Appropriation and Activism: “Negro Song” and English Abolitionists c1770–1800

Joncus, Berta. 2019. 'Appropriation and Activism: “Negro Song” and English Abolitionists c1770–1800'. In: American Musicological Society Eighty-fifth Annual Meeting. Boston, United States 31 October - 3 November 2019. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

On 12 May 1789, William Wilberforce gave his famous Abolition Speech in Parliament. In it he reported how a slave ship captain, finding an African woman’s sung lament “too painful”, had silenced her with a threat of flogging. Shortly after Wilberforce’s speech, white authors began writing pro-Abolition “Negro songs” – that is, English music telling an enslaved person’s story. My paper looks at this repertory’s aims and biases. While portraying black peoples as submissive, “Negro Songs” did transmit shocking accounts, draw subjects empathetically, and weld black history to British high-style composition.
Among these “Negro songs”, we can identify three types: slave stories reported, imagined and warped. To 'reported' slave stories belong settings of “The Dying Negro” (1773), Thomas Day's reaction to a press notice of the suicide of an African facing deportation after failing to flee his master while in London. Day adopted the subject’s groans in death as his own. The poem’s success encouraged a song by organist Thomas Beilby, and another by Vauxhall Gardens composer James Hook. Beilby’s setting is dramatic – double-dotted rhythms, octave leaps, many silences and fermatas – while Hook’s is a dirge whose restraint cracks just at the cadence. The song ‘Negro Boy, who was Sold by an African Prince, for a Metal Watch’ (1792) grew likewise from an earlier poem-report in the press that organist Edward Miller clothed in the 'Scotch' style held to typify sincerity.

Slave stories 'imagined' and 'warped' include those derived from William Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint”, a poem he gifted in 1788 to the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slave Trade. This became the Abolitionists’ best-known song, in settings ranging from a common-tune ballad, through to music by “a Female … Amateur” (1793), to a Vauxhall song by (but not for) Charles Dibdin. In 1768 Dibdin had been the first-ever blackface singer-actor; from then on, he egregiously mispresented the “Negro” in self-crafted productions such as _The Wag_. Dibden’s “Complaint” exemplifies his musical carpet-bagging, and how “Negro Songs” could land anywhere on a spectrum from sincerity to gross appropriation.

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Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

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1 November 2019Completed

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Boston, United States

Date range:

31 October - 3 November 2019

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22 Mar 2024 17:25

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23 Mar 2024 00:12


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