‘Shake Off Your Chains’: The Story Behind ‘Songs of Slavery and Emancipation’
The Berea Songs of Slavery and Emancipation Ensemble record a song from the new project "Songs of Slavery and Emancipation" in this still photo from an accompanying documentary.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Songs of Slavery and Emancipation is a collection of 31 newly discovered songs that don’t just lament slavery but call for resistance and revolt. Some were written by abolitionists, including free Black people and fugitive slaves, and some by people still enslaved. The songs date as far back as 1784 up through the Civil War. For the Songs of Slavery and Emancipation project, musician and producer Mat Callahan researched songs and consulted with historians to guide him as he recruited more than 50 musicians and selected recording methods to bring the songs — and their stories — to life. We asked Callahan to tell us more about the project and why it matters now.
Arise! Arise! shake off your chains
Your cause is just, so Heaven ordains
to you shall Freedom be proclaimed.
— the Hymn of Freedom (1813)
Songs of Slavery and Emancipation began with the discovery of the lyrics to a song. I found this text in an old, beat up pamphlet published in 1939 called Negro Slave Revolts in the United States: 1526–1860. I was leafing through this pamphlet when I caught sight of these lyrics and they leaped off the page. They were apparently composed and sung by slaves gathering at a clandestine meeting to plan an insurrection. This was in 1813 in South Carolina. The lyrics were explicitly revolutionary and they were like none I’d ever seen associated with Negro spirituals or other vernacular music from before the Civil War. I bought the pamphlet and began studying it.
The subject itself was intriguing. There has been ample attention paid to slavery in recent years but little to challenge the commonplace notion that the slaves accepted their fate — lamenting it perhaps, running away sometimes, but nonetheless putting up no resistance. The pamphlet completely refuted this. From the first slaves landed in North America in 1526 to the Civil War, there were literally hundreds of documented rebellions. These were not occasional outbursts; they occurred continuously, constituting an ever-present threat. Along with the Underground Railroad, which carried at least 100,000 fugitives to relative freedom between 1830, and the abolition of slavery, these revolts present a totally different picture of American history than the one we’ve been taught.
Being a musician, my attention was of course drawn to the curious lyric contained amid all the names, dates, and historical events. This one song seemed so anomalous, so out of character from what I’d known previously that I had to wonder, is this authentic? And if it is, are there more songs like this? I knew “Go Down Moses,” “Steal Away,” “The Drinking Gourd” and many other beautiful expressions of longing for escape from bondage. But I’d never heard or heard of explicit calls to arms, for collective resistance to the slave system. This raised more questions than the authenticity of a particular song. If there were many slave revolts over hundreds of years, wasn’t it more likely that there would be songs about them than not? Why would people as closely associated with music as African Americans not write ballads, hymns, chants, and anthems celebrating heroes, uprisings, and aspirations to end an oppressive regime? After all, there are hundreds of Irish rebel songs, Mexican corridos and, the world over, folk music expressing these themes. Why would slaves in America be any different?
I began digging, asking questions, and consulting folklorists and historians, all of whom reinforced my conviction that there were indeed such songs and that they had been buried along with the history of slave revolts. I was fortunate to gain the assistance of historians Eric Foner, Manisha Sinha, and James Basker, all of whom provided valuable leads and encouragement. I came upon the earlier work of people like James Lovell Jr., who’d not only raised the questions I was raising, but answered them with examples, some of which became part of the repertoire presented in Songs of Slavery and Emancipation.
It was through this process that I learned that not only had revolutionary slave songs been buried, but the abolitionist movement and the music it produced had been mischaracterized or consigned to oblivion.
Abolitionist songs were, however, easier to locate and verify since so many had been published in song books and newspapers that reside in archives like the Library of Congress. What emerges from these songs is an uncompromising denunciation of the slave system and a demand for the emancipation of slaves and all humanity. Furthermore, these songs and their popularization were the combined effort of fugitives, free Black people, and large numbers of white people who together formed a massive movement. The militancy and spirit of the songs themselves put the lie to an image of abolitionism common to this day. Abolitionism is often portrayed as a bunch of bourgeois do-gooders who caused an unnecessary conflict, the Civil War, by their incessant nagging. In fact, the abolitionist movement was made up mainly of ordinary working people, and many risked or gave their lives to aid fugitive slaves and to fight to end slavery.
Once I’d assembled and verified the authenticity of enough slave songs, I sought the assistance of others to perform them, along with the abolitionist songs. I chose 15 songs of each category, sufficient evidence, in my view, to prove the point. The slaves did rebel and they did produce songs celebrating their heroes, their aspirations, and their determination to end an unjust and exploitative system.
I was then fortunate to meet some wonderful musicians. First, Professor Kathy Bullock, who, until her retirement, was the chair of the music department at Berea College, an expert in African American music, an accomplished musician, and director of the Black Music Ensemble at Berea. Kathy’s musicianship and leadership made the recording of most of the slave songs possible. Professor Timothy Eriksen then joined to provide the links, musically and historically, between the tradition of shape-note singing and the abolitionist movement. These two fine musicians were joined by many others, in many locations, to perform the 31 songs in our collection.
Our basic approach to recording was to capture, as much as possible, the way this music sounded when it was performed — in some cases more than 200 years ago. No studio tricks, no overdubbing. Just people performing in spaces that might have been rustic churches or community centers of the 19th century. The reasons for this approach were twofold: on the one hand to present the evidence, and on the other to provide a basis for further exploration of these and other songs yet to be found by future musicians and researchers. In other words, these recordings are beautiful in their own right, but their purpose goes beyond their performance. They are meant to inspire the ongoing quest to reclaim a past and illuminate a future. A future, that is, in which slavery in any form is banished from human society.
Songs of Slavery and Emancipation, released June 17 on Jalopy Records, includes 64 pages of liner notes, and is also accompanied by a full-length book and a documentary film about the discovery and recording of the songs. Learn more here.