This month we look at the role music played in the lives of enslaved African Americans. For almost two hundred and fifty years, many of those of African descent were forced to work for their capturers. During this period, enslaved people found unique ways to create music, in both composition and instrument. Enslaved African Americans found comfort and a means to developing community in music—it even provided a path to freedom.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
William H. Johnson
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1944
oil on paperboard
Smithsonian Art Museum
Painted by William Johnson, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot refers to the biblical story of the prophet Elijah being carried to heaven by a chariot of fire, as well as the popular African American spiritual. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was composed by Wallace Willis, enslaved man who lived in Oklahoma. According to the granddaughter of Britt Willis, the owner of Wallace Willis, Wallace Willis composed this song in August 1840 (African American Registry, n.d.). Ever since, this song has remained an important part of African American history, and for American history in general. William H. Johnson, the artist who painted the artwork pictured above, was a formally trained artist that became interested in primitive and folk art in the 1930s.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot provided a coded message. It’s well-known meaning suggests that death is the only path toward freedom. However, this song also referred to the land beyond the Ohio River.
Listen to a recording of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot here: Swing low, sweet chariot | Library of Congress (loc.gov)
Wooden drum used on the Sea Islands, South Carolina, 19th century
wood, leather, hide and metal
Smithsonian Art Museum
Enslaved African Americans used use a variety of instruments. In the beginning African Americans used drums; however, these drums were banned by some enslavers who feared a riot. Other instruments, like the banjo and fiddle, were key to African American music. In the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup describes how his violin was his “constant companion, the source of profit, and soother of my sorrows during years of servitude” (61).
To learn more, you can go here: Roots of African American Music | Smithsonian Institution.
12 Years a Slave
Solomon Northup, 1853
The book that inspired the major motion picture was written by Solomon Northup. Solomon Northup was a freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His ability to play the violin played a part in his capture, and in his ability to survive.
You can access a copy of the text here: Wittenberg University (opal-libraries.org). You may have to be on campus or signed in remotely to access this resource.
Accounts from those that were enslaved difficult to find because they were a disenfranchised group that was banned from learning to read and write. You can listen to an account of those that were enslaved here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/voices-remembering-slavery/about-this-collection/
All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Here is a great book that explores the lives of those that were enslaved.
In the decade prior to the Civil War, an unfree person, Rose, was preparing for her 9-year-old daughter, Ashley, to be sold. Rose gave Ashley a cotton sack containing tokens of a mother’s love: a lock of hair, pecans, and a tattered dress, to take with her. Decades later, Ruth, the granddaughter of Ashley, embroidered the sac with the words:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
— Ruth Middleton, 1921
In All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, historian and author, Tiya Miles, examines the historical, social, and cultural significance of the sack and its contents. Miles also explores the historical and archival evidence to investigate the lives of Rose, Ashley and Ruth.
Ashley’s sack is in the permanent collection of Middleton Place and is currently on loan and on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This book is available at Thomas Library. It’s call number is E445.S7 M55 2021 .
African American Registry (n.d.). Wallace Willis, lyricist born. Retrieved from Wallace Willis, Lyricist born – African American Registry (aaregistry.org)
Johnson, W. (1944). Swing low, sweet chariot [oil on paperboard]. Smithsonian Art Museum. Retrieved from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot | Smithsonian American Art Museum (si.edu)
Miles, T. (2021). All that she carried : the journey of Ashley’s sack, a black family keepsake. New York: Random House.
Northup, S. (2014). Twelve Years a Slave (Illustrated) (Two Pence Books). Two Pence Books.
Wooden drum used on the Sea Islands. (n.d.). Retrieved from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot | Smithsonian American Art Museum (si.edu)