Wilma Ann Bailey, “The Sorrow Songs: Laments From The Old Testament And African American Experience”

I once passed a colored woman at work on a plantation, who was singing, apparently, with the animation, and whose general manners would have led me to set her down as the happiest of the gang.  I said to her, “Your work seems pleasant to you.:  She replied, “No massa.”  Supposing she referred to something particularly disagreeable in her immediate occupation, I said to her, “Tell me then what part of your work is most pleasant.:  She answered with much emphasis, “No part pleasant.  We forced to do it.” – The North Star, April 28, 1848, quoted by Wilma Ann Bailey, “The Sorrow Songs” in Music In Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgyp.77

Bailey’s survey and commentary on the slave songs considers the use of Israelite lamentation form and imagery among Africans enslaved in the United States.  Among the things most clear from this particular essay is Bailey’s belief – offered without evidence – that enslaved Africans and African-Americans were not particularly Christian until after Emancipation, at which point they suddenly (as she puts it) joined churches in droves.  Belied by the existence of large African-American churches even during the years of slavery (the AME and AME Zion churches just to name two), I find it interesting, to say the least to make this particular claim in light of the larger theme of the work: that this language and imagery – much of whose original content and musical organization is now lost due to freed slaves seeking to distance themselves from much of that history – was not in service of religious pursuits, i.e., to lament to God their plight and ask for divine intervention, but were far more often coded messages using what many whites would recognize as simple hymns to disguise the communication of messages.  Bailey sets to one side, after a time and after a fashion, the whole question of the theological and even liturgical uses to which the Sorrow Songs were put, in part because there is little evidence to support any theory on these matters.

None of this is to deride the Sorrow Songs, dismiss the multivalent quality of many if not most of the songs in question, or recognize the desire by the newly emancipated slaves to put behind so much of their horrible history, not least because white minstrelsy continued to keep alive far too many ugly, racist images and tropes regarding African-Americans, their language, their culture, and their song.

A theme of the essay – the similarity of the lament Psalms and the slave sorrow songs – is their rootedness in this historical experience of oppression.  Functioning as communal catharsis, expressing anger, confusion, hope, and the need for praise to God, the original Israelite lamentations formed a closed structure.  The African-American sorrow songs, however, were open-ended, with neither denouement nor catharsis.  While not conclusive, this does at least hint that, while recognizing the Israelite lament poetry as a useful form to copy, they could alter it for their own ends, not the least of which was to communicate with others about escape attempts, resistance, or celebration when a slave master died.

The question, however, this article begs is simple enough: If, as Bailey suggests, the pre-emancipation African-American community, particularly the enslaved population, was not Christian, then in what sense were these sorrow songs in service of any liturgy?  Indeed, if as she claims there is little indication of actual belief in the Christian God (although there is nothing to suggest disbelief, either; there is, however, abundant evidence of at the very least the practice of certain forms of Christian worship among slave populations), then these become less liturgical songs and more practical, sensus communis poems, much as the Israelite poetry was without, however, the formal structure of closure, which included confidence in God to act in defense of the oppressed.  To the extent, then, that Bailey is correct, these Sorrow Songs are interesting as functional historical documents without identifying how they served a liturgical purpose for the worshiping community of African slaves who composed them

One such song she identifies, “Steal Away”,  was allegedly composed by Nat Turner as a way of communicating a rallying point should the rebellion succeed and the slaves move on (the destination was allegedly Courtland, VA).  From Nat King Cole’s short-lived variety show, here’s Mahalia Jackson singing this song as no one else ever has or ever could.