Songs Against the Slaver’s Hell

Image by British Library.

Sacred Harp singing is a tradition of sacred choral music that originated in New England and was eventually carried on in the American South. The name comes from an 1844 collection of songs titled The Sacred Harp. The songs in this book are notated in what is known as shape notes which, according to the Smithsonian Folkways website, “first appeared in a book called The Easy Instructor, printed in 1801. It used four syllables for the seven notes of the scale and gave each syllable a distinctive note head: a triangle for fa, an oval for sol, a rectangle for la, and a diamond for mi.” There are several choral groups around the United States that specialize in this type of music reading and singing. One of the better-known ones is based in Amherst, Massachusetts, and calls itself the Sacred Harp Singers of Western Massachusetts. Together with a few other music and choral groups, they make up the musicians performing on the recording that is part of a recently released publication from Mat Callahan titled Songs of Slavery and Emancipation.

The publication itself is a combination of a book, a CD, and a film. Beyond the sheer beauty of the package itself—one might run out of praises when describing the CD packaging alone—is the beauty of the music itself. Tragic, triumphant, reflective, sometimes angry, and joyful only begin the train of adjectives suggested by this reviewer in his attempt to describe the emotions felt while listening to the disc. Most of the music features voice as the primary instrument, whether performed by the aforementioned chorus, the Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble assembled especially for this recording or one of the other groups and soloists. A friend, Thomas MacDonald—a tenor who studied with stars from the Met and La Scala—noted after listening to the recording: “All the soloists…have richly colored timbres, the males especially so. Though not trained in the classical sense like Paul Robeson or William Warfield, they are nevertheless unforced (performances) and the lyrics are deeply conveyed.” One anomaly in the selection of songs is an old-timey bluegrass-type tune titled “The True Spirit” performed by the Bluegrass Ensemble of Berea College.

For those who are unfamiliar with Berea College, let me describe it. Berea is a small college in eastern Kentucky. It was founded in 1855 by a Presbyterian minister who was an abolitionist and it was the first integrated, co-educational college in the South. In addition, it does not charge tuition to its admitted students. For those readers familiar with the author and ecologist Wendell Berry, this was his home and the town of Berea was the model for his fictional burg of Port William. In addition, the college is home to a world-renowned school of woodworking and other folk arts. When I lived in Asheville, NC, works by woodworking students of the college competed in juried shows sponsored by various associations and the National Park Service, often winning most of the top awards.

Back to the work at hand. As Chester Gundy, a retired administrator from the University of Kentucky notes in the opening minutes of the film mentioned above, many US residents suffer from historical amnesia. He continues, telling the viewer that this amnesia comes from “simply not valuing history.” This undervaluation is most pronounced in the narratives regarding Black, indigenous, and other non-white members of the society. From the time we are first in school until we reach our ends, many who live in the United States either have no knowledge of the cultural and political realities of those who have been historically marginalized or they have been taught a very distorted version of those realities. Among the most distorted histories presented to US residents are the histories of slavery and the treatment of indigenous peoples. Mat Callahan’s project is part of a never-ending effort to correct those distortions.

The book begins with an essay by author and scholar Robin D. G. Kelley that opens with the question: “What are we to make of the fact that human beings held as property are responsible for the Americas’ greatest cultural and artistic gift to the world?” After Kelley’s introduction addressing this and related questions, the reader is welcomed into an interesting summary of the approach Callahan took in researching the history of these songs and the era they flourished in. Then comes a brief afterword by Jackson, Mississippi community organizer Kali Akuno discussing today’s meaning of the songs featured in this collection. Then come the songs. Notated with dates and sources, they fill the pages with their emotion, humor, and clarity, all enhanced by the accompanying recording that reveals their eternal and specific truths.

African slaves and their descendants were not docile and content with their lot. Their resistance took many forms, including armed rebellion, running away, individual acts of resistance targeting the slavers and their families, not working up to speed, and just not working. From Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman, from Frederick Douglass to the runaway slave on his way to Canada, their resistance was widespread. In addition to these ultimately political acts, the enslaved developed a culture of resistance. This is the essence of this book, recording, and film. Inspired by the author’s discovery of historian and left activist Herbert Aptheker’s 1937 text titled Negro Slave Revolts in the United States 1526-1860 (included as an Appendix to the text), Callahan’s work represents this culture in a multi-sensory manner. This approach is not only effective, it is perhaps the only approach that can truly express the soul of that resistance; its beauty, its depth, its anger, and its desire. This holds true from the first notes on the recording of Alden “Max” Smith’s rendition of “Agonizing, Cruel Slavery Days” to the final notes of the Sacred Harp Singers of Western Massachusetts vocalization of “What Mean Ye?”.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: