Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Soundtrack for Uncle Tom's Cabin

I'll always remember the first time I heard "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel". I was nineteen and living with my grandparents for the summer. My grandfather was dying of cancer and I wanted to be near him for the last few months of his life. I stayed in the guest bedroom on one end of their mobile home. Though small, the room was clean and comfortable. My grandmother's antique bed, which had belonged to her mother, took up most of the space. I had to turn sideways to get in. It was spread with a bleached-white quilt and had springs.

One hot night, I was sitting cross-legged on the bed, cross-stitching a sampler by lamplight. The window was open. Some classical music was playing softly on the radio...

It was an ordinary moment -- and then, quite suddenly, it was an extra-ordinary moment. Over the radio came a recording of an African American choir singing a spiritual a cappella. It was "Ezekial Saw the Wheel". Even now, seventeen years later, the experience of hearing this song for the first time is still vivid in my mind.

How can I describe it?  Haunting. Soul-stirring. Deep. (Who can say what it means?)
I jumped out of that big springy bed and turned up the volume, then stood transfixed until the last bit of harmony faded to silence.

I made a mental note to purchase the CD, but I never did.
Until a few weeks ago.

As I was preparing to start Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was thinking about how moving African American choral music is and how I wish I could find that one song that made the hair stand on the back of my neck so long ago.

So I consulted my crystal ball  did a quick search online. (Don't you just love how you can listen to samples of songs before you buy music nowadays?) And...

I found it!!!

Not only does this disc have my beloved "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel" it's loaded with other spiritual gems:
From inside the Smithsonian Folkways cover: "African Americans moved out of slavery into freedom with the story of their journey wrapped in the songs they sang."
What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. ~ W.E.B. DuBois
Inside the cover: a picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The songs in this recording were first popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers during the Reconstruction years. In an effort to raise funds for their struggling school, the singers went on a tour of northern cities with the songs they had brought with them out of slavery. "They did not view this sacred repertoire as concert material. It spoke with an inside voice that they could understand."

I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those crude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathe the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with bitterest anguish. ~ Fredrick Douglass

Some of the songs on the recording such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Deep River" are very familiar. Others are not so well known, but every bit as moving. "Listen to the Lambs" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" are down right heart-wrenching. Several others, such as "There is a Balm in Gilead", "Everytime I Feel the Spirit", and -- one of my new favorites -- "Ain't Got Time to Die", send an upbeat, encouraging message. "Steal Away" and "Wade in the Water" are songs which had double meanings for fugitives headed for freedom on the Underground Railroad.The yearning for freedom is present in every song on the disc, but especially pronounced in "Oh Freedom".

File:Brooklyn Museum - A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves - Eastman Johnson - overall.jpg
Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves, by Eastman Johnson
image credit
After a while the singing commenced, to the evident delight of all present...as they sung, some laughed, and some cried, and some clapped hands, or shook hands rejoicingly with each other, as if they had fairly gained the other side of the river.Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

Listen to samples HERE.


  1. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I have read UTC, and I look forward to reading it again with a new experience. And putting it to music is a actually like painting. I have often tried to think of music or art to go with what I am reading - like what music would express how I feel about this? But I have yet to come up with something for Don Quixote or Pilgrims Progress. (Forget Gulliver's Travels.) Nonetheless, that you have been able to do this is wonderful.

  2. :) Thank you Ruth.
    I love how you post images of paintings to depict scenes from the WEM novels on your blog!It's so enriching.

    p.s. Do you think I will still be able to have a well educated mind someday if I skip Gulliver's Travels? I REALLY do not want to read that book.

    1. Do you know what I really want(ed) to do? I want(ed) to be inspired to draw or paint my own ideas from what I read, but I think I am not taking the time to do that right now. Or maybe I am not that inspired, yet.

      BTW, If I never read GT, I do believe I would have never missed anything at all.

    2. Oh! That sounds just heavenly. I hope you DO IT!!

  3. I love your idea of having a soundtrack for Uncle Tom's Cabin! Thanks for sharing samples of the songs -- I really enjoyed listening to them! : )

  4. I'm so glad you enjoyed them Sandy.

    As I was doing research for this post, I was particularly moved by the quote from W.E.B.Dubois -- "...these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world."

    Listening to the songs after spending time with Uncle Tom's Cabin adds so much depth for me.

  5. THANK YOU for posting this, because now I need that CD. I love the songs on it. I don't have a proper education in gospel music, just the odd exposure here and there and a few sung in choir. I learned to sing that Ezekiel song at Girl Scout camp when I was a kid!

  6. I hope you enjoy the CD as much as I have.

  7. The combination of music and novel is wonderful!!! I put a recording on hold at the library that I hope gives me as much depth as you've described.

    In college one of my summer music electives was a course titled "Popular Music in the American Culture" and we spent a lot of time listening and dissecting African American Spirituals and the Blues. I went into the class with no interest in either and left with a rich appreciation of both.

    On a side note, my professor was once the keyboardist for The Kingsmen. Louie, Louie . . .

  8. That is truly fascinating! I just pulled up Louie Louie on youtube. Did your professor ever remark on the lyrics controversy? I just learned of it. (I had a very sheltered youth.)

    I also found some great comic relief after bawling my eyes out this evening over Uncle Tom's Cabin. I tried to embed the video here, but can't figure out how to right now with Baby-Girl on my lap:

    The Misheard Lyrics of "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen

    1. They'd already recorded it before he joined the band, but when we asked him what the lyrics were he just said, "Who knows!"

      Great video, I will forever sing "They never liked the cow I'm waiting for."

    2. "Say, is that a chicken pie on the floor?"


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