African Americans, History

Slaves’ Song


The fuddling, dancing and “jubilee beating” was carried on in all directions. The latter performance was strictly southern. It supplied the place of violin, or of other musical instruments, and was played so easily that almost every farm had its “Juba” beater. The performer improvised as he beat the instrument, marking the words as he sang so as to have them fall pat with the movement of his hands. Among a mass of nonsense and wild frolic, once in a while a sharp hit was given to the meanness of slaveholders. Take the following example:

We raise de wheat,

Dey gib us de corn;

We bake de bread,

Dey gib us de crust;

We sif de meal,

dey gib us de huss;

We peel de meat,

Dey gib us de skin;

And dat’s the way

Dey take us in;

We skim de pot,

Dey gib us the liquor,

And say dat’s good enough

                for nigger.

Walk over! Walk over!

Your butter and de fat;

Poor nigger you cant get over


This is not a bad summary of the palpable injustice and fraud of slavery, giving, as it does, to the lazy and the idle the comforts which God designed should be given solely to the honest laborer.

… I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent sounds [of slaves’ songs]. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds…

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrow of the heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart by its tears.

Fredrick Douglas, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855).



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