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.