Continuation of the Slave Song

By: Rachana Mallavarapu and Komal Bandar


  • Negro Spirituals

    • a kind of religious song associated with black Christians of the Southern US, and thought to derive from the combination of European hymns and African musical elements by black slaves

    • Morrison’s book, Beloved, is a contribution to the Negro Spirituals so the continuation of the slave song

    • The lyrics of negro spirituals were tightly linked with the lives of their authors: slaves. While work songs dealt only with their daily life, spirituals were inspired by the message of Jesus Christ and his Good News (Gospel) of the Bible, “You can be saved”. They are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave.

      • Religious

      • Work Songs

      • Recreational Songs

      • Underground Railroad

12 years a slave - choir song - ''roll jordan roll'' 2013

Engagement Activity

Why do you think these songs had such a great impact on black culture?

Is there a song that defines or help defines you?

Quote 1

  • “By the time they unhitched him from the wagon and he saw nothing but dogs and two shacks in the world of sizzling grass, the roiling blood was shaking him to and fro. But no one could tell. The wrists he held out for the bracelets that evening were steady as were the legs he stood on when chains were attached to the leg irons. But when they shoved him into the box and dropped the cage door down, his hands quit taking instruction. On their own, they traveled. Nothing could stop them or get their attention.”

    • Paul D is almost getting buried alive; his prison cell is more or less like a coffin in the ground.

    • Horrors and abuse of slavery

Quote 2 and 3

  • “Lay my bead on the railroad line,
  • Train come along, pacify my mind.

    If I had my weight in lime,

    I'd whip my captain till he went stone blind.

    Five-cent nickel,

    Ten-cent dime,

    Busting rocks is busting time.

  • But they didn't fit, these songs. They were too loud, had too much power for the little house chores he was engaged in-- resetting table legs; glazing. He couldn't go back to "Storm upon the Waters" that they sang under the trees of Sweet Home, so he contented himself with mmmmmmmmm, throwing in a line if one occurred to him, and what occurred over and over was ‘Bare feet and chamomile sap,/ Took off my shoes; took off my hat.’" (Morrison 48-49)

Quote 4

  • “Loaves and fishes were His powers—they did not belong to an ex-slave who had probably never carried one hundred pounds to the scale, or picked okra with a baby on her back. Who had never been lashed by a ten-year-old whiteboy as God knows they had. Who had not even escaped slavery—had, in fact, been bought out of it by a doting son and driven to the Ohio River in a wagon—free papers folded between her breasts (driven by the very man who had been her master, who also paid her resettlement fee—name of Garner), and rented a house with two floors and a well from the Bodwins—the white brother and sister who gave Stamp Paid, Ella and John clothes, goods and gear for runaways because they hated slavery worse than they hated slaves.”

    • The tendency to use suffering and trauma as a way of feeling superior to other people who have supposedly experienced less

Quote 5

  • “‘The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So, Denver, you can't never go there. Never. Because even though it's all over--over and done with--it's going to always be there waiting for you. That's how come I had to get all my children out. No matter what.’" (Morrison 43-44)

Quote 6 and 7

  • “They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.”

  • “And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot meal cake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head.”

    • Overcoming hardships

Quote 8

  • Bare feet and chamomile sap. Took off my shoes; took off my hat. Bare feet and chamomile sap Gimme back my shoes; gimme back my hat. Lay my head on a potato sack, Devil sneak up behind my back. Steam engine got a lonesome whine; Love that woman till you go stone blind. Stone blind; stone blind. Sweet Home gal make you lose your mind.

Quote 9

  • Even the song that she used to sing to Denver she sang for Beloved alone: "High Johnny, wide Johnny, don't you leave my side, Johnny."

    • Concentration on Beloved

    • Doesn't want Beloved to ever leave again

      • The guilt is killing her

      • Remembers slavery

        • What she’s been through

Quote 10

  • I will never leave you again

Don't ever leave me again

You will never leave me again

You went in the water

I drank your blood

I brought your milk

You forgot to smile

I loved you

You hurt me

You came back to me

You left me

I waited for you

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine

Literary Criticism

"Truth in Timbre: Morrison's Extension of Slave Narrative Song in Beloved"

BY: Peter Capuano

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  • Beloved is a continuation of a slave song because even after they are free from slavery, the memories of the traumatizing experiences haunt her, which makes Seethe think of what she has been through for the rest of her life

    • The memories never leave her

  • Many of the songs carried on from the time of slavery do not discuss the time after slavery, and that is exactly what Morrison addresses
  • Slave Songs used as a way to overcome the hardships they were going through

Connection to Other Novels

  • A Passage to India

    • Treatment of Indians

    • Being a contribution for equality

  • To the Lighthouse

    • How the arts play a part in the expression of the story

    • Music and storytelling in Beloved

    • Art and writing in To the LIghthouse

Discussion Questions

  • Why is Seethe still not free from the memories that haunt her?

  • What is the significance of Beloved’s return?

  • Why is Beloved “not a story to pass on” and why did they forget her?

  • What is the purpose in changing the lyrics of the slave songs?

  • How do the slave songs from the past connect to the trauma in the present?

Work Cited

  • Capuano, Peter J., "Truth in Timbre: Morrison's Extension of Slave Narrative Song in Beloved" (2003). Faculty Publications -- Department of English. Paper 87.

  • "Songs." Song Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.