The following is an excerpt from the upcoming narrative biography, “The Lamplighter: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh”.
Over time, southern slaves developed plantation songs that also carried secret messages. Only the slaves knew their meaning. It was through these songs that important information was passed along a system of communication throughout the South. Coded songs conveyed messages about rebellions or escapes through the Underground Railroad. They were also a way for the slave to “sass the Massa” without fear of retribution. The plantation owners and overseers never suspected their smiling chattel who sang such simple songs – or so they made themselves believe.
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There was one final group of haunting melodies, rich with emotion, and deeply moving. They were songs of hope and anticipation. Some folks called them the sorrow songs. Eventually, they would come to be known as spirituals. They were the soul-cry of the black slave, longing for freedom. They were born in the fields, among the hoed rows of cotton and tobacco. They sprang to life among the salty wharves of the Atlantic harbor and the Mississippi bayou. These songs rose to heaven above the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the waterfalls that drove them. From the painful cries of the female slave enduring yet another violation by the master, these ballads arose. They issued forth from the sweat and heartache of a lifetime of unrewarded toil.
Most of the time they had their start in the fervent heat of a backwoods religious meeting. Slaves gathered secretly to encourage one another and to cry out to God for freedom. This kind of meeting was against the law, and they knew that they could face a severe beating, or even death if they were caught. But the joy and peace that they received from heaven in these meetings made it worth the risk they faced here on earth.
The atmosphere in midst of the woods was always charged with emotion. As they mourned their wretched existence, songs would develop spontaneously – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In time, these melodies were memorized and passed along from plantation to plantation.
Like a captive eagle, a man’s spirit cries out under the tethers of oppression. In the same way that a caged bird yearns for freedom, the black slaves cried in anguish under their captivity. The spirituals were born from those cries.
As the lashes came down on their backs, the pleas to God for justice and a homeland of freedom across the Jordan rose from their bellies. The spirituals became a bloodline, bringing the vital flow of hope and faith to the emotional and spiritual heart of the slave. Through these melodies they held onto the hope of survival. By them, a unique and vibrant community formed. They served as a second language that only the slaves understood. Through these songs the slaves expressed in subtle words and melody their pain, loneliness, weariness, and sorrow – but also their hope and determination to live on.
Though the slaves were not allowed to read the Scriptures, they learned Bible stories at the church on the plantation along with the white folks. The Sunday morning routine included Sunday school, singing hymns, Bible reading, and the sermon – where the preacher told them to obey the Misses and the Master.