Slave songs – spirituals, Old Plantation songs, songs of the contraband – form an important if often difficult to quantify or categorize phenomenon of American music history. Around the time of the Civil War (1861-1865), there was a burgeoning of interest, especially by white Americans who belonged to abolitionist circles, in documenting the songs of the black south. One of the collections which was published shortly after the end of the war was William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison’s collaborative work Slave Songs of the United States. The collection published 136 separate songs collected mainly from the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, as well as several variations; the editors placed the words and tunes of the songs they heard slaves and freedmen singing into standard, Western-scale musical notation while making note of the context in which each piece was found.
Although the editors themselves were less concerned with the place or geographic situation of their carefully documented musical selections, mapping the results of their observations provides a way for contemporary scholars of musicology as well as historians of the Civil War and African-American studies to consider the African American spiritual in a new light. Within this series of maps, the cartographer has made a number of proposals for the potential of this endeavor: first, that the mapping of the mid-nineteenth century collections of ‘slave songs’ is useful in its own right as a visual representation of the spread of common spirituals, many of which remain well-known in the present day; second, that this visual representation ought to be set against the known whereabouts of the credited contributors for the purpose of evaluating this genre of source’s limitations as well as benefits toward understanding the development and spread of the African American spiritual; and finally, that this development and spread is better understood in comparison to known movements of the people to whom little credit is given within the source material, but who are responsible for the creation and earliest dissimulation of the ‘slave songs’ within this and other collections: the slaves and freedmen of the United States.
An Initial Geographic Rendering
Below is the first of a series of maps created in order to illustrate the geography behind Allen, Ware, and McKim’s Slave Songs of the United States.
This map provides a general idea of the spread of the songs collected within Slave Songs of the United States. Each point also provides the basic information given for each entry – title, lyrics of each song, and source location, including the name of the contributor.
Of course, the map is less interesting than it could be – and produces more questions than answers. Some general trends are immediately noticeable – there is no data further west than Arkansas (i.e. nothing said of Texas, despite the fact that there were certainly slaves and then freedmen in Texas, as in Missouri), and a number of data points seem to be closely conglomerated in an area off the coast of South Carolina or Georgia. A heat map of the same data makes these trends clearer:
There are also outliers – in New York, of all places. For anyone expecting to find the slave songs phenomenon to be concentrated to the American south, especially in the larger plantation states of Virginia and Georgia, might find this surprising – questionable, even.
It was with this curiosity in mind that the following map was created, comparing the data provided by Slave Songs in the United States against a listing of several stops on the Underground Railroad compiled by the National Parks Registry:
As segregated as the map seems, a number of the points from the disparate data sets either overlap or are within reasonable travelling distance of one another – therefore allowing for a certain amount of cross-influence. In other words, places to which slaves and eventually freedmen went or places which were sponsored and frequented by the same abolitionists who interested themselves in publicizing the melodies of the slaves on southern plantations also were recorded as centers of African-American spirituals.
Geographic mapping reveals much in the way of these relationships, but equally useful is a conceptual mapping of the relationships between the predominantly white, credited contributors to this source. Their close-knit circle merits further research given John Lovell, Jr.’s assertion in Black Song: The Forge and the Flame (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1972) that black song and spirituals derived their form mainly from African models of song and dance, not those of European-descended Americans.
What’s the takeaway?
Always a good question. On the one hand, the above maps should incite a certain interest in the subject as well as the item of the source, Slave Songs of the United States. Further reflection as well as a digestion of the available sources and recommendations toward pointed research springing off the map is to be found within the adjoining research blog. Simply search the tag “Slave Songs of the United States” to encounter all manner of supplementary information.
More to the point, this map should lead to refinement of the data set and toward the mapping of other documents within this genre. The collections of African-American slave songs are numerous, but their biases must be thoroughly evaluated and the geographical inadequacies accounted. As exploration of the maps should demonstrate, the compilers of such collections were a small circle of passionate, interested individuals whose main method of data mining was observation in a single, or set of environments. A full understanding of this field would require a deep mapping technique with the addition of several dozens of sources. If this particular undertaking fulfills any one ambition, it is to convey to its audience that it merely taps the tip of the iceberg, and that further research into the applications of mapping the history of the African-American spiritual and its collection/dissemination is warranted.