Liberty Songs: A Black Cultural Tradition

Liberty songs, as they appear in newspapers and colored convention minutes, are evidence of Black communities' cultural traditions. The July 1, 1852 issue of Frederick Douglass’ Paper captures the experience of Reverend Mr. Torrey of East Cleveland who was searching for a particular freedom song only to notice that every song that mentioned slavery had been excluded from his hymnal book by the publisher. Yet, earlier that year, The Liberator published a letter written by Joshua Hutchinson, a member of one of the most successful singing groups of the nineteenth century, explaining his esteem and pleasure at the extremely positive reaction to his family’s performance at the New England Masonic Temple. Such articles about liberty songs in anti-slavery and conventional newspapers reveal the contrast between attempts to oppress Black freedom and abolitionists’ unfailing determination toward liberation.

Joshua Hutchinson describes the audience of the Hutchinson Family Singers’ performance in his letter to his “Dear friend [Andrew Lloyd] Garrison” as “…an audience of energetic, stanch, pure-minded, liberty-loving people I have never before had the pleasure to entertain.” He continues in his letter to assure Garrison confidently: “…God is on the side of the oppressed, and the ‘Higher Law' will triumph. Sir, you have many admirers in this State, and your position before the American people will yet be appreciated. Take courage, and tell the friends of human liberty to gird on the whole armor, for the day of victory is dawning.” Joshua Hutchinson’s brother, Jesse Hutchison (Jr.) was the author of several of the songs that the family sung. One notable song was "The Crow in the Cornfield," a piece that required the singers to exercise their powers of ventriloquism. Another song, "I Long to be Home," was described as causing those who were absent from their home to tear up upon hearing the song. Interestingly enough, Jesse Hutchinson’s occupation in the 1850 U.S. Census is simply listed as “printer” not composer or musician, or even writer.

One of the most common ways that liberty songs appear in abolitionist newspapers such as The Liberator and The Frederick Douglass’ Paper is through advertisements for upcoming performances and for the sales of song books, but by the twentieth century, advertisements were beginning to show up in more conventional newspapers as well. For instance, the republican paper, The New York Tribune advertised the sale of a book of liberty songs titled “Songs of Cheer.” The advertisement was published December 1, 1918 with the caption “Celebrate Victory with ‘Songs of Cheer.’”

In addition to appearing in newspaper advertisements, references to liberty and freedom songs appear in colored convention minutes. Although the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens was one of the very few--if not the only set of national convention minutes to prominently feature liberty songs, the cantatas were sung at several conventions following 1843. Liberty songs played a huge role in creating community among the delegates; however, the first mention of liberty songs doesn’t appear until the 1843 convention minutes. As documented in the minutes to the 1843 Michigan state convention, several songs were sung throughout the meeting, with a liberty song rising after the president’s emotional closing remarks and another rising as delegates collected money to pay for the printing and distribution of the songs.

While songs were often sung at colored conventions, liberty songs likely first appeared in the minutes to the 1843 national convention. The majority of the liberty songs sung at the antislavery conventions titles are not given in the minutes; however, several titles are listed. Some examples include “I am a Friend of Liberty” sung at the 1843 Michigan state convention. “Freedom’s Gathering” and “I Dream of All Things Free” sung at the 1849 Ohio convention; “Liberia is Not a Place for Me” sung at the 1851 Ohio state convention, and “Come Join the friends of Liberty” sung at the 1858 Massachusetts convention. Unfortunately many of the lyrics to these songs have been lost over time; however the lyrics to some of these songs are still available. The lyrics to an untitled song written and sung by William Wells Brown at the 1859 New England convention are documented in the minutes. The lyrics to another song sung at the 1859 New England convention, “Free the Bondman” although not written in the minutes, are also still available in other sources. Also extant are the lyrics to “The John Brown Song,” a dark song about the martyr-abolitionist John Brown, sung at the 1864 National Convention in Syracuse, NY. Although only some sets of lyrics are presently available, colored convention minutes are evidence that liberty songs were not only a tradition but also a strong influence in the fight to end slavery.  

Written by Alysia Van Looy, English 344 taught by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware, Fall 2014.

Edited by Sarah Patterson, Curator

References 

1. “1850 United States Federal Census." Ancestry Library Edition. Ancestry, n.d. Web.

2. "Antislavery Convention Minutes." Colored Conventions. N.p., n.d. Web.

3. "A Voice From The Western Reserve." The Frederick Douglass Paper [Rochester, New York] 1 July 1852: n. pag. Accessible Archives. Web.

4. "Cheering From the Battle-Ground." The Liberator [Boston, Massachusetts] 13 Feb. 1852: n. pag. Accessible Archives. Web.

5. “New-York tribune”(New York [N.Y.]), 01 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Web.

6. " From the New-Englander the Hutchinson Family." Frederick Douglass [Rochester, New York] 05 Dec 1850, Volume 3, Issue 50 4. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.