The Music of Uncle Tom's Cabin



  As a music scholar I must admit to some trepidation about discussing Stowe's literary text. Music research embraces several related disciplines, allied with cultural history (music history), anthropology (ethnomusicology), mathematics (music theory), religious studies (hymnology), and other fields within the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences. I shall do my best to represent the breadth of music scholarship as it relates to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

  The vast majority of music research publications concerning Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin have to do with the stage and film presentations of the story. Dealing as they do with the interpretations of the story by other authors, creative artists, and the general public, this research focuses on "reception history," which documents the changing influences over succeeding generations by a canonic work. In contrast, very little research has been published on the music contained within the pages of the novel itself, and to what purposes the author applied music as she wrote the story.

  And so here are the two primary points of this interpretive essay, from the perspective of a music scholar:

  • Nearly every character in Uncle Tom's Cabin is defined by the sort of music he or she performs, prefers, or scorns;
  • And because the novel is about the possibility of redemption, physically but especially spiritually, music is a window to the soul of these characters.
  • As Stephen Railton points out in the archive's HYMNS & CAMP MEETING SONGS section, "Thirteen songs are sung in Uncle Tom's Cabin, all but one . . . sung by slaves." But that's not the half of it: music of several types figures in 51 scenes in the novel, some of them involving more than one piece of music. I've summarized these scenes on this table, "Music in Uncle Tom's Cabin"; some chapters contain multiple scenes with music, while others are void of musical references.

      In her essay on Stowe elsewhere in this archive, Joan Hedrick made the point that the novelist "had an effect because her ideas [tapped into] established patterns of living [in the American] parlor culture." As this paper will show, whenever Stowe employed music in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she did so through established, familiar musical culture to make the reader understand ineffable spiritual qualities (whether positive or negative) of the scene or the character that are too great or powerful to be expressed in mere words.

      In this paper, the visual term "scene" is used in the way it is employed by Ellen J. Goldner in "Arguing with Pictures: Race, Class, and the Formation of Popular Abolitionism through Uncle Tom's Cabin."* (She cites the novelist's intent, expressed in a letter to her editor while she was working on the book, "that she intended 'to paint pictures' for her readers because '[t]here is no arguing with pictures.'") Goldner treats these as visual pictures, but I interpret them as living scenes in the mind, entailing not only such visible elements as costume and furniture, but also the kinetic energy of posture and potential movement, and the aural energy of sound. Stowe's contemporaries understood the importance of sound when viewing even flat, painted scenes (museums hired string quartets to perform at their exhibitions, and orchestras played for the unscrolling of painted dioramas); music was nearly always a part of theater presentation, even for the most serious of plays. Considering the music along with the other elements that Stowe used to create scenes in Uncle Tom's Cabin helps us to understand how she used culture to create social messages.

    Musical Traits of the Characters in the Novel

    As Mary Kelley reminds us, Stowe's novel was based in gendered responsibilities, "the arts of sociability," with the affects informing readers' "moral and spiritual insight." For Stowe and her readers, music was the supreme art of affection. A person's music revealed the heart; combined with other elements such as costume or dialect, it was a clue to character. For example, the first person in the novel to use music is Arthur Shelby, the plantation owner in Kentucky. He calls the four-year-old slave Harry Harris by the epithet "Jim Crow," the comic grotesque song-and-dance stage act of blackface minstrelsy. "Jim Crow," as music historian Dale Cockrell has pointed out, was a political burlesque, a commentary on democracy and class issues favored by audiences who participated in drinking and gambling, "not at all like that of the middle or elite classes, with their cerebral fixation on … restraint, and disciplined resolve."* Stowe, by having Shelby call for "Jim Crow," thus reveals him to her readers to be undisciplined and sensual. Moreover, he is highly conflicted, caught in a limbo between the higher-class station that plantation owners' families asserted for themselves, and the vulgar world of the coarse slave trader Mr. Haley. Mr. Shelby compounds his faults by commanding Harry to mock the singing of psalms, the venerated (if old-fashioned) musical repertoire of the founders of the English-speaking American colonies.

