Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and Slave Songs of the United States by Samuel Charters

Imagine traveling through a treacherous war zone, crossing the sea on a steamer to an unknown island. There is no pier and you are carried through the surf to the beach. The humidity and heat, the mosquitoes, are unlike anything you have ever experienced.

You see for the first time contraband slaves, ten thousand refugees without proper homes or food, but jubilant in their newfound freedom. You hear their songs, weird and otherworldly, in dialect foreign, so unlike the sentimental minstrel songs carried to the North. The plaintive Go Down, Moses with it's cry for freedom; The Lonesome Valley about the emotional preparation for baptism; Michael row the boat ashore; the upbeat Rock O' My Soul and Do Remember Me; Jacob's Ladder, Roll Jordon, Roll and The Stars Begin to Fall--sorrow songs of the plantations that today are well known but in 1861 had been dismissed by the denizens of the Plantation and were unheard by the general public of the North.

Samuel Charter's new book Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and Slave Songs of the United States chronicles the brief life of McKim and her role in the first documentation of the songs of slavery.

In 1861 nineteen-year-old Lucy McKim left her home in Germantown, outside of Philadelphia, on the biggest journey of her life. Lucy's Abolitionist Quaker father James Miller McKim was head of the Philadelphia Port Royal Relief Committee and was chosen to visit Port Royal in South Carolina where former slaves had sought refuge. He was to report back on conditions. The freemen needed immediate aid and help to prepare them for their new reality. He asked Lucy to serve as his secretary.

The island was surrounded by Confederate troops. It was a dangerous journey. Lucy gloried in the adventure. She had trained in piano and classical music and taught piano students in Philadelphia. She was delaying marriage to "live for herself" first. An ardent Abolitionist, Lucy felt the constraints of her sex, her uselessness compared to what men could do.

Seeing face to face the suffering of the slaves Lucy wrote, "How lukewarm we have been! How little we know!" Encountering the music of the freemen was a revelation. Lucy heard their hopes and dreams, their sorrow and loss in the music. She recorded seeing two "shouts" and one "praise," religious gatherings of the contraband.

She copied down the songs she heard. Within months of returning home she had published Poor Rosy, Poor Gal

Poor Rosy, poor gal,
Poor Rosy, poor gal;
Rosy break my poor heart,
Heav'n shall be my home.

Lucy married Wendell Garrison, son of Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. (Her best friend Ellen Wright, niece of Abolitionist and Women's rights activist Lucretia Mott, married Wendell's brother Lloyd Garrison.)

During her first pregnancy Lucy worked to prepare the songs for publication, knowing that motherhood would preclude finishing her work. She was assisted by William Francis Allen and Charles Pickard Ware. Additional songs were collected by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Emily Dickinson later sent her poems to him), Lucy Towne (who was trained in medicine and gave her life to educating the Port Royal freemen). This first collection of American slave songs was published in 1867.

Lucy's health declined with each pregnancy and miscarriage. She suffered from rheumatism and strokes. At the age of  34, paralyzed and unable to speak, Lucy refused food.

Charter's use of letters and diary entries brings Lucy to life. Lucy would be thrilled to know that the songs she recorded have become known to all Americans, and would be honored to have her brief life's work remembered in this biography.

Included is the full text of Songs of Slavery, complete with Lucy's musical adaptations and words to the songs, and with the introduction by William Francis Allen. Charters draws from Lucy's many letters and other documents, allowing her to come alive. Those interested in America's musical heritage and in women's history will enjoy reading it.

I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and Slave Songs of the United States
By Samuel Charters
University Press of Mississippi
American Made Music Series
Publication Date April 7, 2015
ISBN: 9781628462067
$55.00 hardcover

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