Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Responses to African-American Music During the Civil War

Anthony Tamberrino

     Despite having been around for over a century, African American music began to have a much more significant impact on society preceding and during the American Civil War. Through the distribution of slave spirituals on paper and by word of mouth, white Americans who had never heard this type of music experienced and formed their own opinions about it. This new interaction allowed white Americans to form new beliefs or reinforce pre-existing ones about slavery and emancipation, which in turn inflamed the conflict over slavery during the Civil War. To analyze the overall impact that African American music had on American society during the time period of the American Civil War, this paper will use folk and spiritual music of the African American slaves, both freed and not, as a background to discuss some of the social and musical reactions to the African American music that became more popularized during the Civil War.

     Music sung by African Americans during the colonial American period was a continuation and evolution of music that could be found in Africa during the same time period. Work songs and dance music were the most popular types of music among enslaved Africans during the American colonial period (Maultsby). However, more spiritual music came about in the 19th century, including songs such as “Let My People Go” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” (McWhirter, Cohen). With the advent of the American Civil War in 1861, these folk songs and spirituals spread across both the Union and the Confederacy, reaching the ears of many who had never heard them before. The songs elicited various reactions from different parties. Other slaves and freed African Americans found a sense of camaraderie in the spreading of their culture’s music. However, white Americans were split on the topic of these spirituals. Some, including esteemed poet John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote abolitionist poetry and “contraband music” in response to the spiritual tunes, but others who were still invested in slavery wrote music and poetry mocking this kind of music and the plight of African Americans (Cohen).

     African American music during the American Civil War largely consisted of a genre of music called the “folk spiritual”. As previously noted, folk spiritual music largely arose in the early 1800s (Maultsby). According to scholar Christian McWhirter, spirituals were originally sung by working slaves. Some songs described slaves’ current predicaments, others were sung as a cry for help and emancipation, and some were simply religious songs that were shared among slaves (McWhirter 149-153). Most spirituals, as the name implies, addressed some aspect of Christianity, even if religion was not their primary focus. William Allen, co-author of Slave Songs, once noted that he “[hadn’t] heard a single piece of music [during his time among enslaved Africans] that wasn’t religious” (qtd in Epstein 289). Meanwhile, John Lovell, Jr. believed that “spirituals were full of deliberately hidden double meanings, consciously inserted by their composers, and recognized by all Negroes who sang them” (Greenway 75).

            One such spiritual that was extremely prominent both prior to and during the Civil War was the song “Go Down Moses,” which is also known as “Let My People Go” (Anderson 170). The first verse of the song is:

     When Israel was in Egypt’s Land,
     Let my people go.
     Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
     Let my people go.
     Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s Land,
     Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go. (qtd in Cornelius 118)

This song is very clearly a reference to the biblical story from Exodus, in which the Jewish people are enslaved by the Egyptians and are vying for their freedom. No matter the version or placement of verses, the line “Let my people go” repeated throughout the song in the same places as the first verse (Armstrong). This refrain comes directly from Exodus in the form of a direct command from God - “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “This is what the Lord says: Let my people go”’” (Exodus 8.1).

     There is a very prominent double meaning within this song. The song creates a very direct comparison between slaves in America and the enslaved Israelites and succeeds in drawing multiple parallels. Both parties, the African American and Israelite slaves, were enslaved by a powerful people: white Americans and Egyptians, respectively. In each scenario, both slave groups had a leader to help guide them to freedom. For the Israelites, this leader was Moses; Cornelius posits that the “Moses” of the African American people was Harriet Tubman, who helped lead hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad (Cornelius 118). In both interpretations, the command to “let my people go” comes directly from God. Therefore, the slaves believed that it was both God’s will and his direct command for white American slave owners to release their slaves from captivity.

     While spirituals were very common during the mid-19th century among African Americans, not all slave music that preceded or coincided with the American Civil War carried religious themes or connotations. However, it was mostly the religious material that managed to last through the Civil War and into the present day due to the nature of the secular songs (Greenway 81). Work songs comprised a sizeable percentage of the nonreligious musical works during the mid-1800’s. The average work song, according to Greenway, contained elements of “[complaint] against the callousness and brutality of the captain or walker, the weight of the hammer, the wretchedness of living conditions” (Greenway 86). Some of these songs were more aggressive towards slave owners and more frustrated about slaves’ living conditions than some of the spirituals, and they never became terribly well-known outside of African American communities. However, elements of these songs can be found in white abolitionist contraband music (Greenway 81-82).

