One of the thought-provoking themes of the recent Skype conversations our class has been having with scholars of musicology and the digital humanities is that of map-making and movement.

In this case, I refer not only to the maps and research blog(s) of Kate Elswit and Harmony Bench, but also to the work of Todd Decker on the racial divisions of Broadway casts. In each case, the scholars expressed to us their interest in the people involved in the dance tours (Elswit and Bench) or in the Broadway productions (Decker). They share, moreover, a certain skepticism as to what digital maps can represent in this regard, although they differ in their final expectations of what their maps will do.

This interest in the people behind the dots or lines which we, as digital cartographers, chart on our maps is of particular importance to me now as I refine my research for the “Slave Songs of the United States” map. One of the things that occurred to me, in part because of the Skype conversations with the aforementioned scholars, was that I had been stumbling over the regional definitions because I knew that the music which was the subject of my research did not merely crop up in one place and time. Music is mobile, especially when people are mobile.

There are certain difficulties, of course, with this approach; where Elswit and Bench may point to the physical movement across a map of a dance touring company, and Decker may reference the movement of people across key Broadway venues and the resulting change in demographics, it is more difficult to track the possible movements of slave songs. Among the many characteristics of slavery in the American south was an enforced geographic immobility; most slaves were bound to a single plantation over the course of their lives. The exceptions to that rule would be slaves sold to other plantations, or bound to owners who relocated (the case that springs immediately to mind is that of Dred Scott just before the Civil War), or runaways.

Of these three categories, the latter is the best documented, being a favorite subject of elementary school lessons. The adjoining map of the Underground Railroad documents the general movements of runaway slaves during the period relevant to the “Slave Songs of the United States.”

Image result for underground railroad map

What this gives us is a general understanding of how the people to whom the origins of the songs recorded in my original source might have been able to move cross-country, and thus spread their music. As a result, studying the movements of the people behind the data is particularly useful for understanding the boundaries of the regions which divide the songs in the original source as well as other regional divisions (see the Monroe Work map for slightly different boundaries).

The Skype conversations have been very important, therefore, in reevaluating my approach to this research project. Because maps are, in essence, fairly flat and stationary media, it is easy to forget about the human element; mapping movement, rather than discrete data points, may be one way in which to remember just whom, as well as what, these maps are about.

For more cool digital humanities projects, related to the Underground Railroad:

National Park Service Map of the Underground Railroad