Freedmen’s Christmas Shout (South Carolina, 1863)

William Francis Allen edited the ground-breaking collection, Slave Songs of the United States (1867); during his wartime work with former slaves on the South Carolina Sea Islands, he recorded numerous valuable observations of the freedmen’s culture.

Allen’s journal entry for Christmas, 1863, contains a detailed description of former slaves celebrating the holidays with a “Shout” at Allen’s school building.  Note especially Allen’s observations on dance styles and the list of spirituals performed.  We begin our quote after the distribution of presents and the singing of newly-introduced Northern songs, followed by “several of their own songs,” when the freedmen decide to hold a “shout”:

Dec. 25, Friday, 7½ PM

…forthwith the tree was shoved into a corner and the floor cleared.  This “shout” is a peculiar custom of these people, and is well described in that article in the Continental “Under the Palmetto.”  Mr. Eustis told me to-day that so far as he knew (and he is a native of South Carolina) it is not only peculiar to these islands, but to some plantations.  Perhaps it is of African origin, with Christianity engrafted upon it just as it was upon the ancient Roman ritual.  At any rate, it arises from that same strange connection between dancing and religious worship which was so frequent among the ancients, and which we find in the dervishes, shakers etc.  These people are very strict about dancing, but will keep up the shout all night.  It has a religious significance, and apparently a very sincere one, but it is evidently their recreation — just as prayer meetings are the only recreation of some people in the north.  They do not have shouts very often, and were very glad of the excuse to have one in a large open room.

We went to see their regular Christmas shout in Peg’s house last night.  They had a Praise meeting first … At last they cleared the room and began, and a strange sight it was.  The room is no more than ten feet square, with a fire burning on the hearth … On one side of the room is a table, and in front of it stood young Paris (Simmons), Billy and Henry, who served as band.  Billy sang or rather chanted, and the others “based” him as they say, while … [six dancers] moved round the room in a circle in a sort of shuffle.  This is the shout.  Some moved the feet backward and forward alternately, but the best shouters — and Jimmy, I was told to-day, “is a great shouter,” — keep the feet on the floor and work themselves along over the floor by moving them right and left.  It seemed tremendous work for them … and I saw that the most skillful ones moved very easily and quietly.

The shouters seldom sing or make any noise except with their feet, but work their bodies more or less; while the singers clap their hands and stamp the right foot in time.  … [Three others] sat or stood about and joined in the “base.”  When they had shouted in this way for several minutes, they stopped and walked slowly round while Billy sang a sort of recitative interlude; then, when he began a new tune, they started off again.  And their shouting varied a little according to the tune.  In some they kept along with scarcely any change, and in others they would half stop, with a jerk at every change in the tune, shift the foot in advance from right to left or left to right.  Presently Billy joined the shouters, and Henry led the singing.  We staid about half an hour and then came home.

To-day I was very glad to see the shouting again, to understand it a little better and catch the words.  First there was a circle of the young people … Church members are sometimes unwilling to shout with outsiders.  … I caught some of the words, which are evidently original.

“Jesus call and I must go — I cannot stay behin’ my Lord,” while the base sang, ” I must go.”

Another was “Pray a little longer, Jericho do worry me,” while the base was “O Lord, yes my Lord.”

In singing this Billy sang very fast “Jericho, Jericho, Jericho etc,” while the shouting was very rapid and excited.

Another “Bell do ring, — wan’ to go to meetin’ bell do ring, wan’ to go to shoutin’,” — base “bell do ring,” and here he sang in the same way “heaven bell” so fast that it soudned like “humbell-a-humbell-a etc.”  These two were very fascinating.

Another was mournful — “Jesus died — died on the cross,” while the base was minor, “Jesus died,” and the singer repeated “died, died, died etc.” as he did “Jericho,” only slowly and mournfully.

Altogether it was one of the strangest and most interesting things I ever saw.

Text from William Francis Allen’s Civil War Journals, quoted in Dena Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals.

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