Emancipated Voices: Online Recordings Tell of Slavery
Fri Jan 16 15:09:35 EST 2004
Emancipated Voices: Online Recordings Tell of Slavery
By Linton Weeks
Deep, resonant like coming thunder is the voice of Bob Ledbetter as he
remembers his life as a slave -- singing to pass the time, learning to
read and write, joining the church and getting married.
"Well, how have you got along so well in life?" the interviewer asks
Ledbetter in a 1940 conversation in Louisiana. "What's been your
In his rumbling tone, Ledbetter replies: "I know what's right and I
tried my best to do what's right in everything I do."
Beginning today people the world over will be able to listen to
interviews with Ledbetter and other former slaves through the online
presentation "Voices From the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their
Stories" on the Library of Congress's American Memory Web site
One of the most amazing encounters is with Wallace Quarterman, who was
interviewed in the mid-1930s. At age 87, he is sometimes difficult to
understand when he speaks. He says at one point that he remembers being
told that the Yankees were coming and he should run down to the field
and let all the slaves go free.
But he is eerily clear when he sings "Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land."
He and others, in intricate harmony, sing: "My God is the rock in the
weary land. Shelter in the time of storm."
The words are comforting when you read them; chilling when you hear
Nearly two dozen people are interviewed. Many of the recordings --
most cut on scratchy 78 rpm discs -- have not been released before.
Most of the reminiscences come from elderly men. Billy McCrea,
questioned when he was 89, remembers seeing a group from the North set
up a Freedmen's Bureau in a southern town.
Another former slave tells an interviewer: "I got my name from
President Jeff Davis. He was president of the Southern Confederacy. He
owned my grandfather and my father."
The recordings are important because we can hear the oppression.
Michael Taft, head of the library's archive of folk culture, says,
"These are the only voices we have from a defining era in American
He adds: "These are the stories of people's lives who grew out of
Reams of written documents regarding slavery, mostly from field
historians of the Works Progress Administration, are kept in the
library's American Folklife Center and are available on the Web at the
American Memory site, Taft says. But those interviewers used dictation
and could not always be faithful to what was being said.
The newly released digital recordings are raw and fresh, straight from
wellspring. The quality is sometimes poor, and here and there words are
swallowed or unintelligible. There are transcripts on the site for every
recording. The beauty, Taft says, is that the recordings "are the only
way you hear how they expressed themselves."
It is an eerie feeling as you sit in the gray glow of your computer and
hear Charlie Smith, reported to be well over 100 years old when he was
interviewed, tell of other slaves wanting to throw him off a ship as he
sailed from Africa to America. "I was a child, a boy," he says.
His tone is rhythmic, slow. He talks on and on and his voice is
crackling, yet resolute, like a rusted gate hinge.
He was tricked onto the slave ship, he tells the interviewer, by
promises of pancakes.
At one point during the crossing, he says matter-of-factly, folks were
yelling: " 'Throw him overboard!' I was in cuffs. 'Throw him overboard,
let the damn whale swallow him like he done Jonah.' "
Smith was interviewed in Florida by historian Elmer Sparks. The other
15 interviewers include notable writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and
folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax.
John Lomax, you learn from listening, could be an abrasive
interrogator. At one point he snaps at Ledbetter, "Louder. Sing it
louder." Ledbetter, with a meek, dulcet air, complies.
"No soap, no starch," Ledbetter trills with a haunting wistfulness.
"Nobody, nobody to wash my clothes. Nobody to wash my clothes."
He tells Lomax, "I hate to sing to anybody. My voice, it, it broke."
The site is handsome, as is nearly every Web presentation the library
creates. It takes a while to understand the site's navigation, but the
investment of time and techno-patience is worth it.
Nearly seven hours of material is available. The recordings were made
between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states.
Washingtonian Roscoe E. Lewis, working with the WPA and the Federal
Writers' Project, made three recordings of former slaves for the state
of Virginia. He and a group of 16 African American chroniclers also put
to paper hundreds of oral histories and, in 1940, published "The Negro
Nine of the newly available recordings were produced by the American
Dialect Society. The rest come from various sources. The site features
28 songs sung by former slaves.
More than 2,000 additional interviews, compiled by the Federal Writers'
Project, are also in the library's collection and available online
through the American Memory Web site.
But if you want to hear real people speaking in real voices, you can
use your ears and your computer's media player.
The introduction to the library's presentation, on the site's home
page, reminds listeners that most of the recorded interviews took place
long after the subjects had been in slavery.
Slavery is the recurring theme, but the men and women also discuss
their lives after bondage and the changing society around them.
Interviewer John Henry Faulk, a renowned storyteller from Austin,
caught up with Laura Smalley in Hempstead, Tex., in 1941. She remembered
eating with other slave children from a long, wooden trough-like tray.
Smalley's voice is like a fast-moving train, sometimes sounding like
two voices melded into one -- an older woman and a younger girl.
She refers to herself as "a great big girl" and "a big old girl" at
times in the interview.
At one point Smalley is asked what her family did after the
Emancipation Proclamation. "Mama and them didn't know where to go, you
see, after freedom broke," Smalley says. "Just turned, just like you
turn something out, you know. Didn't know where to go. That's just where
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