Amanda Bellows, writing on the New York Times Opinionator blog (click the link for an audio comparison of American and Russian slave songs):
Frederick Douglass spent much of his life speaking about the hardships of slavery — but even he, at times, realized that words were not enough. Instead, he turned to music: “The mere hearing of [slave] songs,” he said, revealed the “physical cruelties of the slave system; for the heart has no language like song.” Today, spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” and “God’s Going to Trouble the Water” continue to convey American slaves’ anguish, frustration and hope.
Less familiar to Americans, however, is the music of Russia’s serfs, who were emancipated in 1861, on the eve of President Lincoln’s inauguration. Although the slaves and serfs were separated by vast distances and significant historical experiences, each group endured years of bondage by turning to song. Likening the songs of Russian serfs to those of American slaves, early 20th-century actor and slave descendent Paul Robeson observed that both groups had “an instinctive flair for music … [a] faculty born in sorrow.” But their musical traditions have striking differences, too — differences that help us understand the contrasts between the two systems.
Common types of American slaves’ songs include work songs, sacred spirituals and social songs, a category comprised of narratives, ballads and dance songs. Pre-20th-century Russian folk songs consist of ritual songs, which relate to changing seasons or holidays, and family ceremonial songs, sung during weddings or funerals. Serfs also sang non-ritual songs, which included all other types of folk music, like historical epics, dance songs and work songs.
Both groups sang work songs as they labored in the fields; for both, such songs moderated the pace of labor. When African-American slaves hoed corn, for example, they sang songs like “Shock Along John” and “Round the Corn Sally.” These tunes, found in the 1867 volume “Slave Songs of the United States,” contain only two lines per verse and are repetitive and cadenced. In the hayfields, Russian serfs sang rhythmic pokos, or hay-making songs, to regulate the movement of their scythes.
The synchronization of action through song was crucial for physically challenging tasks. In Russia, groups of 50 to 125 serfs were harnessed to boats and forced to pull them upriver. A brutal job, barge-hauling was despised by all. Serfs endured this work by singing a song known as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” or “Hey, Ukhnem.” “Ukhnem” translates to the English equivalent of “heave-ho,” and comes from the “ukh” sound that serfs made with each collective tug. As the serfs pulled in unison, this song coordinated their efforts.
American slaves employed song in a parallel way as they rowed together. In early-19th-century Savannah, the observer John Lambert recorded that four slaves rowed “to a boat-song of their own composing. The words were given out by one of them, and the rest joined the chorus. … The tune of this ditty was rather monotonous, but had a pleasing effect, as they kept time with it at every stroke of their oars.”
Such songs were an integral part of the serfs’ and slaves’ daily lives. Music served both a practical and a creative purpose as it helped slaves labor in unison and entertained them during, as one serf described it, the “heavy, monotonous work [that] much dulled [the] mind.” Nineteenth-century observers noted the exceptional musical talent of both groups when they sang, danced or played musical instruments. The serfs and slaves each performed solo and group songs, employed forms of call and response, and danced as they sang.
Differences in sound were marked, however: American slaves created songs with complex overlapping rhythms that were enhanced by vocal performances of swooping, moaning and shouting, while Russian folk music was characterized by its dissonant heterophony and deep, resonant sound.
The content differed as well. Both groups drew strength from their Christian faith in times of anguish and joy. The lyrics and style of Protestant hymns were well-known to slaves, who sometimes attended church with their masters or participated in camp meetings. Blending African and Western musical traditions, however, American slaves created wholly original songs – spirituals – that are filled with religious language, symbols and ideas.
Rephrasing stories from the Old Testament in spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” slaves linked their bondage to that of the Israelites in Egypt. Inspired by New Testament stories as well, slaves sang spirituals like “Run to Jesus,” “I am Bound for the Promised Land” and “Steal Away,” which brought slaves hope of salvation in the mortal world and the divine.
Barely concealed messages lay embedded within the lines of these songs. In “Go Down, Moses,” slaves sang: “No more shall they in bondage toil,/Let my people go;/Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,/Let my people go.” Other spirituals like “Steal Away” functioned as direct invitations to flee. Phrases like “I hain’t got long to stay here./Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus” served as a signal for potential runaway slaves. Christianity helped American slaves create a body of music that was both spiritually elevating and powerfully subversive, offering hope of heavenly peace or earthly escape.
The serfs’ ritual songs, on the other hand, anticipated the occurrence of events or marked holidays and seasonal changes. For example, folk songs sung during Maslenitsa, or Shrovetide, the week-long period preceding Lent, contain themes of nature and fertility. In the song “We’re Waiting for Maslenitsa,” serfs sang: “We’re waiting for Maslenitsa,/We’re waiting, my dear, we’re waiting./We’ll treat ourselves with cheese and butter,/we’ll treat, my dear, we’ll treat./On the hill stands a green oak tree,/A green oak tree, my dear, a green oak tree.” During their celebration, serfs feasted on special foods as they prayed for the swift arrival of spring, with its green oaks and abundant flowers.
One fascinating difference between slaves’ spirituals and serfs’ sacred folk songs is that while American slaves often sang about escape or emancipation, Russian serfs rarely did. According to the Russian scholar V. Ja. Propp, the number of songs that addressed the travails of serfdom was almost negligible when compared to the vast array of other types of folk songs.
What accounts for this surprising difference? Surely serfs did not prefer to remain enslaved? For one thing, serfs may have been hesitant to share subversive music with transcribers, or tsarist censorship might have prevented the publication of such music.
A more convincing answer is that a “free North” did not exist for the 23 million serfs who composed 40 percent of the Russian nation in 1860. Serfdom was concentrated in Russia’s central and western provinces, but was legal throughout. Deterrents to serfs who considered flight included both the great distance from central Russia to its borderlands, where serfdom was less common, and the threat of capture once there. The Yale scholar John MacKay argues that an absence of sectionalism in Russia accounts for a general lack of an idea of a “land of liberty” in serf consciousness. Perhaps serfs viewed acts of insubordination or rebellion as more viable alternatives to escape; the existence of several Russian folk songs praising serf uprisings supports this theory.
By contrast, slaves comprised approximately 13 percent of the American population in 1860, where slavery was legal in only about half the country. Viewing the free Northern states and Canada as viable safe havens, slaves sang more frequently about escape than insurrection, revealing their abiding desire to “steal away” to a concrete destination where other blacks lived freely under the protection of law.
Each group’s musical heritage was as unique as its conditions of bondage. Although Russian serfs and American slaves employed work songs in comparable ways, American slaves were singularly inspired to sing of their desire for earthly and heavenly escape. But for both groups, music ultimately served as a shared outlet of expression. Their songs were, in the words of Douglass, “like tears … a relief to aching hearts.”