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In Song: Sounds of Slavery


As Professor Horton just mentioned, the enslaved Americans often and regularly resisted their enslavement. They rebelled. They ran away. But for those who remained captive, what was life really like? Not just the brutality, but the everyday tasks of picking cotton, chopping tobacco, nursing other people's children.

Scholars have long noted how enslaved Africans continue the African tradition of working to the rhythms of songs. And in the new world, those songs told their stories.

In the book "The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African-American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech," authors Shane White and Graham White include an 18-track CD of recordings. Most of these songs are from the 1930s, vocalized by folk artists who heard these tunes from former slaves.

Here's a track called "Oh, If Your House Catches Fire." It's a levy camp holler performed by Willie Henry Washington at Conan State Farm in Varner, Arkansas in 1939.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, If Your House Catches Fire")

Mr. WILLIE HENRY WASHINGTON (Singer): (Singing) Oh, if your house catches fire, ain't no water around (unintelligible). Throw your (unintelligible) out the window, let it burn down. You can always yell (unintelligible). You can't get hold to the good old captain, (unintelligible). Just walk and go home. (unintelligible) why can't we promise each other (unintelligible)? I wouldn't leave you brother, not going to go nowhere. (unintelligible) Oh, I don't see no fire, going to burn it down. Oh, thank you captain (unintelligible). Pardon me my lady, (unintelligible) another chance. You can't always (unintelligible), girl don't want you 'round.

MARTIN: That was "Oh, If Your House Catches Fire" sung by Willie Henry Washington from the 1939 recording made in Varner, Arkansas.

We'll continue our series looking back at slavery on this 200th anniversary of the abolition of the international slave trade later this week when we look at the world of Quakers in the Underground Railroad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.