Reflective Essay on Digital Databases
Using digital databases to research 19th century compilations of spirituals, works songs and abolition songs, I’ve made a number of discoveries about the distinct differences between print and electronic research, and ways of classifying digitized print sources. Burdick, Drucker, Lunenfield, Presner and Schnapp’s Digital Humanities guide’s overview of assessing digital sources explains, “the media and technologies in which intellectual work is realized matter as much as its content” (127). Thus, scholarship becomes more than simply the exchange and analysis of information. It, instead, expands to the appearance, interface and functionality of the website or database (127). In my own Wordpress blog entries, I have gained a firsthand understanding of the importance of this synthesis of technology and text.
When I talk to my students about ways of evaluating websites, one of the first things we check after sponsorship and corporation information is the site’s functionality. We ask the usual questions: Are there broken links? How does the site look? Does it work? Are there coding or loading issues? Over the last several weeks of using previously unfamiliar databases, the visual and explanatory elements of digital research have been a scholarly epiphany of sorts. Whereas I was previously content to use Kent State University Library’s “Choose Databases” features by hand-selecting the quality literary sources offered, I now understand the absolute limitations of that method. Most of the resources I found, and a number of others relating to early American Literature, were not among the options provided by the EBSCO-powered method.
My recent research relating to the use of slavery-era spirituals led me to 19th century author, William Wells Brown’s early compilation of abolition songs. In attempting to draw distinctions between the music of slavery and abolition, I added Brown’s novel of mixed-race enslavement, Clotel, to the scope of my research, and ultimately utilized these databases to aid in my understanding of 18th and 19th century racial categorizations and their use in the fiction of the era. The most helpful among the 15 or so I used are listed below:
Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature: The database was useful for determining recent areas of William Wells Brown scholarship, which has steadily increased since 2004. In providing a through listing of recent articles primarily focused on Brown’s Clotel, the ABELL database’s results gave me the confidence to continue my research into the compilation of spirituals and abolition songs with the knowledge that the topic has been mostly ignored, and was, perhaps, worthy of additional scholarly consideration.
Index to Black Periodicals Full Text. The Index to Black Periodicals was more useful for my research into the history and etymology of the 18th through early 20th century racial categories, “quadroon” and “octoroon,” than it was for researching spirituals and work songs. However, there were a number of clear limitations to the search engine, as the majority of articles relevant to my research were written after 1990. Perhaps this was the best I could expect for a periodical index concentrating on 20th century articles. Ultimately, this database seems most relevant to more recent African American scholarship. In terms of functionality, the search engine contained all of the expected keyword and subject modifiers, although the search by year was limited to 1900, which, initially, appeared to hinder some of my research into racial categorizations and their use in earlier American literature. After selecting the “Refine Search” option, I was returned to the main search page, but provided the same search modifiers as before, which effectively meant there were no distinctions between a basic and refined search.
Music Index Online: Sponsored by EBSCO host, with its obvious limitations, this database required a number of search term modifications for me to glean meaningful results. In terms of these searches, I was better served by using “Negro” and “spirituals” rather than “slave spirituals” in order to obtain better results. Additionally, the search engine only allows users to search back to 1914, a limitation that may benefit a contemporary understanding of spirituals and works songs, but ultimately hinders an examination of older collections and compilations of the music.
Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries: Ultimately, this database is more beneficial to educators or researchers seeking audio clips than for those doing traditional print research. The Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries database is a high quality teaching resource that provides lesson and teaching overviews for a variety of education levels. One unfortunate aspect of the database is the absence of a bibliography of print sources connected to the recorded works and sound clips; however, the vast collection of full songs based on Smithsonian Folkways collections allowed me to examine recordings of well-known, public domain spirituals without the obvious limitations of transcribed dialect.
