Dwight's Journal of Music
Unsigned Reprint
Boston: 15 November 1856

Songs of the Blacks.

  The only musical population of this country are the negroes of the South. Here at the North we have teachers in great numbers, who try to graft the love of music upon the tastes of our colder race. But their success is only limited. A few good singers are produced, and some fine instrumental performers, but the thing never becomes general. Music may perchance be the fashion for a winter. But it does not grow to a popular enthusiasm. It never becomes a passion or habit of the people. We are still dependent on foreigners for our music. Italian singers fill our concert rooms, and German bands parade our streets.

  Throughout the country the same holds true. Singing masters itinerate from village to village, to give instruction in the tuneful art, but the most they can muster is a score or two of men and maidens to sing in church on Sunday. Brother Jonathan is awkward at the business, and sings only on set occasions. Let him be enrolled in the ranks of the choir, and placed in the front of the gallery, and he will stand up like a grenadier, and roll out lustily the strains of a psalm. But all his singing is done in public. He makes little music at home, or at most only on the Sabbath day. During the week his melodies are unheard. He does not go to his labor singing to himself along the road. No song of home or country, of love or war, escapes his lips as he works in his shop or follows the plough. Our people work in silence, like convicts in a Penitentiary. They go to their tasks, not with a free and joyous spirit that bursts into song, but with a stern, resolute, determined air, as if they had a battle to fight, or great difficulties to overcome.

  Even the gentler sex, who ought to have the most of poetry and music, seem strangely indifferent to it. Young ladies who have spent years in learning to play upon the piano, and sing Italian airs, drop both as soon as they are married. Enter their houses a few months later, and they tell you that they are out of practice; they have forgotten their music, their pianos are unopened, and their harps unstrung.

  Compared with our taciturn race, the African nature is full of poetry and song. The Negro is a natural musician. He will learn to play on an instrument more quickly than a white man. They have magnificent voices and sing without instruction. They may not know one note from another, yet their ears catch the strains of any floating air, and they repeat it by imitation. The native melody of their voices falls without art into the channel of song. They go singing to their daily labors. The maid sings about the house, and the laborer sings in the field.

  Besides their splendid organs of voice, the African nature is full of poetry. Inferior to the white race in reason and intellect, they have more imagination, more lively feelings and a more expressive manner. In this they resemble the southern nations of Europe. Their joy and grief are not pent up in the heart, but find instant expression in their eyes and voice. With their imagination they clothe in rude poetry the incidents of their lowly life, and set them to simple melodies. Thus they sing their humble loves in strains full of tenderness. We at the North hear these songs only as burlesqued by our Negro Minstrels, with faces blackened with charcoal. Yet even thus all feel that they have rare sweetness and melody.

  Mingled with these love songs are plaintive airs which seem to have caught a tone of sadness and pathos from the hardships and frequent separation of their slave life. They are the Songs of their Captivity, and are sung with a touching effect. No song of a concert room ever thrilled us like one of these simple African airs, heard afar off in the stillness of a summer night. Sailing down the Mississippi, the voyager on the deck of the steamer may often hear these strains, wild, sad and tender, floating from the shore.

  But it is in religion that the African pours out his whole voice and soul. A child in intellect, he is a child in faith. All the revelations of the Bible have to him a startling vividness, and he will sing of the judgment and the resurrection with a terror or a triumph which cannot be concealed. In religion he finds also an element of freedom which he does not find in his hard life, and in these wild bursts of melody he seems to be giving utterance to that exultant liberty of soul which no chains can bind, and no oppression subdue. As hundreds assemble at a camp meeting in the woods, and join in the chorus of such a hymn as

"When I can read my title clear,
To mansions in the skies."

the unimpassioned hearer is almost lifted from his feet by the volume and majesty of the sound.

  No voices of the well trained choir in church or cathedral, no pealing organ, nor mighty anthem, ever moved us like these voices of a multitude going up to God under the open canopy of heaven. Blessed power of music! that can raise the poor and despised above their care and poverty. It is a beautiful gift of God to this oppressed race to lighten their sorrows in the house of their bondage.

  Might not our countrymen all learn a lesson from these simple children of Africa? We are a silent and reserved people. Foreigners think us taciturn and gloomy. So we are, compared with the European nations. The Germans sing along the banks of the Rhine. The Swiss shepherd sings on the highest passes of the Alps, and the peasant of Tyrol fills his vallies with strains wild as the peaks and torrents around him. But Americans, though surrounded with everything to make a people happy, do not show outward signs of uncommon cheerfulness or content. We are an anxious, careworn race. Our brows are sad and gloomy. Songless and joyless, the laborer goes to his task. This dumb silence is ungrateful in those who have such cause for thankfulness. Americans are the most favored people on earth, and yet they are the least expressive of their joy. So that we almost deserve the severe comment of a foreigner, who are seeing the great outward prosperity, and yet the anxious look of the people, said that "in America there was less misery, and less happiness, than in any other country on earth."

  Let us not be ashamed to learn the art of happiness from the poor bondman at the South. If slaves can pour out their hearts in melody, how ought freemen to sing! If that love of music which is inborn in them, could be inbred in us, it would do much to lighten the anxiety and care which brood on every face and weigh on every heart. The spirit of music would beguile the toilsome hours, and make us cheerful and happy in our labor.

  Nor would this light and joyous heart make us too gay, and so lead to folly and frivolity. On the contrary, it would prove a friend to virtue


and purity. The sour and morose spirit, when it recoils from its oppressive gloom, is apt to plunge into the worst excesses. The absence of a cheerful buoyancy is one of the causes which drive men into vice and sin. If every family sung together at early morn, that lingering melody would render their spirits more elastic. With his children's voices in his ear, the hard-working man would go more cheerfully to his labor, and those melodies would make his spirit sunny and joyous through the day.

  If common domestic joys, home, health and fireside love, can thus fill the heart with happiness, and cause it to break forth into singing; surely, when that heart is bounding with immortal hope, it may rise to the highest strains of exultation and of ecstasy.

"Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God,
But children of the heavenly King
May speak their joys abroad."