When I was a boy, my mother taught me to sing a mournful little ditty which went like this: “The poor old slave has gone to rest/We know that he is free/His bones they lie disturb them not/Way down in Tennessee.” Maybe your mother taught you this little ditty, too. Did you also, as I did, try to picture that “poor old slave” who only in death would know freedom?
These lines lost their poignancy and became a sort of rollicking camp song when my mom sang it again but added syllables, as follows: “The poor-poor old slave-slave has gone-gone to rest-rest/We know-know that he-he is free-ee-ee!—etc. This effect was compounded in the rendition which followed that one: “The piggedy-poor old “sliggidy-slave has giggidy-gone to riggedy-rest we niggidy-know that higgedy-he is free-ee-ee!”
I can still hear mom’s voice and see her face as she sang through the stanzas with these nonsensical syllables added, and still feel her delight as I sang them with her.
A few days ago, as an offshoot from my research for and writing of “A Slow Eclipse,” the third volume in my historical fiction trilogy The Tinsmith’s Apprentice about Isaac Granger, an enslaved laborer of Thomas Jefferson, I became curious about the history and origin of this little ditty fondly remembered from childhood.
On You Tube, I listened to a recording from a CD entitled, “Gary Glawson, Songs My Daddy Sang. Mr. Glawson sang it solo in a slow, meditative cadence, accompanying himself on guitar. A Doug Dillard, on his CD from 1975, engaged a bluegrass band with fiddle accompaniment to give it a lonely, wistful sound. Both versions rendered it as a piece of nostalgic Americana with personal associations not unlike my own.
But through a Google search my perception was altered. I found a digital replica of the original sheet music held by the Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections as part of a nineteenth-century song sheet archive. I discovered to my shock that the ditty my mother taught me was but the chorus for a song of three stanzas entitled, “Poor Old Slave.” These stanzas were enclosed in an elaborately drawn border decoration, which included an African-American banjo player in carnival attire: striped tights, puff sleeves, and what looks like a sombrero.
Under catalog.hathitrust.org, I found the name of the author, G.W.H. Griffin (1829-1879), and the curious epigraph: “Respectfully dedicated to the celebrated tenor S. B. Ball, Esq. of the Ordway Aeolian Harpists.” More ominously, I found reference to other works produced by Mr. Griffin: “Darkey plays: a collection of Ethiopian dramas, farces, interludes, burlesque operas, eccentricities, extravaganzas, comicalities, whimsicalities, etc. etc.” Then I stumbled on the Duke University Digital Libraries, and its trove of 296 such items, such as “Come Back Massa, Come Back!” and “Go to Sleep My Little Pickaninny,” all catalogued under the rubric: History of Racism and Discrimination—Afro-American.
So I had come to the truth about the “poor old slave” ditty my mother sang to me. It was not after all a winsome lament passed down innocently through the generations; it was a deliberate construction by a prolific author of farces and burlesque operas popular with white audiences during the era of black-face minstrelsy, which began in the 1840’s and persisted well into the twentieth century. These shows, to quote the Wickipedia entry, “played a powerful role in shaping assumptions about black people. However unlike vehemently anti-black propaganda from the time, minstrelsy made this attitude palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of a well-intentioned paternalism.”
Very palatable, I ruefully admit. Until investigation discovers an unsettling history. The little ditty is like the exposed knuckle of a buried monster. It is both necessary and dangerous to excavate the creature. For exposed to air and circulation it can begin to reconstruct itself; yet left preserved in the ground, it never really expires. The excavation would not be so difficult if it did not include personal examination, but it does. In oneself is where the monster hides.
Whether it be Beowulf or the Minotaur, let me recover every last vertebra and piece it together in all its terrible detail, and so render it harmless and a warning, I hope.
A good friend recommended I listen to the October 13th, 2019 episode on the Sporkful podcast entitled, “When White People Say Plantation.” The episode began with the food, culture, and identity writer Osayi Endoly recalling an occasion when she had been served a mixed drink called, “Plantation rum.” Being African American and noting the embarrassed manner of the white waitress when identifying the drink in this way, Endolyn began to muse about the use of the word “plantation,” not just for this drink, but for various other foods, too. What, she wondered, did this word conjure up for "white people?" Her question set off a train of thoughts in me.