Research is never complete, and in the world of digital inquiry, the path to expertise seems especially convoluted. Certainly the databases are valuable tools; however, gaining a solid understanding of which compilations are most beneficial for one’s particular interests is a time-consuming process or meticulous record keeping and organization. But this is true of any legitimate research. As my current research projects have expanded from the collection of spirituals through the function of the mixed-race female archetype in 19th century abolitionist literature, it seems evident that mastery of digital collections is the most thorough method of engaging in meaningful scholarship.
African American Newspapers. Readex, Web. 27 July 2013.
Annual Bibliography of English language and Literature. Modern Humanities Research Association. Web. 29 July 2013.
Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfield, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.
Index to Black Periodicals Full Text. Chadwyck Healey. Web. 30 July 2013.
Music Index Online. Ebsco Host. Web. 26 July 2013.
Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries. Smithsonoain Folkways. Web 23 July 2013.
Abstract: My recent research relating to the use of slavery-era spirituals led me to 19th century author, William Wells Brown’s early compilation of abolition songs. In attempting to draw distinctions between the music of slavery and abolition, I added Brown’s novel of mixed-race enslavement, Clotel, to the scope of my research, and ultimately utilized these databases to aid in my understanding of 18th and 19th century racial categorizations and their use in the fiction of the era.
African American Newspapers. Readex, Web. 27 July 2013.
This database of 19th and 20th century African American newspapers allows the user to choose between searches of “Full Text,” “Headline,” “Standard Title,” and “Title as Published.” My research, however, was best completed using simple keyword searches. One of the database’s most useful features was the user’s ability to select a particular era of American History for browsing or narrowing search results. These historical eras were explained with headings such as “Jacksonian Era” or “Roaring Twenties,” and were followed up with basic keywords relating to major events in African American studies. In terms of the functionality of the database and ease of use, the zoom feature lacked subtlety in the levels of focus, but in light of the microfilmed source material, the inconsistency was not terribly problematic. The various tabs at the top of the page allowed for a number of distinctions in searches, with the “Article Types” tab, in particular, narrowing searches between the journalistic and social aspects of newspapers. Additional tabs at the top of the search, including one for language, allowed users to select English or French. Ultimately, this database was functional, not fancy. While the previously mentioned zoom feature was inconsistent, I did find that it worked better in Google Chrome than in Internet Explorer.
Annual Bibliography of English language and Literature.
Modern Humanities Research Association. Web. 29 July 2013. ABELL is a subscription-based service only available to those with institutional access; however, this database seems like a must have for a legitimate research university. The search engine was through and allowed users to choose between the standard options of “Keyword,” “Subject,” and “Author,” while also providing options for searching ,materials using the ISBN number. In terms of my research, I was able to view scholarship on the origins of the spiritual as an art form and its study as an academic discipline. The database was, additionally, useful for determining recent areas of William Wells Brown scholarship, which has steadily increased since 2004. In providing a through listing of recent Brown scholarship, the ABELL database’s results allowed me to continue my research into the compilation of spirituals and abolition songs with confidence that the topic was not redundant and was still worthy of additional scholarly consideration.
Index to Black Periodicals Full Text. Chadwyck Healey. Web. 30 July 2013.
This database was accessible through Kent State University’s Pan-African Studies Databases, and is available as an annual subscription. The search engine contained all of the expected keyword and subject modifiers, although the search by year was limited to 1900, which, initially, appeared to hinder some of my research into racial categorizations and their use in earlier American literature. After selecting the “Refine Search” option, I was returned to the main search page and provided the same search modifiers as before, which effectively meant there were no distinctions between a basic and refined search. The browse feature was an additional option for every basic search; however, the pull-down menu options were confusing and used terms, including unusual number combinations (not years), that were unfamiliar and unrelated to basic keyword searches. In the end, the Index to Black Periodicals was more useful for my research into the history and etymology of quadroons and octoroons than it was for researching spirituals and work songs. However, there were a number of clear limitations to the search engine, as the majority of articles relevant to my research were written after 1990. Perhaps this was the best I could hope for a periodical index concentrating on 20th century articles. Based on my use of this database, the Index to Black Periodicals seems most relevant to more recent African American scholarship.
