.

[3] William Francis Allen, Slave Songs of the United States (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1867), vi.

[4] Natalie Curtis-Burlin, Negro Folk Songs: The Hampton Series, Books I-IV Complete (Toronto Canada: General Publishing Group, 1918, 2001), v, 126.

[5] Richard Newman, Go Down, Moses: Celebrating the African-American Spiritual (New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1998), 139; also see Richard Crawford, Americas Musical Life: A History, (New York: WW Norton, 2001), 419-421.

[6] James Haskins, Black Music in America: A History Through Its People (New York: Harper Collins, 1987), 28-29.

[7] John Work, American Negro Songs: 230 Folk Songs and Spirituals, Religious and Secular (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1940, 1998) 14.

[8] Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1953, 81, 90), 18.

[9] Ibid, 18-19.

[10] Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music U.S.A. (New York: Dover Publications, 1963, 1992), 14-15.

[11] Fisher, Negro Slave Songs, 178-180.

[12] Ibid, 3.

[13] Captain Theodore Canot quoted in Haskins, Black Music, 3

[14] Haskins, Black Music in America, 4-6

[15] Quoted in Richard Crawford, Americas Musical Life: A History, 115

[16] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 212-215; and Haskins, Black Music in America, 8-9; and Pete Seeger, The Incomplete Folksinger (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972, 1992), 372-373.

[17] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1787, 1982) 188.

[18] Stanley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001), Vol. 2, 662.

[19] Pat Perrin, ed., The Underground Railroad: Life on the Road to Freedom (Carlisle, MA: Discovery Enterprises Ltd., 1995, 1999), 27; and Newman, Go Down, Moses, 73

[20] Perrin, The Underground Railroad, 27.

[21] Traditional, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in Perrin, The Underground Railroad, 27; and Newman, Go Down, Moses, 164-165.

[22] Curtis-Burlin, Negro Folk-Songs, 14

[23] Newman, Go Down, Moses, 23, 68.

[24] Curtis-Burlin, Negro Folk-Songs, 13-21; Work, American Negro Songs, 165; and Newman, Go Down Moses, 68-71.

[25] Allen, Slave Songs, p. xviii.

[26] Traditional, “Many Thousands Gone,” in Allen, Slave Songs, 64; and John A Lomax and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1934, 1994), 577.

[27] Traditional, “O Freedom,” in Tom Glazer, Songs of Peace, Freedom, and Protest, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1970, pgs 249 – 250.

[28] Traditional, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” in John Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, (New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1953, 1960), 99-100; and Pat Perrin, ed., Underground Railroad (Carlisle. Mass: Discovery Enterprises, 1995, 1999), 28; and Lomax, American Ballads, 227-228.

[29] Linda Martin & Kerry Segrave, Anti-Rock: The opposition to RocknRoll, (New York, Da Capo Press, 1988, 1993) Chapter 28.

[30] Robert Fulford, “Racism, censorship, and words that sting,” The National Post, May 11, 2002 (accessed October 20, 2009).

[31] Shaheem Reid, “Nas Explains Controversial Album Title, Denies Reports Of Label Opposition” Oct 18, 2007, on http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1572287/20071018/nas.jhtml (accessed October 19, 2009).

[32] Johnny Firecloud, “Nas Wants To Sell His CD At Wal-Mart,” July 29th, 2008, on http://www.antiquiet.com/reviews/2008/07/nas-wants-to-sell-his-new-cd-at-wal-mart/ accessed (October 19, 2009).

[33] Traditional, “Run, Nigger, Run!” in Allen, Slave Songs, p 89.

[34] Traditional, “Abe Lincoln Freed the Nigger,” in Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, 102

[35] Traditional, “I Went to Atlanta,” in Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, 106

[36] Traditional, “Nigger be a Nigger” and "Oh, it's hard to be a Nigger" in Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, 81-82.

[37] Greenway, American Folksongs of Protest, 83.

[38] Lomax, American Ballads, 233-234.

[39] Traditional, title unknown, in Newman J. White, American Negro Folk Songs (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Assoc., Inc., 1965), 385.