For instance, I could not help but think about "The Lost Cause," which though not mentioned in the podcast, was surely in the background: the idea, apparently concocted by a group of disgruntled Confederate officers soon after the Civil War ended that the South should have won the war--and that brilliant generals commanding fierce and ragtag rebel armies almost did, against overwhelming odds. Outfoxing and outfighting the massive armies of the industrialized North, the Confederates bravely defended the finer, gentler, and more christian way of life which had flourished below the Mason-Dixon. Though the Confederacy collapsed, its idealization spread like a meme, installing itself in the national consciousness, popular culture, and public school history books.
I had my own experience of this while developing a class on Confederate monuments three or four years ago for the Virginia Tech Lifelong Learning Institute. I recalled my first fascination with the Civil War, as a junior high school student in Illinois. I could almost picture myself as one of the lean, tough, rebel soldiers clad in homespun, lifting my voice in the eerie rebel yell before valiantly sprinting toward the hateful Yankees (never mind the gruesome killing). I became so enthusiastic that I even dyed one of my T-shirts with walnut husks, as Southerners were supposed to have dyed their ragtag Confederate uniforms. (The T-shirt didn't take much color, but my hands were stained for weeks.)
One afternoon while preparing for the course, I pulled out a favorite book from childhood, The Golden Book of America, inscribed to me from my father for Christmas, 1958. I loved this book and had pored over its images of mountain men in buckskins and bespangled Indians on horseback hunting buffalo. This time, I turned to the section on the Civil War, to a painting of Confederate generals in relaxed camaraderie, with low mountains shown in the distance, the wise-seeming General Lee sitting alert upon Traveler under a mighty oak tree. By contrast, General Grant and his generals were pictured businesslike, all on horseback in a tight phalanx as if charging into battle. Even more telling was a Currier & Ives print, depicting slaves working in a cotton field, with a lazy river in the picturesque background and a steamboat puffing smoke. All was quiet industry: the slaves with their sacks plucking cotton bolls as they went through the rows, the bales of cotton stacked on wagons in the foreground, where the plantation's master, with his arm out as if giving directions, stood beside his placid mistress.
Yet Frederick Olmstead's record of his travels through the "Seaboard Slave States" in the 1850’s has made clear to me that while there were plantations such as we imagine, the South for the most part was economically impoverished, the plantations themselves debt-ridden, the land exhausted, and the agricultural system, dependent upon slavery, woefully backward and inefficient.
I am re-reading now a slim volume, "My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery," edited by Belinda Hurmence, who selected twenty-one oral histories of ex-slaves interviewed as part of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project. Surely this is a book to dispel romantic notions of plantation life. Nearly every one of these ex-slaves begins by identifying their “master,” which was the one most essential relationship, since actual family members could be sold off or hired out at any time. In my experience, biographies of distinguished (white) personages begin by tracing the lives of the subject’s forebears. But for the slave, there was rarely such lineage to be recalled or recorded. The excellent, massive, 2019 biography of Frederick Douglass by David Blight, for example, begins with scraps: Douglass barely knew his mother, and could only suspect who his father was. His biography essentially begins with Douglass himself--making his accomplishments even more remarkable.
It seems that we often seek solace in some version of the past which offers respite from the uncertainties of life, uncertainties which are especially apparent to us during this pandemic. We find solace where we can, and the vision of ourselves seated on the grand porch of a tranquil Southern plantation beside a placid river, sipping plantation rum under an overhanging live oak tree hung with Spanish moss may be attractive, so long as the contradictions are smudged out. Nostalgia, even if invented, is powerful. However, it does not always mix well with actual truths, as Osayi Endolyn in this Sporkful podcast made clear. She asks, or perhaps urges, that white people “do the work” of investigating for themselves the uncomfortable facts of the history of slavery in the United States, which even to this day, more than a 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, still persist in the details of our present lives, right down to the baking of “plantation spoon bread” (which I just now googled and brought up six hits on the just the first page).
I think, or at the very least believe that I have been doing that hard work in the writing of A Partial Sun, That Dazzling Sun, and now A Slow Eclipse. I have found the exercise distinctly unsettling at times, yes, but also rich, absorbing, and certainly inspiring.