Thursday, April 2, 2015

Censored: The Book of Negro Spirituals

After finishing Song of Sorrows and reading how spirituals were neglected until publication of The Book of American Negro Spirituals  I wanted to revisit my 1926 printing of that work. First published in 1925, it was edited and with an introduction by James Weldon Johnson and with musical arrangements by J. Rosamond Johnson.

My book has a battered cloth cover and a few loose pages. I don't know where I picked it up but it appears I paid $12.00 for it at an antique mall. The inside front pages are well marked.

Most prominent are two stamps reading, "Property of the POW Camp Fort Devons, Mass."
A smaller stamp states, "Censored Fort Devon Mass." Someone has written the names and pages of the spirituals. The printed name Anne Epstein is written in fountain pen ink and in cursive the words "Parisian[sic] Libere, Samel [?]Oct. 10."

I researched the Fort Devon camp and found that during WWI it was the major East Coast induction center for soldiers. The 1918 flu epidemic started in Boston but within weeks reached the 50,000 soldiers stationed there and soon after the devastation began. As those soldiers traveled across the US they took the flu virus with them.

During WWII an interment camp for German and Italian aliens was created at Fort Devon. 22 of the men died there, and their graves are found on the camp ground.

Why was a book of American Negro Spirituals censored and removed from the camp library?

According to James Weldon Johnson's introduction the songs were the pure and spiritual expression of the slave's higher natures: " catch a spirit that is...something akin to majestic grandeur...always noble and their sentiment is always exalted. Never does their philosophy fall below the highest and purest motives of the heart."

Wheldon chaffed against performance of the songs as art songs, and he believed that white singers could only sing them if they "felt" them, holding interpretations by Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes as ideals. Johnson addresses dialect and movement and their place as folk music.
Read more on Johnson's views at

He says nothing to suggest they were veiled protest songs, hymns of hopeful release from their enslavement, a challenge to the status quo. Newer musicologists have other views about the slave songs.

I found the article Veiled Testimony Negro Spirituals and the Slave Experience by Professor John White at and was interested in this quote and what Frederick Douglas thought about this music of his people, in his time:

"Writing in the Journal of Negro Education (October 1939) on 'The Social Implications of the Negro Spiritual', John Lovell, Jr, rejected the 'escapist' and purely religious reading of the slave spiritual. To Lovell, a black scholar, the spiritual was 'essentially social', a graphic and revealing record of slave resistance and earthly aspirations. Three themes, Lovell suggested, run through the songs: (1) the slave's desire for temporal freedom, as revealed in Frederick Douglass' remark that the spirituals were ' tones breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery '; (2) ' the slave's desire for justice in the judgment upon his betrayers which some might call revenge '; and (3) read correctly, they formulated the slave's tactic of battle, the strategy by which he expected to gain an eminent future'. The spiritual, then, conveyed physical and metaphysical resistance to enslavement, as witnessed by such lines as : ' My Lord delivered Daniel... Why can't He deliver me?' or 'We'll Soon Be Free'. These songs were 'the slave's description of his environment', and 'the key to his revolutionary sentiments...his desire to fly to free territory '.
In this context, these song's messages would have been succor to the interned aliens of the Fort Devon camp. Is this why the book was censored and removed?

I have not found a clear understanding of the Parisen Libere Oct. 10. Some mysteries are harder to solve.

The music by J. Rosamond Johnson in this volume are arrangements for piano accompaniment and solo voice. The words retain some of the original dialect and pronunciation discussed in Johnson's introduction.

This music is a far cry from Lucy McKim Garrison's settings; here is her Roll, Jordan, Roll:
 My brudder* sittin' on de tree of life,
An' he yearde when Jordan roll;
Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, Roll, Jordan, roll!
O march de angel march,
O march de angel march;
O my soul arise in Heaven, Lord,
For to yearde when Jordan roll.] 
 Little chil'en, learn to fear de Lord,
And let your days be long;
Roll, Jordan, & etc.
O, let no false nor spiteful word
Be found upon your tongue;
Roll, Jordan, &c.
        * Parson Fuller, Deacon Henshaw, Brudder Mosey, Massa Linkum, &c.

        [This spiritual probably extends from South Carolina to Florida, and is one of the best known and noblest of the songs.]

Here is the version in 1925:

McKim's Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Had:

[Nobody knows de trouble I've had,*
Nobody knows but Jesus,
Nobody knows de trouble I've had,
(Sing) Glory hallelu!
One morning I was a-walking down, O yes, Lord!
I saw some berries a-hanging down, O yes, Lord!]
I pick de berry and I suck de juice, O yes, Lord!
Just as sweet as the honey in de comb, O yes, Lord!
Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down,
Sometimes I'm almost on de groun'.
What make ole Satan hate me so?
Because he got me once and he let me go.
        Variation on St. Helena Id.
[O yes, Lord! I saw some berries hanging down.]
        * I see.

        [This song was a favorite in the colored schools of Charleston in 1865; it has since that time spread to the Sea Islands, where it is now sung with the variation noted above. An independent transcription of this melody, sent from Florida by Lt. Col. Apthorp, differed only in the ictus of certain measures, as has also been noted above. The third verse was furnished by Lt. Col. Apthorp. Once when there had been a good deal of ill feeling excited, and trouble was apprehended, owing to the uncertain action of Government in regard to the confiscated lands on the Sea Islands, Gen. Howard was called upon to address the colored people earnestly and even severely. Sympathizing with them, however, he could not speak to his own satisfaction; and to relieve their minds of the ever-present sense of injustice, and prepare them to listen, he asked them to sing. Immediately an old woman on the outskirts of the meeting began "Nobody knows the trouble I've had," and the whole audience joined in. The General was so affected by the plaintive words and melody, that he found himself melting into tears and quite unable to maintain his official sternness.]

And the 1925 version:

Here is the 1925 Go Down, Moses:
And Gimme That Ol'-Time Religion:

Gimme Dat Ol'-Time Religion (3x)
It's good enough for me.
It was good for Hebrew Children, (3x)
An' it's good enough for me.
It will do when de world's on fiah (3x)
and it's good enough for me.

Deep River was dedicated to Booker T. Washington.

Deep river, my home is over Jordon,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground,
Lord I want to cross over into campground,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh chillun, Oh don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land, that land, where all is peace?
Walk into heaven, and take my seat,
And cast my grown at Jesus feet, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.

Most of the songs in Johnson's collection are different from those in McKim's. But today we sing songs from both collections. I had no idea of the history behind the spirituals we sang when I was a girl, and no awareness of how recently they had become mainstream. Now I understand that they are the roots of American music.

No comments:

Post a Comment