Singing in Slavery: Songs of Survival, Songs of Freedom

Last Updated by Kenyatta D. Berry on
Executive Producer David Zabel gives notes to a contraband camp chorus
PBS/Erik Heinila

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Kenyatta D. Berry is genealogist and lawyer with more than 15 years of experience in genealogical research and writing. She began her genealogical journey while in law school and studying at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing. A native of Detroit, Berry graduated from Bates Academy, Cass Technical High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She also co-hosts Genealogy Roadshow on PBS.

In this blog post, Berry examines how song was used by slaves to both communicate and express feeling in the moment, as well as and pass history down through generations.

 

Singing in Slavery: Songs of Survival, Songs of Freedom

In Balm in Gilead, Charlotte Jenkins, a former slave turned activist, arrives in Alexandria to help the growing population of “contrabands” make the transition to freedom. Upon arrival she quickly recognizes a small pox epidemic at one of the contraband camps. Working with Samuel Diggs and Mary Phinney, Charlotte establishes a small pox quarantine tent for sick contraband.

Songs of Survival: Middle Passage and Slavery

Singing as a form of communication is deeply rooted in the African American culture. It began with the African slaves who were kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic during the Middle Passage. Slaves from different countries, tribes and cultures used singing as a way to communicate during the voyage. They were able to look for kin, countrymen and women through song. According to a white shipmate who made four voyages to Africa between 1760 and 1770. “They frequently sing, the men and woman answering another, but what is the subject of their songs [I] cannot say.”1 Although they could not understand what the Africans were saying the crew did pick up on the sorrowful tone of their songs.2

Music was a way for slaves to express their feelings whether it was sorrow, joy, inspiration or hope. Songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery. 

These songs were influenced by African and religious traditions and would later form the basis for what is known as “Negro Spirituals”. Col. Thomas W. Higginson of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment recognized the term Negro Spiritual in the Atlantic Monthly (June 1867). Higginson had heard the songs in camps and on marches with colored soldiers.3

Singing at contraband camps helped former slaves navigate the gray area between slavery and freedom. Members of the contraband camp sing “There is a Balm in Gilead” as Charlotte Jenkins arrives for the first time to the Mansion House Hospital. A traditional Negro spiritual, the balm in the Gilead is interpreted as a spiritual medicine that able to heal sinners.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Belinda mentions the Balm in Gilead when she notices Mary Phinney coughing while tending to the contraband patients in the Small Pox Quarantine Tent. 

Harriet Tubman standing with hands on back of a chair. Harriet Tubman standing with hands on back of a chair. Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-7816)Songs of Freedom: The Underground Railroad

The “Moses of her people”, Harriett Tubman was the Conductor of the Underground Railroad. The exact number of people lead to freedom on the Underground Railroad is not known. But Tubman was able to create a network of stations and operators helped to lead escaped slaves North to freedom. One of the songs of the Underground Railroad was “Wade in the Water”.   While it hasn’t been proven, it is believed that Harriett Tubman used this traditional Negro Spiritual as a way to warn slaves to get into the water to hide their scent from the slavecatching dogs on their trail. 

Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water,
God's gonna trouble the water

— Kenyatta D. Berry

Sources

  • Marcus Rediker, "The Slave Ship: A Human History" (New York: Penquin, 2007), 282.
  • Sowande M. Mustakeem, "Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex and Sickness in the Middle Passage" (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 120.
  • Wesley, Charles H., and Patricia W. Romero. "Negro Americans in the Civil War; from slavery to citizenship." New York: Publishers Co., 1967.

Kenyatta BerryKenyatta D. Berry is genealogist and lawyer with more than 15 years of experience in genealogical research and writing. She began her genealogical journey while in law school and studying at the State Library of Michigan in Lansing. A native of Detroit, Berry graduated from Bates Academy, Cass Technical High School, Michigan State University and Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She also co-hosts Genealogy Roadshow on PBS 

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