VA – Songs of Slavery and Emancipation (2022)
Ending slavery in the United States took much more than a civil war. Decades of conflict between enslaved Africans and white supremacist slaveowners culminated on the battlefield, yet a prolonged ideological struggle set the stage for emancipation even before the American Revolution. Resistance on and off the plantation often took the form of song, either to inspire rebellion or shift public opinion. A new compilation, Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, restores this revolutionary spirit through the music of slave organizers, freedom fighters, and abolitionists.Released alongside a book and documentary, the double album portrays abolition as a shared language connecting those in bondage with escaped and freed Black Americans.
Producer Mat Callahan pieced together solo and ensemble arrangements using archival lyric sheets, tablatures, and oral histories. More than 50 musicians recorded 31 tracks on a single microphone, primarily inside a Kentucky chapel; Callahan claims this environment fostered a “natural sound” devoid of technological intervention.
“Given the sheer volume of music created by Africans held in captivity, fugitives, and their abolitionist allies throughout the Atlantic World, it is not an exaggeration to claim that ‘American’ folk music was forged in the crucible of slavery,” writes historian Robin D.G. Kelley in the liner notes. Kelley critiques how historians downplay enslaved people’s contributions to emancipation, from withholding labor to overthrowing their masters. As such, these compositions undo whitewashed legacies of American folk and bluegrass, rooting them in a politics of collective liberation.
Gospel and Sacred Harp singers coalesce over 19th-century strings and percussion, producing a rich, challenging listen that rewards quiet contemplation. Insurrectionary chants revive vernacular, creolized languages to recall historic slave rebellions (“You can’t keep the world from moverin’ round, nor Nat Turner from gainin’ ground”) or evoke memories of lynched insurgents Jean Saint Malo and “Uncle Gabriel” Prosser. Here, voices of Dr. Kathy Bullock and Givonna Joseph soar between rhythmic cadences and raucous choruses, accompanied only by hand claps and shakers. Meanwhile, harmonious spirituals like “My Father, How Long?” demonstrate how enslaved people sang to bide their time, just as in prison.
Traces of the Black radical tradition hint at broader leftist themes. The cover shows communist artist Charles White’s powerful sketch of a matriarch, Move on Up a Little Higher (1961), named after a Mahalia Jackson tune. “Recognition March of the Independence of Hayti,” an instrumental by Philadelphia freeman Francis Johnson, signals transatlantic solidarity with the Haitian Revolution. Likewise, battle hymn “The Enlisted Men” honors escaped men who joined the Union Army, enacting what W.E.B. Du Bois deemed the nation’s first “general strike.” For these soldiers, the bell does not toll; rather, the “trumpets sound.”
Songwriters of what Callahan calls the “abolitionist playbook,” including fugitive novelist William Wells Brown and New York Committee of Vigilance secretary David Ruggles, penned anti-slavery songs condemning the Southern aristocracy. Underground Railroad conductor Joshua McCarter Simpson critiqued the hypocrisy of Christians enslaving human life in “To the White People of America” and “The Voices of Six Hundred Thousand Nominally Free,” adapted from the French revolutionary anthem, “La Marseillaise.” Kelley claims Simpson’s music inspired Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, whose activism necessitated the war. Yet while women’s voices feature prominently in the recordings, their emancipatory contributions are less evident in lyrical themes outside the penultimate “Woman’s Rights.”
Records of slavery remain scarce due to slaveowners’ erasure of African culture, and today’s conservatives continue this political lineage in suppressing marginalized voices. As such, Simpson’s “Song of the ‘Aliened’ American,” adapted from “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee),” resonates as a psalm of the subaltern. Simpson replaces the final line, “Let freedom ring,” with “Our chains must break,” positioning uncritical patriotism as the enemy of true liberation.
1. Alden “Max” Smith – Agonizing, Cruel Slavery Days (5:09)
2. Givonna Joseph and Kamau – The Dirge of St. Malo (Louisiana Creole) (1:49)
3. Givonna Joseph and Kamau – The Dirge of St. Malo (English) (1:11)
4. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – Hymn of Freedom (3:54)
5. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – Uncle Gabriel the Negro General (3:01)
6. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – The Negro’s Complaint (4:22)
7. Dr. Kathy Bullock;Cherokee Griffiths;Dr. James Dreiling – Recognition March of the Independance of Hayti (2:43)
8. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – The African Hymn (2:26)
9. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – Nat Turner (3:06)
10. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – My Father, How Long? (2:11)
11. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – March On (2:04)
12. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – Children, We All Shall Be Free (2:18)
13. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – Ol’ Massa He Come Dancing Out (1:36)
14. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – The Year of Jubilo (2:25)
15. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – The Enlisted Men (the Negro Battle Hymn) (4:10)
16. Niata;Rendel;Rayson;Ompi tio;Broertje – Rebeldia na Bandabou (1:04)
1. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – Song of the “Aliened American” (2:55)
2. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – A Song for Freedom (2:08)
3. Hannah From – Stole and Sold From Africa (1:48)
4. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – Right On! (2:05)
5. Bern Ensemble – Flight of the Bondman (4:07)
6. Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble – The Underground Railroad (3:26)
7. New York Ensemble – To The White People of America (4:42)
8. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – Liberty (0:39)
9. Bern Ensemble – The Band of Thieves (2:37)
10. Bluegrass Ensemble Berea College – The True Spirit (3:44)
11. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – Come Join The Abolitionists (3:09)
12. Bern Ensemble – The Voice of Six Hundred Thousand Nominally Free (2:39)
13. New York Ensemble – We’re Coming! We’re Coming! (2:26)
14. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – Woman’s Rights (1:54)
15. Sacred Harp Singers from Western Massachusetts – What Mean Ye? (4:28)