      The musical traits of the novel's characters are maintained and reinforced in their later scenes. In chapter 21, when Mrs. Shelby vows to make money by teaching music, Mr. Shelby continues to assert his upper-class self-image by calling such a pursuit degrading. But Stowe's readers knew that instructors in piano and voice were in demand by white families of middle-class means in the 1840s and 50s, and the ability to sing and play both religious music and genteel parlor music were deemed essential for eligible young women, and not only as decorative arts; they were necessary to attract suitors who had the proper sensibilities to become good husbands and fathers, and women used them to impart moral training for the children (and adults) of the household, a responsibility assigned to mothers in that era's domestic philosophy. Stowe, by having Arthur Shelby call such a pursuit degrading, is telling the readers that he is insensible and amoral, not a worthy father figure.

     Shelby's music:      

  • Calls for "Jim Crow"
  • Mocks psalm singing
  • Labels piano/vocal teaching "degrading"
  •   We hear about Uncle Tom through Shelby's words in Chapter 1 and we are told that Uncle Tom got religion at a camp meeting, but we first encounter him in chapter 4 as he is learning to read and write, then dancing with his daughter on his shoulder, and leading a prayer meeting in his cabin that includes much singing of hymns, both from the Methodist church and from revivalist camp meetings.

      When Tom leaves Kentucky, he carries with him two things: his Bible, and his Methodist hymnbook, which is second in importance only to the Bible. By chapter 16, his hymn singing has made him "a hero to Eva," the daughter of his new master, and he is now the teacher rather than the student. Eva's self-centered mother, Marie St. Clare, however, thinks that such singing is "Horrible!" These musical practices and preferences confirm what the reader already knows: that Tom and Eva are drawn toward heaven. As they sing in this scene they are even elevated, in an upper room.

      We have already visited nine scenes with music, none of them including any of the 13 songs that are sung in the novel. And if anything, music becomes more prominent in the later chapters, where Stowe includes multiple stanzas of the hymn texts that her characters sing.

      In chapter 22 Tom sings two different hymns, and later, defying the malevolence of his third master, Simon Legree, in chapter 38 Tom sings in "a musical tenor voice" three verses of two different hymns. The last words from his lips as he lies dying (chapter 41) are a couplet from the Methodist hymnbook.

     Uncle Tom's music:      

  • Dances with daughter on his shoulder
  • Sings church and camp-meeting hymns
  • Carries Methodist hymn book
  • Has a "musical tenor voice"
  •   Augustine St. Clare, Eva's father, is the most accomplished keyboard performer in the novel, but tosses off apparently secular piano pieces without regard for their qualities; he whistles (at Topsy); and he wastes his life visiting liquor shops, the opera, and the theater (which, as John Frick notes, was strongly associated in that era with prostitution and drinking). Like Arthur Shelby, he calls a young slave "Jim Crow" and demands a minstrel performance. In his last scene, however, his music reveals that he is redeemable: his mother's Catholic hymns are only a memory to him, but in a foreboding of his own death he performs the Latin hymn "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") used in the mass for the dead, and these become his dying words.

     St. Clare's music:      

  • Plays (secular) piano pieces
  • Whistles
  • Attends opera and theater
  • Calls for "Jim Crow"
  • Recalls his mother's Catholic hymns
  •   Simon Legree has his opportunities for redemption through music, but fails to take them. In chapter 31, Legree forbids pious singing; in chapter 32 he shuts up Tom's singing of a Methodist hymn, calling it "infernal"; and there, as well as in chapter 35, he commands slaves to perform minstrel-type songs and dances. Like St. Clare, he has a vision of his mother's hymn singing, but unlike St. Clare who turned his spirit to heaven as he died, Legree is frightened by the sound of hymns and by the souls of the dead; he personifies Satan (as George Shelby calls him).* Therefore heavenly music, even metaphorical heavenly music like Tom's final remonstration in chapter 40, allows Tom to overcome Legree spiritually, and enables Cassy and Emmeline to do so physically.*