Music Index Online. Ebsco Host. Web. 26 July 2013.
The Music Index Online is accessible through EBSCO Host and provided a nice point of cross reference with the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South collection of spirituals. UNC’s webpage’s vast catalog of African American spirituals provided titles and lyrical variations I was able to paste into the Music Index Online in my efforts to locate scholarly resources. EBSCO host, however, with its obvious limitations, required a number of search term modifications for me to glean meaningful results. In terms of these searches, I was better served by using “negro” and “spirituals” rather than “slave” and “spirituals” to obtain better results. Additionally, the search engine only allows users to search back to 1914, a limitation that may benefit a contemporary understanding of spirituals and works songs, but ultimately hinders an examination of older collections and compilations of the music. One useful feature of the database was the search history, which was an especially useful tool for research performed over an extended time, through multiple sessions. This feature’s usefulness, however, was offset by the problematic “Add to Folder” option, which most EBSCO users know works only as long as the user stays logged in through the sponsoring institution’s page. These folders cannot always be accessed at a later date.
Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries. Smithsonian Folkways. Web 23 July 2013.
The database describes itself as “a virtual encyclopedia of the world’s musical and aural traditions. The collection provides educators, students, and interested listeners with an unprecedented variety of online resources that support the creation, continuity, and preservation of diverse musical forms” (Web). An institutional subscription is not a requirement for access, and the page informs users that the database is accessible through the Music Online Interface. More importantly, the database is also available via a simple Google search. Ultimately, this database is more beneficial to educators or researchers seeking audio clips than for those doing traditional print research. The Smithsonian Global Sound for Libraries database is a high quality teaching resource that provides lesson and teaching overviews for a variety of education levels. One unfortunate aspect of the database is the absence of a bibliography of print sources connected to the recorded works and sound clips; however, the vast collection of full songs based on Smithsonian Folkways collections allowed me to examine recordings of well-known, public domain spirituals without the obvious limitations of transcribed dialect.
Women’s Indian captivity narratives, often biased and rooted in the ideology of assumptions of racial superiority, additionally operate as examples of trauma’s intrusion on textual form and content. The tone and demeanor of most captivity narratives do not lend themselves to the symptomology of hyper-arousal and intrusion in the form of flashbacks and nightmares typically present in traumatic reactions; however, trauma theory is a useful lens through which we might consider the function of passivity and stoicism in captive women’s narratives of violence and loss.
Elizabeth Hanson’s captivity narrative is noted for its examples of an “affecting portrayal of a passive, victimized heroine and its use of a spare style” (Derounian-Stodola 63); both of which are unexpected characteristics of a narrative marked by multiple instances of interpersonal violence. The difficulties in determining what portion of this passivity we can attribute to the expected stoicism of the wife of “a stiff Quaker” (Derounian-Stodola 63) and the narrative idiosyncrasies of questionable authorship generate a number of questions about the accuracy of analysis and the lens through which we read Hanson’s tone and reaction. Psychiatrist Judith Herman’s definitive 1992 text, Trauma and Recovery, posits “In situations of captivity, the perpetrator becomes the most powerful person in the life of the victim, and the psychology of the victim is shaped by the actions and the beliefs of the perpetrator” (75). Hanson’s willingness to recognize her Master’s positive attributes, including his willingness to carry her infant, on one hand, operates as a surprising example of white recognition of Indian humanity. However, in considering her Master’s abusive behavior, Hanson justifies his actions, “…observ[ing] when-ever he was in such a Temper, he wanted Food, and was pinched with Hunger” (73). This justification of violence may have a basis in “Stockholm Syndrome,” or a captive’s identification with one’s captor.
