Sorrow Songs Spanning Centuries (A Tribute to Black History Month)

Sorrow Songs Spanning Centuries (A Tribute to Black History Month)

The intent of this article is not to offer a summative history but to show appreciation and respect for a group of people that have found ways to create art despite oppression. A people ripped from their homes and forced into servitude that, despite fierce opposition, found ways to assemble a distinct and beautiful culture in a hostile nation. Remnants of this art can be found all throughout our modern musical landscape.

The blues of Gary Clark Jr., the gospel rap of Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, and bands like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, are all directly influenced by the innovations of early black musicians. The themes of oppression and resistance are surprisingly not new to the 21st century. They are the continuation of a nauseatingly long history of abuse of the black population.

You’ll find no shortage of articles on Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman this February. Individuals are like lightning rods, they attract energy and attention and stand high above ground level and send massive amounts of energy into the ground below them. But what of the ground below them? It’s now energized, too. Enough energy to turn sand into glass. Slavery into song. Unnamed poets of timeless works that will never be eulogized in a Huffington Post article. Authors and musicians who've had their names erased, first by slave traders and later by time.

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Jones-Hogu

America’s "original sin" produced its first indigenous music genre as a byproduct. (Note: Indigenous here means created within and affecting America as a nation, not referring to the indigenous peoples who would have no doubt had their own musical culture.) These “work songs," referred to as “sorrow songs” or “slave songs," were the direct product of a people who needed music in order to survive, and in some cases escape forced captivity. 

Among the most well-known of these is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” which was, according to H.B. Parks, a song associated with the Underground Railroad that gave veiled instructions on a way up from Mobile, Al., to the Junction of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers and into northern territory. 

Photo Courtesy of Jeanette Winter

“The river bank will make a mighty good road
The dead trees show you the way
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the drinking gourd.

Follow the drinkin' gourd,
Follow the drinkin' gourd;
For the ole man say,
‘Follow the drinkin' gourd.’”

A complete lyrical analysis of this song could be a full research paper in and of itself, but the gist of it is that along the river there were secret trail markers left by an operative of the Underground Railroad named Peg Leg Joe. The chorus echoes the final line to follow the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper). It is uncertain how many slaves followed Peg Leg Joe’s river route to freedom, but it serves as an example of the necessity of music to many slaves. It illustrates how songs were used as a way to communicate vital information without suppression, as well as a tool to make the memorization of directions much easier. 

Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While escape was always a great idea, in theory, the reality meant potentially spending weeks or even months in the wilderness with no money, no clothes, no food, no shelter, and no resources or documentation. For the vast majority of those in slavery, music was used as a means of quiet rebellion. 

It was a common convention for the work songs to be centered on religious imagery. Along with religious imagery comes heavy subtext. Within the acapella retellings of biblical stories and shouts of longing to see the streets of heaven were words of coded protest against their oppressors. 

“Then they'll cry out for cold water
While the Christians shout in glory
Saying Amen to their damnation
Fare you well, fare you well.”

Photo Courtesy of Amazon

The lyrics are speaking of non-Christians who will burn in hell, crying out for cold water. What the masters were unaware of was that they were the “they” in these songs. Taking the place of an unnamed “other” that will, once again, give an order, but this time it will go unfulfilled by those jubilant Christian slaves. These early spirituals served as a way for slaves to defy and/or mock their oppressors to their faces without facing severe backlash or punishment.

Just as slavery and racism didn’t die with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, neither did the spirit of freedom and rebellion. Sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, institutional racism, and a laundry list of other things have kept the black community in a seemingly eternal uphill struggle to be recognized as fully “American” since their forced introduction into this country. We’ve seen these desires permeate every conceivable medium of black art for centuries. Musicians like Tupac Shakur, choreopoet Ntozake Shange, authors such as Jesmyn Ward, and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, all saying the same thing, “LISTEN!” 

Modern examples of these songs come from a number of sources. One major difference in modern songs is the explicit way in which they state their message. Modern writers find no reason to hide their ill-wishes behind coded messages. Over time, the classic themes shifted from heavily disguised allusions to matter-of-fact statements on the issue at hand. Take these lines from first verse of “Spaceship” by Kanye West off of his first album, The College Dropout.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“If my manager insults me again
I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up
Then I'm gonna shorten the register up”

These lyrics offer a clear message of resentment as a result of mistreatment and lack of adequate pay. Kanye makes sure to let us know that his managers accuse him of stealing, don’t pay him much, and that they seemingly only keep him on staff to parade in front of black customers to tout diversity. West rebels against authority by being “on break next to the ‘No Smokin’ sign with a blunt in the mall.” 

Aside from just being rebellious and potentially violent, though, “Spaceship” offers a hook that speaks a more ambitious message:

“I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly past the sky”

This soulful hook summons the same message of freedom that has been stated for hundreds of years, but rather than being forced into servitude, Kanye and much of today’s black population find themselves trapped in a cycle of working multiple minimum wage jobs just to afford to exist. As if “retail slavery” weren’t enough to warrant comparisons to sorrow songs, Tony Williams utilizes familiar images of flight in the hook and even drops a reference to the classic “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the outro.

“I want to fly, I want to fly
I said I want my chariot to pick me up
And take me brother, for a ride”

That being said, I'm convinced that there will be college courses dedicated to studying the works of Kendrick Lamar one day. Let's get a taste of something we'll be discussing in “K-Dot 101" next semester. We'll stick with the theme of flight and freedom with a bonus track off the critically acclaimed, good kid, m.A.A.d city, “Black Boy Fly."

Photo Courtesy of

“I wasn't jealous cause of the talents they got
I was terrified they'd be the last black boys to fly...
Out of Compton”

A more grim view of flight. But a view nonetheless. After over 200 years of being beaten down both physically and spiritually, it’s hard to keep praying for a chariot. “Black Boy Fly” attempts to put a voice to the fear and uncertainty that comes with growing up in a rough neighborhood. 

Although slavery no longer legally exists, it would be ignorant to suggest that everything is all red and rosy with regards to race relations in America. The black community continue to face adversity for no reason other than people who view melanin as a barometer of morality. This eternal struggle has been sung about from the fields of Tupelo, Miss., to the verses of Tupac Shakur and will continue to energize future artists as they fight the same fight to be heard.    

Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Columbia Pictures

American society has, time and time again, ignored, misattributed, or outright stole the innovations and artistic creations of black innovators and artists. For example, when Willie Mae Thornton was overshadowed by Elvis and Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly lost “Album of the Year."

American culture today would be a shell of itself without the essential contributions of the black community. What truth has been lost and what wonders will we never get to see because we couldn’t look past color to see greatness?    

Although the specifics of the struggle have changed over time, the essential conflict has remained constant. As W.E.B. Du Bois put eloquently in The Souls of Black Folks, “The songs are indeed the siftings of centuries; the music is far more ancient than the words.”

Special thanks to Dr. Courtney George, Dr. Jim Owen, Dr. Judith Livingston, and Sydney King.

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