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Old Folks at Home - cover sheet music

[Detail] Old Folks at Home - sheet music

Slavery, Abolitionism, and Sectionalism

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of a woman being chased across a river

"Eliza's Flight/by E.J. Loder" is one of numerous songs inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin.

The collection includes sheet music that helps to illustrate the growing sectionalism of the pre-Civil War era. The "Southern Rights March," an 1853 piano composition, helps to illustrate how sectionalism became one of the themes exploited in the sale of sheet music before the Civil War. Songs calling for the abolition of slavery also became more numerous in the decade before war's outbreak.

The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 aroused Southern ire, as demonstrated in the lyrics of "Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe." The song ridiculed Stowe during her book tour of England and reiterated the argument that abolitionists condemned slavery in the South while failing to denounce wage slavery in the industrial north and abroad.

"Ole Massa's very kind, Ole Missu's kind at home too,
Now I'll go back and stay dar, and never more to roam,
Lor bless de Southern Ladies, and my old Virginny home,
But don't come back, Aunt Harriet, in England make a fuss,
Go talk against your country, put money in your puss,
And when us happy niggers, you pit in your prayer,
Oh! Don't forget de White slave, dat starving ober dare. Chorus:
O! O! Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe, How
could you leave de country, and serve poor nigga so."

From "Aunt Harriet Becha Stowe"

  • How did the lyricist ridicule Harriet Beecher Stowe?
  • What image of slavery did he wish to portray?

Abolitionists also used Uncle Tom's Cabin to marshal public support for their cause. Asa Hutchinson of the popular Hutchinson Family Singers, along with Eliza Cook (lyricist) drew on one of Stowe's characters in the novel to express opposition to slavery in "Little Topsy's Song." G. C. Howard's "moral drama" based on the novel featured a song he composed for his wife who, in the role of Topsy, sang "Oh! I'se So Wicked."

A Keyword Search using the phrase Uncle Tom's Cabin will produce a variety of compositions based on characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. Why do you think so many songwriters were inspired by this novel? Can you think of another novel that has spawned a large number of songs?

Cover of sheet music with an illustration of three men and a woman posing

"The Old Granite State," the Hutchinson Family Singers' signature song. The Hutchinsons were one of the nation's first popular musical groups. Their calls for emancipation sometimes brought out angry proslavery crowds, but the group remained popular.

The popular Hutchinson Family Singers composed and performed songs related to political and social issues, including temperance, women's suffrage, war, Congressional pay, and, perhaps most notably, slavery. . "The Millenium" and "Slavery Is a Hard Foe to Battle" were among the emancipation songs popularized by the Hutchinsons. They often opened abolitionist meetings with their compositions. Frederick Douglass, in an introduction to Story of the Hutchinsons (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1896), wrote that the Hutchinsons "were an acquisition to the anti-slavery cause and to all other good causes." The family opened most of their concerts with "The Old Granite State," their signature song.

The Hutchinsons admired Henry Clay and actively supported his campaigns for the presidency although it became difficult for them to reconcile Clay's support for slavery with their convictions as abolitionists. Jesse Hutchinson included a verse in the song "Harry of the West," which they had dedicated to Henry Clay, indicating that the days of slavery were numbered.

"For th' glorious day is coming now
When Wrong shall be redressed;
And Freedom's Star shine bright and clear
On 'Harry of the West.'"

From "Harry of the West"

  • What message was presented in the lyrics to "Slavery Is a Hard Foe to Battle"? Why do you think this song and "The Millenium" were popular with abolitionists?
  • Why might John Hutchinson have felt compelled to express his support for emancipation in "Harry of the West"?
  • What moral values did the Hutchinson Family Singers invoke in the abolitionist songs they performed? How might invoking such values have been an effective technique for swaying public opinion?

A number of songs written during the period called attention to the pain and suffering imposed by enslavement, without calling for abolition or emancipation. Examples include "They've Sold Me Down the River, The Negro Father's Lament" and "Darling Nelly Gray." Although often written in the first person, as if the words were being spoken by an African American, these songs were written and performed by whites. Similarly, minstrel songs reflected white composers' views based on their perception of African American life and often used, or invented, Negro dialect to appeal to white audiences by playing upon popularly accepted racial stereotypes. Minstrels were white performers who performed in "black face," presenting musical numbers, comedy routines, and tall tales. Daddy Rice, an early blackface performer, popularized the character "Jim Crow," whose name was later used to designate racial segregation. The sheet music of the Christy Minstrels , one of the most widely known minstrel troupes, often pictured derogatory images of African Americans. A Keyword Search using the phrase Christy Minstrels will generate more than 100 of the troupe's minstrel songs. The section on "Images of African Americans" in the special feature "Music Copyrighted in Federal District Courts, ca. 1820-1860" also provides useful information on the musical depiction of African Americans.