Throughout Hanson’s narrative we are given examples of her seeming under reaction to a number of experiences that “breach the attachments of family, friendship, love and community” (Herman 51). In describing her child’s murder and the Abenaki who “knockt its Brains out” (67), Hanson’s assertion, “I bore this as well as I could, nor daring to appear disturb’d, or shew much Uneasiness, lest they should do the same to the other [child]” (67), operates as one of the hallmarks of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The use of avoidance and reduced emotional affect, as well as the dichotomous possibilities of “experience[ing] intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or […] remember[ing] everything in detail but without emotion” (Herman 34) ultimately allow the captive to endure her ordeal while retaining a sense of psychological integrity. Hanson’s narrative lends itself to a number of readings, including as an example of Quaker stoicism, or even as a feminist text reacting against the use of hysteria or melodramatic reporting of her captivity; however, trauma theory helps elucidate Hanson’s surprising absence of emotional engagement with her narrative.
Hanson, Elizabeth. “God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s cruelty, Exemplified in the Captivity and Redemption of Elizabeth Hanson.” Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives. Ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. New York: Penguin, 1998. 66-79. Print.
Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992. Print.
Abstract: The “Tragic Mulatto/a,” as a literary stock character served a particular rhetorical purpose of eliciting compassion for a character with whom white audiences could ethnically identify. However, the character’s inherent “blackness,” repeatedly emphasized in even the most sentimental accounts, gave rise to a number of racial distinctions based on one’s percentage of white heritage. I am ultimately interested in the early use and origins of these racial distinctions.
Bernard, Karl (Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach). Travels through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, Sold in New York by G. & C. Carvill, 1828. Google Books. Google. Web. 29 July 2013.
Bernard’s travel diary, like many of the 18th and 19th centuries, engages in the work of ethnography, albeit in a limited, frequently offensive way. However, in terms of working definitions of race and the specific criteria involved in racial classification that came into routine use during the 19th century, Bernard’s descriptions are useful. Similar travelogues exist elsewhere, and, as time permits, will be incorporated in to my research of the etymology of some of the now-obsolete terms Bernard details. Bernard ‘s explanation of the categories “mestize,” “mulatto,” and “quadroon,” operate as a noteworthy example of white emphasis on the mixed-race woman’s whiteness, while consistently emphasizing her blackness. Bernard’s text references quadroon balls on several occasion, and these balls operate as a space for his narrator to allude to the mulatta’s position on the peripheries of a society privileging their whiteness while simultaneously othering them by restricting their mobility. Pointing out “their situation is always very humiliating. They cannot drive through the streets in a carriage. […] They dare not sit in the presence of white ladies…” (62), Bernard’s travelogue is one of several to note the interconnected issues of social standing and the specific racial background of Quadroon women. Bernard’s text predates many of the tragic mulatta novels, and generates quesations as to what extent these travelogues may have influenced fictional portrayals of mixed- race women.
Child, Lydia Maria, and Robert S. Levine. “The Quadroons.” 1842. Clotel, Or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 319-29. Print.
This reprinting of Child’s short story, originally published in 1842 in the abolitionist periodical, The Liberty Bell (Levine 319), is contextualized in this critical edition as a sentimental, historical predecessor of William Wells Brown’s Clotel. In utilizing the expected sentimentalities of the genre, Child’s shirt story operates as an early example of the tragic mulatto/a motif written by a well-known American author. The short story is included in this critical edition of Brown’s Clotel because Brown’s novel “lifted large swatches of text vebatim for his novel” (Levine 319). Levine goes on to note “an important motivation for his appropriation of Child’s story was his admiration for her brave antislavery writings” (319). Child’s quadroon character, Rosalie, consistent with the conventional function of this stock character, dies after her white husband abandons her in favor of a white wife. After Rosalie’s death, the cycle of tragic blackness is repeated when their daughter, Xarifa, is sold into slavery and later becomes “a raving maniac” (329) in response to her white suitor’s murder. While these stories were viewed as beneficial to the abolitionist cause in their portrayal of a whitened form of palatable blackness, one wonders to what extent the consistently harsh consequences of inter-racial relationships reinforced hostile reactions.
Fabi, M. Giulia. “The ‘Unguarded Expressions of the Feelings of the Negroes’: Gender, Slave Resistance, and William Wells Brown’s Revisions of Clotel.” African American Review 27.4 (1993): 639. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 July 2013.
