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Home » Reflective Essays » Reflection on William Wells Brown’s “The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings”

Reflection on William Wells Brown’s “The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings”

Generally recognized as the first African American author and playwright, William Wells Brown was far better known as a writer and abolitionist than as a musicologist, and the The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings collection was his only foray into music compilation, although his serial autobiographies continued to incorporate the songs of slavery into their texts. In terms of contemporary scholarship, the collection has been examined for its anonymous poem, “Jefferson’s Daughter,” which Brown biographer, William Farrison speculated may have been the impetus behind Brown’s best-known work, the novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (347). The Anti-Slavery Harp is the first collection of its kind compiled by an African American writer. More importantly, of the 48 songs in the collection, Brown’s inclusion of an anonymous slave’s “The Coffle Gang” represents one of the earliest book-length publications of lyrics transcribed from the oral tradition of slave spirituals. Although songs deriving from this tradition occasionally appeared in African American and abolition newspapers, spirituals and work songs were not formally compiled until William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware and Lucy McKim Garrison’s 1867 collection, Slave Songs of the United States (Lovell 72).

While later scholarship questions Brown’s publication claims, Brown’s preface to The Anti-Slavery Harp informs his audience that “the larger portion of these songs has never before been published; some have never been in print” (3); however, he provides scant information about the anonymous material’s origins. Antebellum writer, Maxwell Whiteman’s bibliographical note references the existence of three similar compilations (i) without including their titles and authorship. Both Whiteman and Brown reference the author’s “indebtedness” (i) to Jairus Lincoln’s Anti-Slavery Melodies (1843) and George Washington Clark’s The Liberty Minstrel (1844) compilations; however, no further collection or publication information is provided. Of the countless slave songs Brown was subject to (and acknowledged throughout his writings), one wonders why “The Coffle Gang” was the only slave song he chose to include. Outside of the epigraph identifying it as a slave song, discourse on “The Coffle Gang” is virtually nonexistent. The earliest version I could find was contained in Brown’s 1848 autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown. Typically, Brown’s serial autobiographies used snippets of slave spirituals, hymns and poems as a means of illustrating the horrors of slavery, and “these poor souls from Africa / Transported to America” who populate “The Coffle Gang” (1-2) operate as pathetic and ethical appeals for abolition. Brown’s use of slavery lyrics continued through his last autobiography, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880).

Despite the critical attention paid to his speeches and prose, little information exists detailing Brown’s compilation process or the editorial process involved in the selection of publication-worthy freedom songs. Neither traditional spirituals nor work songs,  Brown’s collection of abolitionist songs contain a number of anonymous works, as well as works by minor authors and abolitionists of the day. The Anti-Slavery Harp, additionally, contains several adaptations of poems by well-known 19th century poets, and further compilation information is available in William Edward Farrison’s 1969 publication, William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer.

 

Works Cited

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

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

Lovell, John. Black Song. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Print.

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