     Legree's music:      

  • Detests "pious singing"
  • Calls for minstrel song/dance
  • Frightened by the memory of his mother's hymns
  • Nine Types of Music in the Novel

      And so we can see that Stowe uses music as she does other elements in writing the scenes in Uncle Tom's Cabin, selecting it carefully to reveal the spiritual conditions of her characters and to advance her plot. In doing so, she differentiates among at least nine different types of music, each with its own particular associations of social and moral worth. By assigning one or more of these kinds of music to a character in a scene, Stowe draws on her readers' understanding of the social merits and ethical values associated with that music within the gendered affects of parlor culture of the early 1850s.

      The type of music that appears most frequently in the novel, by far, and the one that is paradigmatic for the title character Uncle Tom, is the hymn singing. As we've seen, this occurs first in the cabin of Tom and Aunt Chloe, and marks all who participate as spirited, moral, persons worthy of respect.

      Why hymns, and why does Stowe identify them as Methodist hymns? For one thing, they were the chief song-texts of the theology of redemption, particularly as penned by Charles Wesley.* Along with the hymns of Isaac Watts and other eighteenth-century writers, these verses inspired the reform-minded evangelical movement of the first half of the nineteenth century. They were well known to the American reading public: by 1850, Methodists made up 34% of religious adherents, and Baptists—who shared much of their hymn repertory—were 20%.*

      This brings us to the second most frequently appearing kind of music in the novel, the hymns sung in the camp meetings of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Stowe does not label these as clearly as she does the Methodist hymns, and provides more fragmentary texts for them.

      The Methodists and Baptists were the most frequent participants in the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening. Moreover, they recruited their new members from the unchurched immigrants and they sent missionaries among the slaves. As well, the camp meetings promoted messages of political reform and anti-slavery through their hymn texts and the preachers' oratory.

      For purposes of this paper, we can distinguish between three active genres of Protestant music: the hymns of Watts and Wesley, which Stowe refers to as "Methodist hymns"; the hymns of the Second Great Awakening, which she calls "camp-meeting hymns"; and a third genre that she does not refer to, African-American spirituals, a genre largely undocumented before the 1860s and codified only beginning in the 1890s. Most writings that mention the hymns sung by the slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin refer to "spirituals," but we need to treat this notion with caution. Stowe herself consistently wrote in Uncle Tom's Cabin that the slaves were singing either Methodist hymns or camp-meeting hymns, and there is reason to take her at her word. African-American spirituals are a genre related to the camp-meeting hymns but distinct from them, infused with a mixture of African elements surviving from many different cultural practices brought together in the American South, and further paraphrasing the Watts and Wesley hymns introduced by missionary work and by the slaves' participation in camp meetings. The Watts and Wesley hymns typically contain several stanzas, each one an immutable quatrain; the camp-meeting hymns more often contain repetitions of refrains and short phrases, with favorite images or watchwords such as "Jordan's banks," "Canaan's fields," or "The new Jerusalem," precisely the phrases Stowe says received "incessant mention" in the hymn-singing at Uncle Tom's prayer meeting in chapter 4.

      While the historical relationship between camp-meeting hymns and African-American spirituals is blurred, the style of the spirituals that were later documented and published suggest that Stowe did not have spirituals in mind when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin. The music scholar Paul Oliver points out that "Many spirituals are suffused with melancholy and have been called 'sorrow songs'" and are "intensely moving and slow."* Most of the unidentified hymns in Uncle Tom's Cabin are described instead as "wild and spirited" (e.g., p.34).