Fabi’s work, while ultimately concerned with Brown’s revisions and his use of shifting forms in his novel, Clotel, analyzes passing as an act of resistance. The comforts of Jefferson’s mixed-race daughters’ early lives, the “all-but-white female figures whose very existence constitutes a challenge to rigid racial definitions and whose ability to pass for white represents a genteel form of covert resistance expedient in eluding racial oppression” (Web n.p.), juxtaposed against their eventual sale as slaves examines Brown’s use of Clotel’s whiteness as a means of making the story more palatable to a white audience. In terms of my examination of Early American Literature’s history of engagement with the “Tragic Mulatto/a” stock character, Fabi’s piece emphasizes the sentimentality of Clotel’s whiteness and its sudden transformation into genetic “blackness,” which culminates in her sale into slavery. Fabi’s discussion of how “… the figure of the exceptional, often isolated female passer enables Brown to problematize the racial and cultural rationale for slavery by appropriating Western notions of beauty and chastity…” (Web n.p.) is an outstanding resource for a deeper understanding of the connection between beauty and its use in literature as a feminine attribute that further manipulates the audience’s sympathy for the character.
Ingraham, Joseph Holt. The American Lounger; or Tales, Sketches, And Legends Gathered in Sundry Journeyings. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1839. 255-73. Google Books. Google. Web. 29 July 2013.
The biographical section of the Literature Resource Center database describes Ingraham’s “The Quadroone” as “an early treatment of the evils of miscegenation. The Quadroone boasts a fascinating Byronic hero-villain, but its other characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is too fantastic to take seriously. Poe wrote that he was ashamed of it, but other reviewers were not so astringent.” (Weathersby Web). Despite these negative critical reactions, Ingraham’s chapter on Quadroons, while rife with the stereotypical descriptions present in most travelogues and literature of the day, utilizes the conventions of the tragic mulatta’s fate that came to dominate the abolitonist and literary fiction of the next decade. Of particular note is Ingraham’s discussion of veiling as a way of marking the mixed-race woman as non-white. The quadroon woman’s “dark eyes, arched brows like satin, olive complexion, slightly tainted with the rose, and a veil thrown over her head” (260) immediately signify her blackness to Beranger’s companion who reacts with horror to the possibilities of the mixed-race union. In my research into the etymological, literary and social history of the stock character, this was the first reference I found to veiling as a means of identification.
Renny, Robert. “People of Color, and Free Negroes.” An History of Jamaica, With Observations on the Climate, Scenery, Trade, Productions, Negroes, Slave Trade, Diseases of Europeans, Customs, Manners, and Dispositions of the Inhabitants : To Which Is Added, an Illustration of the Advantages Which Are Likely to Result from the Abolition of the Slave Trade. London: J. CAWTHORN, No. 5, 1807. 188-92. Google Books. Google. Web. 26 July 2013.
While Quadroons are referenced in Peter Marsden’s earlier 1788, An Account of the Island of Jamaica: With Reflections on the Treatment, Occupation, and Provisions of the Slaves, this chapter of Renny’s 1807 abolitionist text provides additional information relating to the early 19th century understanding of people of mixed racial heritage. Renny’s naïve, but relevant observation of the quadroon’s or mulatta’s social standing and legal rights, points out “that they are placed in a worse situation than slaves, who have masters interested in their protection, and who, if their slaves are maltreated, have a right to recover damages, by bringing an action against the aggressor” (188). While these descriptions relate to enslaved people of Jamaica and the “West Indies,” Renny’s observations and anecdotes are a useful tool for examining the function and understanding of mixed-race people in Early American History and Literature. Frequently reliant on the stereotypical language and assumptions of the period, Renny’s text operates as an early example of the creation of the tragic mulatto/a form. His observation that “The females of this class are still more objects of compassion than the males” (189) points to the routine sexualization of these women and the dichotomies of their position as the party favors and “fancy girls” of a white world who ultimately shunned them.
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.
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.
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.