Music sparks so many positive emotions that it’s understandable that it sparks negative emotions, too. Especially new forms of music: listeners are often startled by new rhythms, new language, new forms of expression. “Negro Songs” takes to task the then-new songs of Stephen Foster, who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where The Western Gem and Musician was published. The object of Longley’s diatribe is familiar to modern readers: the words, not the tunes. Today’s critic complains about profanity and insulting images; Longley is concerned about subjects and word choice. Foster’s use of “black dialect” is one problem with—Longley asserts—a simple answer: change the words to standard English. The “problem” with subject can be solved as well: change the subject to something more sentimental.

Longley’s objections seem superficial, and his “solutions” amusing. But there’s a racial aspect to the criticism that adds some complexity. He asserts that songs created by “our woolly headed neighbors” wouldn’t “find publishers nor lodging places in the hearts of civilized people”; when African-Americans sing the “Negro songs,” they “murder” them “most barbarously.” Longley changes the subject of “Old Uncle Ned” from a comically sentimentalized elderly black man to a seriously sentimentalized young (probably white) girl. And race is central to a notion that by imitating blacks, white musicians were “lowering” themselves and becoming like those they were mimicking.

Even without the diatribe, Longley’s piece is a tribute to the popularity of these songs, which Bayard Taylor heard in India, and which were whistled in Italy and sung in England. They were, Longley, pointed out, a form of music “peculiar” to America. And they were popular well into the twentieth century, long after the Western Gem had faded past memory.

For readers unfamiliar with “Old Uncle Ned,” I’ve included the lyrics, transcribed from page images of the 1848 sheet music in the E. Azalia Hackley Collection, online at www.thehackley.org. Like many 19th-century songs about African-Americans, it contains a noxious racial epithet.


http://www.merrycoz.org/voices/NEGROSNG.xhtml
“Negro Songs—American Music,” by Ser. Longley (from The Western Gem and Musician, October 1853; pp. 1-2)

Friend Durham:—I have long looked for some article in your valuable paper, which professes to be devoted to “Genteel Literature and Music,” on the vitiated taste of musicians, and the music-loving portion of community—making, playing, singing and listening to these so-called “Negro Melodies.” In my humble opinion, and that of many of my acquaintances, they disgrace our parlors and concerts, and our streets—words, vulgar, licentious and profane, are sung and hummed from the mouth of all persons in every class of society. Nor is this corrupt practice being done away with, for we see, in the New York Musical World and Times, the A No. 1 musical paper in the United States, that the Negro song, “Old Folks at Home,” was sung by Mddle. Anna Zerr, at one of Julien’s Concerts—an artist of the highest degree, to an audience of literati and aristocracy. And this high-toned paper silently endorses such high-toned sanctioning of vulgarity and profanation. Scarce a voice or pen is raised against such improper taste. Yet where is the good, sober, honest and upright citizen and Christian, who, after examining this subject, will not give Negro songs his most decided condemnation?

I don’t wish it understood that I condemn the music of these songs, however. No! no! far from it—that, it is, which ever brought such words into genteel society. The music is good—it is plain, sweet, melodious, and heart-touching. This it is in fact which affords the charm that has made them an almost National characteristic of ours—and not in our own country alone, where these songs originated, are they favorites, but in all foreign countries where an American may have been or resides. Though the various languages into which the words may be translated, greatly change their characteristics, even so much so that they scarce can be used, yet the tune or melody they take, and sing, whistle, and play as fondly as we.

Bayard Taylor, speaking of his visit to India says, he heard them on the first evening he arrived at Bombay, at a marriage festival. “We have been told by a friend of ours, that when one of our vessels of war touched at Naples, on the evening of her arrival the band as usual performed a number of pieces, selecting our most popular negro melodies. He said, that when the band struck up, first one person, then another, on the shore, would stop, until quite an assemblage had collected, each and all listening with the utmost attention to the strains; at the close of which quite a demonstration of applause was manifested[.] On the next evening, and every evening during the vessel’s stay, crowds of persons would collect on the shore, delighted with the music. In two days after the arrival of the frigate, he added, one could hear all over Naples, ‘Lucy Long,’ ‘Old Dan Tucker,’ ‘Carry me back to Old Virginia,’ hummed and whistled by almost every man and boy in the city.”

And the melodies are now known to be in great favor with the people in England, France and many other countries—wherever they are heard, they are liked. The Portland (Me.,) Eclectic, says,—“It has been said that we are not a musical people, that we have contributed nothing to the general fund of music,—have produced nothing marked or characteristic. It may be so. But what other nation has produced music that has so won upon the popular ear as our so called melodies? Wherever they are heard they are caught up at once, and are on the lips of every one. They are alike favorites in palaces of princes and in the huts of peasants. Staid old gentlemen hum them in their business walks, and ragged urchins whistle them in every lane, while peripatetic minstrels grind them out of their asthmatic instruments in every land. You do not hear the melodies of Germany or Italy in such common use; and as for mother England, she has but one air, and that is the Psalm-like “God save the Queen.” The Germans and the Italians are far in advance of us in all that relates to the mere science of music,—but when you come to the plain and simple melodies, we claim the key that unlocks the universal heart.

I claim also that this music is peculiar to us as a nation; for though those popular refrains purport to be of negro origin, it is not so. They are called negro melodies because they are sung by those who represent the colored race, and are wedded to words which have reference to the present condition of the negro at the south. They are written and composed by our most talented musicians—not one piece out of a hundred ever emanated from the brain of our wooly headed neighbors, either words or music. Such songs as they make and sing, would never find publishers nor lodging places in the hearts of civilized people. I speak now of that class of slaves who do the singing in the South—I have heard and known. Yet many of them

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sing our made songs, and most barbarously do they murder them!

