Tag Archives: Slavery

Learning About Russia from the Songs of its Slaves

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.

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