One of the major challenges of this investigation into the Slave Songs of the United States has been figuring out how to describe this genre of music. What Allen, Ware, and McKim Garrison label as “slave songs” can also be considered under a number of other epithets, some more flattering than others. A brief survey of them reveals the following as the most common variations:

“negro folk music”

“slave songs”

“old plantation songs”

“spirituals” or “African American spirituals”

“contraband songs”

Regardless of which label you prefer, or which most offends you (for which I feel I should tender apologies, though the labels are not of my making), the words are meaning laden. The phrase “contraband” in particular had me confused for quite some time, thinking that the songs themselves must have been forbidden as a measure of oppression. On the contrary, “contraband” refers not to the songs, but to the people singing them:

“In addition to the black serviceman and the southern slave laborer, there was yet a third role played by the black man during the war years – that of “contraband of war.”1

If a slave became a “contraband of war,” it meant that he or she had reached Union lines, and essentially been assumed as government property. So, they were free, but only because they, as former property, had been impounded. Needless to say, once you understand the meaning behind some of these epithets, they become all the more discomfiting.

Deciding which label to use is also of great importance because it indicates what individual or groups of individual have a valid claim to this musical genre. Using the term “old plantation songs” implies that the plantation owners had as much of a claim to the songs as the slaves; the term “spiritual” meanwhile imparts what John Lovell, Jr. described as the sense that slave music in America has “two generic natures: as song and as folklore.”2 As folklore, the songs and their history belong to the people who created and first interpreted them. 

Deciding to whom these songs, and the history contained within them, belong to, is of further significance because of their adaptation into primarily white-demographic serving hymnals or into public school education. These adaptations altered not only the musical interpretation of the songs, overlaying them with the standards of Western musical notation and instrumentation, but, in the words of Dena Epstein, “dilut[ed] a folk tradition.”3 Moreover, the contexts under which the music came into the hands of white plantation owners or collectors was not always a matter of compassionate listening or interest: “Rare was the slave dealer or slaveholder, no matter how cruel, who prohibited the singing of his slaves. Indeed, a more common practice was to force slaves to sing and dance under the most tragic of circumstances.”4 Knowledge of songs acquired through unethical means and circumstances makes it all the more crucial that credit is given where it is due, and that the contexts in which “slave songs” could have been found even in the lifetimes of Allen, Ware, and McKim Garrison are recognized for what they are.

As responsible mapmakers, we have to take these challenges into account, especially because maps are easily manipulated to portray a biased vision of the world:

“Maps, like speeches and paintings, are authored collections of information and also are subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice.”5 

It isn’t possible to be completely free of bias in any map. But by being forthcoming about what the Slave Songs map is meant to represent, I hope to find a respectful way of handling a challenging subject.



1 Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Print. 226.

2 John Lovell. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame; The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1972. Print. 4. 

3 Dena J. Epstein. Sinful tunes and spirituals : Black folk music to the Civil War. .Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1977. Print. 298.

4 Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983. Print.163.

5 Mark Monmonier, “Introduction” and “Maps for Political Propaganda,” in How to Lie with Maps (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): 1-4 and 87-112. 2.