But I am wandering from my intention, which was to speak of the sentiments and words of the melodies. They should demand serious attention of every parent and friend of morality and gentility,—they should demand serious attention of every parent and friend of morality and gentility,—they should come under our ban—corrupt, polluting, degrading, lic[e]ntious, vulgar and irreligious as they are, all, to more or less extent. How many such pieces have I found in family parlors, where worship is wont to go up to our Father above at morn and eve, which, if read aloud [in soberness] before the family, would brin[g] the blush from modesty, and shame from parental guardianship. I might enumerate many such songs, but it is useless—look to them yourselves, children, fathers and mothers—you have not sat under the droppings of the sanctuary for no avail—“judge ye of yourselves that which is meet for the soul.”

Their music is good: affix other words to them and you change their character—are no longer nigger melodies. “Near the Lake where droop’d the willow,” now sung beautifully by fair lips and manly voices in many parlors, was originally a doggerel song, sung in out-of-the-way places. So of a number of other pieces made respectable by being dressed in genteel clothing! Here is “Uncle Ned,” now. He is represented as an old bald-headed fellow, sightless, toothless and with cane-brake fingers,—every way a revolting object. Take the same air and wed it to other words, and what a transformation! Instead of “Uncle Ned,” suppose we make little Nell the burden of the song. Thus:

Our dear little Nelly, she has gone to her rest!

Oh, she died long ago, long ago:

The turf is swelling now over her breast,

And above her the wild flowers grow.

Bend not in sorrow o’er her grave!

God hath but taken what he gave:

Breathe no sigh over our sweet Nell.

She has gone with the angels to dwell!

Something like this would give the fine air a lodging place in every heart. Many other beautiful melodies might be claimed in a similar way. No needs that we sing all our songs of plaintive kind—something mirthful is often good—to laugh is pleasant, natural and healthy. Then it is well that other pieces might be written appropriate to livelier tunes.

“Who’s that knocking at the door,”

I’m a poor old man—oh let me in.

What a beautiful family fireside piece may be made of this—solo, duette, and chorus, representing a poor old man, or benighted stranger out doors knocking. The question, answer, admission, and welcome by the family. And oh! how much more beautiful it would be thus than in its present disgusting garb.

Then, again, that most beautiful and popular melody, “The Old Folks at Home,” about the most genteel piece ever written for an Ethiopian song, where other words are not known to replace—its own may be pruned to sound in much better taste with white girls and boys and even grown people. Let ignorant and uneducated “darkies” sing it as they may, with their “de,” “nebber,” “wha,” “ebber,” “am,” “ebery,” c., &c., for they are not supposed to know better; but you, yes all of you, know better—then speak and sing the words rightly and properly. You will soon like songs much better when sung thus—all of them. There is one thing here I would impress on all of you—it is a “trueism that never fails, that “The nearer we come in imitation, the nearer we are in reality!” Then imitate that which is not beneath but above you. Look at the class of persons who have been engaged long in “Delineating the Ethiopian Character, and Singing,” and you will invariably find their looks, actions, language and conduct, thus—just so good as they are at delineating, so good are they at being. I, myself, have been “through the wars,” and know how long it took to cure my wounds—to erase the scabs and scars. I speak not from hearsay—I know! But those days are past, and I would have others benefit by my advise, [sic] and not learn by experience—it is a hard task-master.

Then, friends, disgrace not your species, society, parlor or family circle by the use of such improper and injurious language. Should you hear a melody that you like, if the words are not good, either cast them aside or erase and replace them with better. Many people may laugh at you for it, but all will honor and respect you for so doing; and your influence will be felt. I have seen this result in my own circle of acquaintances.

The following is the way I would advise my friends to do with their songs in which objectionable words may occur. The words in brackets are the ones to be erased, those in italics to be placed in their stead.—

Way down upon (de) the Sawnee (ribber) river,

Far, far away,

(Dar’s) There’s where my heart is turning (ebber) ever,

(Dar’s) There’s (wha) where (de) the old folks stay.

All up and down (de) the whole creation,

Sadly I roam;

Still longing for (de) the old plantation,

And for (de) the old folks at home.

All (de) the world (am) is sad and dreary,

(Ebr’y) Every where I roam,

Oh! (darkies) dear friends how my heart grows weary,

Far from (de) the old folks at home.

All round (de) the little farm I wander’d,

When I was young,

(Den) Then many happy days I squander’d,

Many (de) the songs I sung

When I was playing with my (brudder) brother,

Happy was I,

Oh! take me to my kind old (mudder) mother,

(Dare) There let me live and die.

One little hut among (de) the bushes,

One (dat) that I love,

Still sadly to my memory rushes,

No matter where I rove.

When will I see (de) the bees a humming,

All round (de) the comb?

When will I hear (de) the music thrumming,

Down in my good old home?

Cincinnati, O.


“Old Uncle Ned,” by Stephen Foster. New York: W. E. Millet, 1848.

Dere was an old nigga dey calld him Uncle Ned

He’s dead long ago long ago

He had no wool on de top oh de head

De place wha de wool ought to grow.

[Chorus]

Den lay down de shubble and de hoe

And hand up de fiddle and de bow.

No more hard work for poor old Ned

Hes gone wha de good niggas go.

His fingers were long like de cane in de brake

He had no eyes for to see

He had no teeffe to eat de oae cake

So he had to luf dat oae cake be.

[chorus]

On a cold frosty morning poor Uncle Ned died

Masters tears down his cheeks ran like rain

Case he knew when poor Ned was under de ground

Hed neber see his like again

[chorus]

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