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Teaching with Music from the Voices Remembering Slavery Collection

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The recordings contain pops and hisses, and sometimes they skip, but the music comes through clearly: songs of work, songs of praise, and songs of liberation from bondage.

The Library’s online collection Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories contains many powerful stories of daily life by people who survived slavery, all recorded in the 20th century. As the collection notes, “all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings.” But it also contains these individuals’ recollections of music, some sung, some described, and all providing a window into the musical lives of people enduring a system of forced labor and pervasive cruelty.

In one recording, George Johnson of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, is interviewed by Dr. Charles Johnson of Fisk University. George Johnson discusses a broad span of musical topics, from songs of worship that he remembers from his childhood to his opinion of the blues to the bands that played music for local dances. About a minute into this recording, he pauses to sing a song he recalls from boyhood, “Mercy Seat, the calm and easy Mercy Seat.

There is a calm,
Oh, sure to be.
It’s underneath the Mercy Seat.
Oh, Mercy Seat.
Oh, Mercy Seat. 
Calm to be,
Oh, Mercy Seat.
There is a calm,
Oh, sure to be.
Around a calm,
Oh, Mercy Seat.


Other recordings include survivors sharing songs and hollers from field work, as well as songs that touch on the liberation of enslaved people during the war. In one recording, Wallace Quarterman, who was enslaved in the Sea Islands of Georgia, sings a song that begins:

Oh, let me come on i-in.
I surrender, and open the door

This might be a song of worship. But it is followed by Quarterman’s account of the day he heard Union guns in the distance. Ask students to consider why it is important to listen to the song in the context of what precedes and follows it in the interview.

Songs and descriptions of music can be found in many of the recordings in the Voices Remembering Slavery collection; you can find several quickly by searching for the word “music” in the collection. Note that speakers in these recordings often recount racial epithets used to describe African Americans, and teachers should listen to recordings carefully before deciding whether and how to use them with their students.

Ask students to analyze the music in these recordings using the Library’s primary source analysis tool, and select prompts from the analysis guides for oral histories and audio recordings. Because in several cases the interviews themselves comprise most of what is now known about the interview subjects, close listening – and close reading of the transcripts – may yield interesting questions and insights.

Please share your discoveries in the comments.

Note: A post from 2019 about teaching with music from the Library’s Voices Remembering Slavery collection included recordings by a person who was mistakenly identified as a formerly enslaved person. We have since removed that post and the Library has corrected the record. Our collections are always growing and changing, as is our understanding of those collections, and we appreciate our readers’ interest and support as we continue to learn.

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