Early US Literature

Home » Annotated Bibliography » William Wells Brown and the Acknowledgement: Compilation and Publication of Spirituals and Work Songs

William Wells Brown and the Acknowledgement: Compilation and Publication of Spirituals and Work Songs


Abstract: William Wells Brown’s The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings, as an early abolition songbook, was notable at the time for being the first collection of abolition songs compiled by an African American writer.In terms of contemporary scholarship, Brown’s inclusion of “Song of the Coffle Gang,” a song the index attributes to “A Slave” (48), extends his autobiography’s previous transcriptions of slave songs and predates William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison’s 1867 collection, Slave Songs of the United States by several decades. Ultimately, in a collection that differs from previous white collections of abolition songs, I am interested in Brown’s editorial, compilation and selection processes. 

Brown, William, W. The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Boston: Bela Marsh, No. 25, 1848. Print. Brown’s 1848

         The Anti-Slavery Harp is recognized in Maxwell Whiteman’s bibliographical note to the collection as “the first compiled by a black author” (i). While both Whiteman and Brown acknowledge Brown’s “indebtedness” (3) to Jairus Lincoln’s 1843 collection, Anti-Slavery Melodies and George Washington Clark’s 1844 collection, The Liberty Minstrel, Brown’s collection is the first abolition songbook to utilize remnants of slave spirituals and work songs. Ultimately, traditional slave and work songs were not formally collected until William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison’s 1867 collection, Slave Songs of the United States. Brown’s collection is noteworthy for its early acknowledgement of the  slave song as an art form worthy of inclusion in a compilation aimed at white readership,  despite his collection’s predominant use of poems and lyrics produced by Northern white abolitionists. Brown’s inclusion of “The Coffle Gang” and “A Song for Freedom” represents one of the earliest attempts to transcribe lyrics derived from pre-existing  spirituals (or their derivatives) passed down through oral tradition. While Brown makes no attempt to distinguish between slave songs and abolition songs, the presence of songs whose origins were within the slave musical tradition operates as a first, subtle step in the recognition of their significance.

Brown, William Wells. From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Mentor, 1993. Print.

         Routinely overshadowed by Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Andrews 1), Brown’s account of his journey from slave to fugitive to free man utilizes uncredited lyrics, snippets of poems and slave songs as means of illustrating the pathos of slavery and the art forms that arose from the institution. Brown’s recognition of the practical and emotional uses of slave songs is noted in his autobiographical Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847), in his explanation of his job of preparing slaves for the market: “Before the slaves were exhibited for sale, they were dressed and driven out into the yard. Some were set to dancing, some to  jumping, some to singing, and some to playing cards. This was done to make them appear cheerful and happy” (45). Based on the second edition of the Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, this collection of Brown’s first and last autobiographies demonstrates several examples of Brown’s use of slave songs. Typically figured as the dialogue of a traumatized slave, the poems usually serve as a separation lamentation. The rhetorical decision to incorporate these poems is interesting in light of criticism of the autobiography’s absence of flourish and its use of “realism” (Andrews 7) rather than the lofty language employed in Douglass’ narrative. Brown’s narrative, in making use of “his interest in and genius […] for singing” (Farrison 122), transcribes “The Coffle Gang” as an untitled piece whose rhythm and power derive from the repetition of “Sound the Jubilee” (6). Describing the song as a spiritual he has “often heard the slaves sing, when about to be carried to the far south” (48), “The Coffle Gang” juxtaposes suffering against “a better day a coming” (9). This collection of Brown’s two best-known autobiographies includes Brown’s 148 essay, “The American Slave Trade,” which ultimately concludes with the pathos-ridden “The Blind Slave Boy,” credited to Mrs. Bailey, and later published in The Anti-Slavery Harp.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Ed. William L. Andrews and William S. McFeely. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.

         Slave narratives tend to exclude more traditional forms of American literature in an effort to emphasize the veracity of the account. Typically utilizing the rhetorical strategies of pathos and ethos, slave narratives tend to eschew major markers of traditional literary forms in favor of a matter-of-fact, understated depiction of plantation life. Typically crafted with an emphasis on Eurocentric literary styles, the slave narrative was not intended for the slave, but rather, for a white audience the former slave hoped to persuade to take up the abolitionist cause. Douglass’ 1845 narrative predates Brown’s by three years and is relevant to this project due to its commentary on slave spirituals. Pointing out the ironies and dualities of spirituals and work songs, Douglass explains “They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone” (18). More importantly, with  consideration of Douglass’ voice as representative of the possibilities of abolition, his recognition of the importance of the slave song form is best illustrated by the following statement contained in his narrative: “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (19). 

Farrison, W. Edward. “The Origin of Brown’s Clotel.” Phylon 15.4 (1954): 347-54. JSTOR. Web. 22 July 2013.

         Primarily notable for its examination of the origins of Brown’s 1853 novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, Farrison’s work sheds light on the history behind one of the more provocative poems in the compilation. “Jefferson’s Daughter,” collected in The Anti-Slavery Harp and originally published in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (Brown 23) details the supposedly factual account of the sale of one of Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemmings through the use examination of letters and oral accounts of the sale. While the 1954 article is primarily concerned with what was at the time of publication a relatively uncharted documentation of Jefferson’s relationship and children with Hemmings, it, nonetheless, provides relevant bibliographic information as well as the context for Brown’s interest in telling the story of light-skinned African Americans (also referred to historically as quadroons and octoroons) sold into slavery. In examining the source of the poem and its publication history, Farrison’s article notes previous printings in periodicals, in addition to variations in punctuation between Brown’s named source, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, the version published in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Brown’s songbook (347-8).

Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1969. Print.

         The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings, as an early abolition songbook, was notable at the time for its inclusion of “songs […] never before published” (Brown 3); however, according to Farrison’s definitive biography, “Only seventeen of the forty-eight songs in his collection had not been included in either Lincoln’s or Clark’s songbook, and many of these Brown had found in anti-slavery newspapers” (123). Farrison’s biography references the history and variations on song contributions by notable 19th century literary figures, including William Lloyd Garrison’s “I Am an Abolitionist” (also known as “Song of the Abolitionist), John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Yankee Girl,” and an adaptation of James Russell Lowell’s “Stanzas on Freedom,” previously published in Clark’s The Liberty  Minstrel, entitled “Are Ye truly Free?” (123-4) Ultimately, Farrison’s biography sheds light on Brown’s love of music and his understanding of its didactic function in the abolition movement. In providing the necessary context and history of the songs contained in The Anti-Slavery Harp, in addition to information on previous collections of abolition songs, William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer, is a valuable resource for Brown scholarship. In terms of the historical placement of “The Coffle Gang” and its slave authorship, Farrison makes no mention of the significance of its inclusion in the collection.


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