Here’s a seemingly humorous song from the minstrel stage:
Note especially the connections delineated between slavery, land, and knowledge:
V.1 ~ “I’m right from old Varginny, with my head so full of knarledge…”
The “slave” narrator has never been to school, but close connection to the land of Virginia (as the mythical homeland of one of the first blackface minstrel troupes and numerous bards thereafter) qualifies him to expound on world history.
V.2 ~ “Lightning is a yaller gal who libs up in de cloud…”
Advocates of race-based slavery in the antebellum United States framed slaves as primitive humans who lived much closer to nature and were in fact suited by nature for slavery. How “natural,” then, to portray African Americans as part of environmental processes like the weather.
In contrast, Frederick Douglass rebuts this position in his 1850 lecture, “The Nature of Slavery” (emphasis added):
There can be no peace to the wicked while slavery continues in the land. It will be condemned; and while it is condemned there will be agitation. Nature must cease to be nature; men must become monsters; humanity must be transformed; Christianity must be exterminated; all ideas of justice and the laws of eternal goodness must be utterly blotted out from the human soul…
V.3 ~ “Noah built de ark, and filled it full of sassage…”
Okay, maybe that verse is just kind of cornball funny.
V.4 ~ “O Noah sent de bird out to look for dry land…”
It does not escape our notice that the dove finds not nourishing greenery but the BANJO, a symbol of African American artistry amidst slavery as much as an indicator of American independence, authenticity, and novelty (in contrast to European colonialism, artifice, and classicism). Crucially, the banjo here also becomes a symbol of survival and celebration under apocalyptic conditions.
This brings us to two correlative sources:
- In Bela Fleck’s 2009 film Throw Down Your Heart, Gambian musicians relate how slave traders made sure to bring African musicians along for the Middle Passage; the presence of music and dancing on the decks of the slave ships kept more of their human cargo alive under otherwise horrific conditions, leading to increased profits for the slave traders upon arrival in the New World. According to Fleck’s 2009 interview with NPR:
The lore around that part of the world [Gambia, West Africa] is that the first slave ships took people over, and huge numbers of people died. But by bringing over some cultural part of their lives, and having instruments on the ship, it kept a lot more people alive on the later journeys.
- In his remarkable 1845 essay, “Who Are Our National Poets?” James Kennard, Jr. proposes that if
…poetry should smack strongly of the locality in which it is written, then, in order to obtain that end, we must keep our poets at home, give them a narrow education, and allow them no spare money by which they may purchase books or make excursions into other ranks of society than their own. If we could only pick out the born poets when they are a fortnight old, and subject them to this regimen, the nation would be able to boast of original poets in plenty during the next generation.
And so we arrive back at the first verse — “slaves as poet-legislators,” in Eric Lott’s words (Love and Theft, 1993). Except the singer is not a slave, really. He’s a blackface slave character, a persona that qualifies the singer to comment on nature, world history, politics, and more.
A jaunty version of this tune appears on p.20 of Briggs (1855):
Later in the decade, Jesse Hutchinson, Jr. will use this tune for “Uncle Sam’s Farm”…