•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Music and the struggle against slavery

Published Feb 4, 2006 7:36 PM

W.E.B. DuBois in 1903.

“Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois

These words, like the music that they hearken to, were born of degradation and struggle—the former, inevitably, giving rise to the latter as human possibilities have and will always give rise to a fight-back spirit.

In DuBois’ classic book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” in the chapter titled “Sorrow Songs,” he writes about the religious melodies that were created by Southern slaves and how those songs spoke of justice and a perception that slave and master would one day meet, with the old realities tossed aside, and that their meeting would be as equals.

Former slave learning to read
in 1870.

Black religious music has been thoroughly studied throughout the history of this country, but what is less talked or written about is the defiant nature of many of these songs. Religion is the “opiate of the masses” as Karl Marx wrote in the 19th century, in most cases creating an invisible entity or entities above and beyond the human world and putting the possibilities of future societies in the hands of those entities.

Religion under Western-dominated class society has generally disempowered workers and oppressed peoples. In particular, during the period of U.S. slavery, the white masters figured out that the slaves would always desire and fight for freedom and equality unless they could be convinced that they were inferior to whites and be diverted to look for solutions within a mythical world instead of spontaneous and organized mass uprisings.

Hence, a conscious decision was made by the slave masters to teach their racist view of religion to the slaves. Slaves were violently denied real education and were forcefully indoctrinated with the religion of their murderous, slave-holding captors under the guise of Christianity.

Despite the mental and physical brutality of slavery, if one were to look at some of the slave songs, “Oh Freedom” for instance, and study the words, they reveal the resolve of the throngs of African slaves in North America. The song starts with: “Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom over me, and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave…” These words speak of a fighting spirit and history attests to this.

The music of Black people in the U.S. was created during slavery. The field holler started as a way of communicating with other slaves, and later became a vehicle to pass away the brutal conditions of work in the field under the lash, later evolving into a rhythmic syncopation. This tradition of song was brought over from Africa, where song and dance were seldom used for entertainment but as a part of ritual ceremonies.

The plantation masters forbade the slaves from holding on to their African culture, making sure to split up tribal affiliations using slave auctions, but some West African cultures were similar enough, and the resolve of the Africans was greater than the brutality of the slave masters.

The music was often coded when it was used for communication, and this was one of the many ways that illuminate the defiance of the slaves. Just as some historians have purposely tried to paint the slaves as meek and docile, history can only be obscured for so long.

Many slave rebellions took place. Gabriel Prosser and others planned a rebel lion in Virginia in 1800 and Charles Deslondes in the same year led an uprising; Denmark Vesey and a large number of enslaved men and women planned a rebellion in Charleston, N.C., in 1822; Nat Turner and his rebels killed over 50 slave masters in Southampton, Va., in 1831, and there was the multi-racial attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 led by John Brown. Along with these rebellions there were work stoppages and everyday acts of defiance.

Black music has been defined by the struggle for freedom and self-determination, from the defiant sorrow of anti-slavery songs like “Oh Freedom” to Grand master Flash and the Furious Fives’ rap song, the “Message.”