      Another clue that Stowe is not quoting spirituals lies in the lyrics themselves. While the Methodist hymns she uses correspond almost word-for-word to hymns published in the 1852 Methodist hymnbook, these others do not correspond with the texts of any hymn in that book, or with any spirituals published in the early compendia of that genre.*

      We recall that Stowe was painting pictures for her readers, by using elements of culture that would make her meaning clear. Her readers in 1852 would not have known the sound of the African-American spirituals. These were a post-Civil War revelation to northern white audiences when they first heard them in the 1870s, performed in arrangements by the Jubilee Singers from Fisk and Howard colleges.

      As Lois Brown says in her essay on the African American response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, it "is a book that cannot accommodate the full and real experience of African Americans." Besides spirituals, there are many other kinds of Black music that don't appear in the novel. There are no African practices like ring shouts or work songs; except for the scene in which Legree forces his slaves to sing while they are marched toward his plantation, we see no signs of improvisation, satire, or contemporary forms of oral poetry, all of which are known to have existed under slavery. All of these legitimate forms of Black musical expression were excluded from the story, either because Stowe and her readers did not know about them, or because they would have diluted her message, clouded her picture, that Black souls were capable of redemption just like the millions of white converts during the Second Great Awakening. And it was the hymns that led the souls to salvation. To make this clear to her readers, and to enable them to relate to the slaves in the novel, she had the slaves sing the kinds of religious music most familiar to her white readers: Methodist hymns and camp-meeting hymns, not African-American spirituals or other African-American music.

      What are the hymns in the novel? The table "Slave Hymns in Uncle Tom's Cabin, includes all 11 hymns of at least one full line of text that are sung by slaves in the novel. The 1852 Methodist hymnbook includes five of the 11, comprising all but one of the six hymns we can identify as "Methodist hymns" (the sixth is "Amazing Grace"). In her essay on religion and Stowe's novel, Patricia Hill establishes that Uncle Tom's Cabin is about the "concept of sanctification" and "the African's capacity to be a fellow Christian." It is significant that all five of the hymns come from the section of the Methodist hymnbook devoted to the "Process of Salvation."

    The Seven Other Kinds of Music

      Besides the Methodist and camp-meeting hymns, Stowe distinguishes among seven other kinds of music in the novel. Psalm singing was the earliest religious music in the English-speaking colonies, supplanted by the Watts and Wesley hymn texts, which freely paraphrased their biblical language. The organ music and Latin texts of the Catholic Church are associated with St. Clare. We need to understand that many Protestants regarded this music with suspicion for fear of anti-democratic "papist" notions, and that Catholics were outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Methodists and Baptists in Stowe's audience.

      Besides religious music, Stowe mentions secular parlor music. Household training for young women of the burgeoning middle class included instruction in piano and singing. We first encounter it in the novel, however, when St. Clare tries to play himself into good humor, since Marie did not play piano and therefore she deprived his household of artistic or ethical improvement. Later, the reader understands that Mrs. Shelby, back in Kentucky, is capable of instilling ethics within a family because she has the resolve and the skills to teach these arts. But Marie St. Clare mocks the domestic arts when she criticizes her daughter Eva's desire to help the slaves by providing them with education, saying "Wouldn't you teach them to play on the piano, and paint on velvet?" In contradistinction, the slave Cassy reveals that she was trained in piano and voice, and the reader thus understands her to be a more sympathetic character; unlike Marie, Cassy has the potential to fulfill a mother's responsibilities (as is confirmed at the end of chapter 42 in the novel's denouement).

      Opera, the most complex of secular stage music, is mentioned more than once, as a genre for comparison. (Hymns are better.) Dance, a social activity in which bodies must touch, is usually performed by uneducated characters in the novel, but at least as practiced by Uncle Tom it is beyond criticism. Even lower is whistling, which is directed by various characters at dogs, slaves, or slave catchers. Lowest of all is minstrel-style song and dance, which appears in the novel only when commanded by whites who lack fully redeeming spiritual qualities, or by Topsy who hasn't yet learned to pray or to sing hymns.

