Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Irene Williams Remembers Slavery

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In 1940, Irene Williams met with Ruby and John Lomax to describe her early years in slavery. In an audio recording, she recalls church services and sings a beautiful rendition of “Keep Your Lamp A Trimmed and Burning.” There are many beautiful arrangements of this song for choruses of all levels. How powerful it could be for singers to hear it directly from a woman who survived slavery!

Then, almost as an afterthought, Irene remembers “Little Emma,” the baby’s nurse:  “After the baby was tucked in bed [she] was often called into the kitchen to do the churning. And this is the song that she sang to the milk.” The butter song, which begins around the two minute mark of the recording, has a strong, steady beat, and its tone-set makes it suitable for students’ earliest musical experiences

Bearers of history

Emma probably sang simply because she was a musical individual, not because she intended to create or perform a hit song. I wonder if she even knew that Irene Williams was listening. But she inspired Irene, who inspired John and Ruby Lomax to record; now our students can receive the song and can continue the chain. It’s a powerful example that all of us, as artistic beings, continually create our own cultural histories and carry forward the voices of others in our communities.

Hands-on Learning

Consider having your students try making butter. When I tried this recently with a group of educators at a workshop, it helped us empathize more with Emma’s experience. How might Emma have felt as she sang? How did the steady beat, short phrases, or limited tonal range help Emma complete her tiring job? In addition to building social awareness, making butter is a real-life science experiment; look for cross-curricular opportunities for students to learn about states of matter, historic cooking practices, and other topics.

Musical Adaptation and Improvisation

This melody has a stream-of-consciousness feel; the words drift around a few central melodic ideas without a predictable pattern. At the workshop, the tedium of butter-making gave us a new appreciation for the wandering form of the piece. Consider teaching melodic motifs individually. Students may compose new phrases by combining the melodic motifs in new ways; new composers could be helped by physically manipulating cutouts of two- or four-measure phrases to help them develop a plan.

Voices of the Unheard

Irene Williams is featured in the Library of Congress digital collection Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Story. She shares several children’s songs with movement games, including “Drink Water” and “Jay Bird Singing.” Consider honoring Williams’ memories by listening, singing, or moving with her songs. Ask students to consider what we can learn from hearing from formerly enslaved people, rather than only about them. What voices might be overlooked in our present-day world? What can students do to ensure these voices are heard, preserved, and shared?

In this recording, “Jay Bird Singing” begins around 1:00 and “Drink Water” begins around 2:45.

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