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date: 25 August 2019


  • Sandra Jean Graham


From the mid-1830s through the Civil War, abolitionists systematically deployed songs as spiritual weaponry in the fight to eradicate slavery in the United States. Although anti-slavery sentiment was apparent as early as the 1680s, among the Quakers and Mennonites, and gained momentum as anti-slavery legislation was gradually enacted in the North, music became central to the movement only when anti-slavery societies proliferated in the 1830s. With slavery virtually eliminated in the northern states, William Lloyd Garrison engaged northern white abolitionists and African Americans in agitating for slavery’s complete and immediate end, using poetry and music to intensify the evangelical theology and fervor of this moralist crusade. In 1834 he compiled the first anti-slavery songster, A Selection of Anti-Slavery Hymns. To be sung at meetings of the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by Garrison in 1833) and at monthly Concerts of Prayer, the hymns united formal poetry by white authors with a suggested classic hymn tune (such as “Old Hundred” or “Italian Hymn”). The last hymn in the collection was an exception: written in the voice of a slave, it was topical—decrying repatriation to Africa—and was assigned a popular rather than a sacred tune (John Payne Howard’s “Sweet Home,” ...

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