     The term “contraband slaves” can be defined as “slaves who took refuge in the camps of the Union army” after they were captured by the Union and taken in as “contraband of war” (Cohen 272-273). There are many accounts of white Americans’ reactions to these interactions. Music historian Stephen Cornelius discusses the evolving mindset of Colonel Thomas Higginson as he listened to and interacted with the African American members of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers (125). Higginson, over time, became enthralled by the spirituals that his regiment often sang, and occasionally wrote down some of the song lyrics. However, an excerpt from the collaborative work Slave Songs of the United States, which was compiled by Higginson, William Allen, Charles Ware, and Lucy Garrison, gives the impression that merely having access to these lyrics does not adequately portray the scene that unfolds in front of those who have witnessed African Americans sing these songs:

The best that we can do, however, with paper and types, or even with voices, will convey but a faint shadow of the original… And I despair of conveying any notion of the effect of a number singing together, especially in a complicated shout” (qtd in Cornelius 125, 130).

According to the authors of Slave Songs, the lyrics carry the textual meanings of the songs, whether they pertain to the pains of slavery, cries for freedom, or other topics. However, the lyrics fail to accurately describe the raw emotion emitted and sense of community displayed through song.

     African American music began to spread a great deal throughout the Union and the Confederacy as the American Civil War drew near and persisted. In many areas in America, these lyrics were published only after a “translation”. Iain Anderson discussed in his article “Reworking Images of a Southern Past: The Commemoration of Slave Music After the Civil War” that, due to the potential for hatred and mockery that reading or hearing the African American dialect may evoke, spirituals and other slave music were sometimes released in “grammatically sound, standardized English” (Anderson 171). This practice allowed the material published this way to be more accessible to white Americans who showed interest in learning about this type of music. Among civilian white Americans, some expressed positive reactions to spirituals and other African American music. McWhirter states that “some Northerners became so fond of black music that they actively sought it out” (153). The Union troops and other Americans who had the chance to interact with “contraband slaves” and freed African American men saw a different side to African American music, however, and were influenced accordingly.

     “Contraband music”, which is a different genre from African American folk spirituals and work songs, came into existence as a response to slave music. This song style can be described as one that “[articulates] a broad range of political perspectives on the war and so offer[s] a distinctive vantage on the chaotic 1860s” (Cohen 272). In other words, contraband music was a style of music that had the capability to address often controversial topics pertaining to the Civil War and the increasing conflict over slavery. Cohen notes that, despite contraband music being largely written by “white Northerners,” there existed some contraband tunes written by slaves or freed African Americans (275).

     One prominent contraband song that came about during the Civil War was John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Song of the Negro Boatmen,” published in 1862 (Cohen 279). The first verse of the poem reads:

            Oh, praise an’ tanks! De Lord he come
            To set de people free;
            An’ massa tink it day ob doom,
            An’ we ob jubiliee.
            De Lord dat heap de Red Sea Waves
            He jus’ as ‘trong as den;
            He say de word: we las’ night slaves;
            To-day, de Lord’s free men. (qtd in Cohen 277)

This piece, written by the white American poet Whittier, was, unlike many of the slave spirituals put into print, written and published using African American dialect. Given the circumstances, this distinction was understandable and, likely, beneficial. If spirituals were transcribed into contemporary English to allow for better accessibility and understanding of their musical style, then the use of dialect in this and other pieces allowed for the writers to express sentiments and concepts representative of contraband music, such as emancipation, through the lens of an African American person. In Whittier’s “Song of the Negro Boatmen” specifically, he draws concepts from the folk spiritual in an effort to mimic that song style conceptually. His poem contains instances of religious imagery, specifically calling upon the Biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea during the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. The verse echoes a sentiment expressed in “Go Down, Moses”: that African Americans are God’s people and that God is actively working towards their emancipation. Sheet music exists for a musical rendition of Whittier’s poem from the same year as its original publication (Cohen 281). That version of the song contains many sixteenth and eighth notes, which shows one of the original musical interpretations of the song to be upbeat, joyful, and somewhat march-like in structure.

     Not all white Americans received the spread of the spiritual with as much positivity and enthusiasm as Higginson, Whittier, and others managed to do. In fact, some went out of their way to sour the image of slaves in the public eye. Minstrelsy, a collective effort by anti-abolitionists to spread negative information about slaves and to impair efforts made towards emancipation and equality for American slaves, began in the mid-19th century and continued through the Civil War (Cornelius 138). Minstrels, according to Caroline Moseley, often dressed in “blackface” and used a common slave dialect to publicly mock African Americans publically through their performances (2, 19). Anderson sheds light on the use of dialect in minstrel entertainment and music by explaining that through use of dialect, minstrels could evoke thoughts of African Americans’ “ignorance and simplicity” in the minds of their viewers. In fact, another reason slave spirituals were transcribed in regularized English during the Civil War was to attempt to “[eliminate] a potential source of ridicule” (Anderson 171). On top of everything else, minstrel music and poetry was filled with racist, derogatory, and hateful language towards African Americans.

