PROGRAM: “Freedom”: Songs of Slavery & Abolition

Race-based slavery & resistance in 19th century America, in music, words, & images.

Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52 copyPROGRAM DESCRIPTION:
The Hardtacks present a thought-provoking multimedia exploration of “The Peculiar Institution,” detailing 19th century political and social struggles to define “freedom” on an individual, regional, and national scale.  Built around the striking folk and popular musics of the period, this program introduces contemporary economic, ethical, social, and legal arguments for and against race-based slavery in the young United States, tracing the origins, growth, and accomplishments of the mid-19th century abolitionist movement.  Every political position had a song (or two or three) to advocate, parody, and challenge it — come join in the chorus and learn how 19th century music worked to strengthen and challenge the positions and cultures of the time!


  • Single set: 45-60 minutes

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Sample songs:

  • Lucy Neal (J. P. Carter, 1844) - A relentless love song & bitter critique of slavery:
  • I’m Off for California (1850s?) - Here’s a song you’ll recognize, and yet… it’s a side of the Gold Rush story you might not have heard about in school: The melody is Stephen Foster‘s first big hit, “Oh Susannah” (1847), ubiquitous in its time and still common in the “folk song” tradition over a century and a half later.  Foster’s original composition features two world-changing technologies...
  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Willis, 1850s?) - Wallis Willis created the song "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" sometime before 1862; we like to pair it with this 1862 photograph by Concord, NH's own H.P Moore.
  • Old Folks At Home (Foster, 1851) - Stephen Foster's 1851 song "Old Folks At Home" provides an excellent introduction to the antebellum period:
  • Ring, Ring De Banjo (Foster, 1851) - Frederick Douglass (1845) ~ “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears..."
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852-1859?) - "Euclid... is no child for effecting social revolutions, but an impassioned song may set a world in conflagration." ~ The London Times (3 September 1852)
  • Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel (Emmett, 1853) - Here are a few versions of Dan Emmett's song, displaying the far-reaching sense of international politics and breaking-news commentary to be found on the antebellum popular stage...
  • My Old Kentucky Home (Foster, 1853) - Stephen Foster's anthem recounts "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in three verses.
  • Slavery is a Hard Foe to Battle (Hutchinson Family, 1855) - ...updates Dan Emmett's "Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel" for an abolitionist audience.
  • Nelly Gray (Hanby, 1856) - Benjamin Hanby wrote Nelly Gray in 1856, in response to a fugitive slave case ...
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic (Howe, 1861) - Written in November 1861 by abolitionist poet Julia Ward Howe, this song seems to glimpse the fiery trial ahead:
  • Kingdom Coming (Work, 1862) - Popular in both the North and the South, perhaps because of his ambiguous treatment of the plight of "contraband" (liberated slaves) ...
  • Babylon is Fallen (Work, 1863) - After the Emancipation Proclamation changed the face of the Civil War, Henry Clay Work released this sequel to his popular "Kingdom Coming":
  • Song of the 1st of Arkansas (1864) - This rewrite of "Battle-Hymn of the Republic" puts the agency of social and economic upheaval squarely on the shoulders -- or rather, under the boot-heels -- of Colored Troops.


“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” ~ American Antislavery Society (1837)

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