      In addition to these nine types, Stowe uses music in one more way, as metaphor or simile, in six instances that occur at moments of transformation or revelation. There are two such scenes in the Ohio Quaker safe house: first, when Eliza Harris awakened and "saw the door open into the other room, …heard the dreamy murmur of the singing teakettle, …[the] gentle tinkling of tea-spoons, and musical clatter of cups and saucers, and all mingled in a delightful dream of rest. . ."* The second is when Simeon told George Harris of his faith in God: "The words of holy trust, breathed by the friendly old man, stole like sacred music over the harassed and chafed spirit of George. . ."*

      Two of the most powerful scenes in the novel are apotheoses, told by using sacred music as a simile for the otherwise inexpressible feelings of the moment. One of them is Tom's dream of Eva ascending into heaven: "Gradually the words seemed to melt and fade, as in a divine music; the child raised her deep eyes, and fixed them lovingly on him, and rays of warmth and comfort seemed to go from them to his heart; and, as if wafted on the music, she seemed to rise on shining wings . . ."* The other is Tom's response to Legree's threat to kill him: "'O Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! . . . Do the worst you can, my troubles'll be over soon; but, if ye don't repent, yours won't never end!' Like a strange snatch of heavenly music, heard in the lull of a tempest, this burst of feeling made a moment's blank pause. Legree stood aghast . . ."*

      Clearly, for Stowe, music—the art of affection and feeling—was closer to heaven than any of the other arts with which she painted her scenes.

    Musical Performance

      How might the music have sounded in the minds of readers?

      The melodies to which the hymn texts would have been sung, as well as most of their performance styles, are missing from the novel, and authentic African-American practice of the mid-nineteenth-century is even harder to document. Hymn texts—like metered psalm translations—were designed to be sung to many different melodies.* By the 1840s and 50s, however, some hymn texts had acquired melodies by which they were usually sung. Tunebooks like The Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp, even though they contained some hymn texts set to more than one tune, helped establish favorite melodies in the regions of the country where they were used.* A case in point is John Newton's "Amazing Grace," which Uncle Tom sings in chapter 38. The first printing of the hymn text was in England in 1779; it was widely published and sung in the United States, but not until 1888 did it appear in a hymnal set to the tune called "New Britain," to which is it nearly always sung today. "New Britain" appeared in American tunebooks beginning in the 1820s, and was first paired with the words for "Amazing Grace" in The Southern Harmony. Is this the tune to which Uncle Tom would have sung the hymn?

      And what of the performance style for these hymns? Stowe offers little information for most of the camp-meeting hymns, saying they were sung enthusiastically. The camp-meeting hymns, with their repeated refrains and structure suggesting African call-and-response, imply group singing. Stowe says that the Methodist church hymns—all of which are sung in the novel as solos except the last one—were more restrained and "pious." But there were several ways to perform hymns. Among the most common, particularly for illiterate singers, was lining out, a procedure in which a "precentor" (a church member who knew the lines by heart or read them from the hymnbook) spoke or chanted two lines of the hymn and the congregants then sang those lines, before the precentor lined out the next couplet. Stowe's description of the slaves' hymn singing does not suggest lining out. But one of the earliest recorded African-American performances of "Amazing Grace" is sung in this fashion, and here's what it sounds like: Example 1.*

      And now here's an example of solo style hymn singing, in a performance of "When I can read my title clear," the final hymn Uncle Tom sings (page 414), using a tune published in 1800 titled "Sacred Throne": Example 2. The 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp shows how the tune survives in print, with a different hymn text. (The melody is on the third line down, the tenor line.*)


      Appreciation of Stowe's novel could benefit from more singing, hearing, and studying the music of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but let me end here. Whatever other qualities the book has, Harriet Beecher Stowe understood that in order to invest the novel's characters and scenes with palpability, she had to infuse them with meaning and emotion that transcended what words alone could convey. So she gave them music and dance, and especially hymns, of the kinds that most of her potential white American readers had also experienced. And through her characters' singing, she revealed the nature of their souls and their capacity for sanctification.

    © 2007 Deane L. Root. This essay derives from a presentation given at the "Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Web of Culture" conference, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and hosted by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

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