     Christian McWhirter’s Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War includes a number of minstrel songs. One particularly heinous song listed is “Uncle Sam’s Cooks,” the first verse of which reads:

            Oh, I’ll tell you what it is, my boys, we can’t get o’er the matter,
            De cooks dat stew fur Uncle Sam, am kicking up a clatter.
            Some want de [n-----]1 roasted rare, and oders oberdone,
            While all declare dere bound to go de whole hog or none. (qtd inMcWhirter 140)

The rest of the song is dedicated to “arguing over how best to ‘cook’ African Americans” (McWhirter 140). This song utilizes both African American dialect and common English in a crude manner. In the first verse especially, dialect is used during the lines to portray African Americans being treated like animals. This makes the verse sound as though African Americans were dictating, and possibly actively participating in, their own animalistic slaughter to feed slave owners and other white Americans.

            However, minstrels were not the only ones who sought to use music to spread hate towards African Americans - they had to have an audience, after all. In fact, Cornelius notes that minstrelsy was “America’s most popular entertainment style” from around the 1840s until the 1880s,” which meant that the ideas spread by this type of music were accepted and appreciated by many, especially in the South (138). This hateful mindset, unsurprisingly, was shared by many Confederate soldiers. “The Conscript’s Lay” by George Holt was a common war song during the Civil War. One segment of a verse read:

     There’s not a Copperhead among us,
     Our record fair to stain;
     Nor are we troubled with that disorder,
     Called corpus on the brain. (Work)

When the song was culturally appropriated by the South, however, the latter two lines were altered, in what Moseley calls a “popular opinion,” to: “Nor are we troubled with that disorder,/Called [n-----] on the brain” (qtd in Moseley 10). The word “corpus” can be defined as “the body of a human or animal especially when dead,” which means that, in the original song, the last two lines of the verse allude to the idea that the soldiers will fight without concern for their own safety or life as long as they succeed. The South’s change in lyrics completely shifts the meaning of this section of the song. Through the amendment of this one word, those who sang the changed version expressed a sentiment of superiority by either not thinking about African Americans or by being glad that they were not African American themselves. In addition, it can be argued that the connection between the two words that were interchanged altered the meaning in that those who sang the latter version would rather be dead than be African American.

            African American folk and spiritual music rose to a new level of prominence during the years leading up to and during the American Civil War, and opinions on African Americans held by white Americans strengthened as a result. Through the music that was created by white Americans on the topic of slavery around the time of the war, the conflict over slavery that in part led to and surrounded the Civil War can be clearly identified.

  1. The racial language towards African Americans used during this time period is historically important, and it would be wrong for this paper to completely exclude mention of it. However, because this paper is being posted for the public eye as part of a collaborative project, it seems best to leave such words censored for the time being.

Works Cited
Maultsby, Portia K. “A History of African American Music Chart.”, 2009, Web.
McWhirter, Christian. Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 137-163. Print.
Cohen, Michael C. “Contraband Singing: Poems and Songs in Circulation during the Civil War.”American Literature, vol. 82, no. 2, 2010, pp. 271-304. Web.
Greenway, John. American Folksongs of Protest. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. 67-121. Print.
Epstein, Dena. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Print.
Anderson, Ian. “Reworking Images of a Southern Past: The Commemoration of Slave Music
After the Civil War.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 19, no. 2, 1996, pp. 167-183. Web.
Cornelius, Stephen H. Music of the Civil War Era. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004. 117-157. Print.
Armstrong, Louis. “Go Down Moses (feat. Sy Oliver Choir) Lyrics.” Google Play Music, Web.
The Bible. New International Version, Biblica Inc., 2011. Web.
Walker, David. “Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles.” Documenting the American South, UNC Chapel Hill, 2004, Web.
Moseley, Caroline. “‘When Will Dis Cruel War Be Ober?’: Attitudes Toward Blacks in Popular
Song of the Civil War.” American Music, vol. 2, no. 3, 1984, pp. 1-26. Web.
Work, Henry Clay. “The Conscript’s Lay – Version 4.” Bluegrass Messengers, Web.