Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and 'Slave Songs of the United States' (American Made Music)

By Samuel Charters. 2015. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62846-206-7 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Dina Bennett, Indiana University

[Review length: 1013 words • Review posted on April 13, 2016]


[Cover ofSongs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and 'Slave Songs of the United States']

Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and ‘Slave Songs of the United States’ by Samuel Charters is a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, one of the co-editors of the book Slave Songs of the United States. Published in 1867, the book contains the spirituals created in slavery, or “sorrow songs,” sung by newly freed slaves of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Assisted by William Francis Allen and Charles Pickard Ware, McKim Garrison was the first to think of gathering the songs together for a book, but all three editors believed in the value of the spirituals and were determined that they should be heard.

Charters’ purpose for writing Songs of Sorrow was to provide a biography of “Miss McKim,” the lesser known of the three music collectors. Drawing heavily from the disciplines of history, oral history, ethnomusicology, geography, and biographical studies, the book contains a total of sixteen chapters that chronologically present the life of Lucy McKim Garrison and the making of Slave Songs of the United States, “the first book devoted to slave music to appear in the United States” (255). The author’s use of correspondence letters that exist between McKim Garrison and her lifelong friend Ellen Wright, who eventually became her sister-in-law, reveals a lot about McKim Garrison’s personal life-history path, as well as the historical, political, and sociocultural milieu of the day.

Each chapter begins with a poem and/or verse from some of the most prominent writers of the day, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. Several chapters bear the title of spirituals collected in Port Royal, the main harbor of the Sea Islands. For instance, chapter 6, “De Northmen, dey’s got massa now,” are “verses sung by slave rowers as they rowed their master to imprisonment by Union soldiers following the capture of Port Royal, South Carolina, on November 7, 1861” (82); and chapter 8, “Poor Rosy, Poor Gal,” is a work song of the Freedmen of Port Royal collected and arranged by McKim Garrison (115).

Chapters 1 through 5 discuss the McKim family history and the context for collecting the spirituals, which was during the early years of the Civil War (1861-1865). Born into a Philadelphia abolitionist Quaker family, McKim Garrison was the daughter of abolitionist James Miller McKim and Sarah McKim. In 1862, when she was nineteen years old, she journeyed with her father to the Sea Islands of South Carolina to assist him in his work on behalf of the Port Royal Relief Committee in Philadelphia. The committee’s purpose was “to aid efforts to feed, educate and care for nearly 1000 newly freed slaves who had been abandoned on St. Helena Island” because of the Union occupation of Port Royal and the collapse of the plantations (4-5).

Chapters 6 through 8 explore McKim Garrison’s experiences at Port Royal while living on nearby St. Helena Island, the largest of the Sea Islands. Of particular importance are her encounters with Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, two Northern abolitionists and missionaries who assisted the freed blacks of the area. In 1852 they established the first school for Freedmen. Named for Towne’s home state of Pennsylvania, the Penn School remained an active educational institution until 1948 when the state took over public education. In 1974, the historic campus of the Penn School was designated a National Historic Park District.

Chapters 8 through 11 focus on McKim Garrison’s publication of two arrangements of spirituals she collected at Port Royal. “Poor Rosy, Poor Gal” and “Roll, Jordan Roll” were published in 1862 in Dwight’s Journal, a leading musical journal of the time. In 1865 she married Wendell Phillips Garrison, son of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and founder and literary editor of the journal The Nation.

Chapters 12-13 detail the actual making of Slave Songs of the United States. In collecting the “sorrow songs,” McKim Garrison walked the former slave quarters, sat in their cabins, and listened to their stories and “wild sad songs” (104). She listened to the singing of the Freedmen while they worked and played, and she attended praise meetings and church services while recording and transcribing her observations. As an accomplished pianist and performer, she was particularly skilled at transcribing the spirituals and their lyrics as well as arranging them for public consumption. Comprised of a thirty-eight-page introduction, 136 songs, a list of the songs, the “Directions for Singing,” and an “Editor’s Note,” Slave Songs of the United States “fulfilled the dream she had expressed of publishing a collection of slave songs” (194-195).

Chapters 14 through 16 chronicle McKim Garrison’s illness and death. In 1877, after suffering numerous miscarriages and having two healthy children, she suffered a paralytic stroke and never recovered. She died on May 11, 1877, at 34 years of age.

The book concludes with three appendices that include a description of and commentary on Slave Songs; musical arrangements for “Poor Rosy, Poor Gal” and “Roll, Jordan Roll” for voice and piano collected and arranged by McKim Garrison; and unsigned journal and book reviews by her and her husband Wendell Garrison, and Charlotte Forten, an African American teacher at the Penn School. In addition, the book includes three sections of illustrations that feature photos of McKim Garrison’s family; her two co-editors William Francis Allen and Charles Pickard Ware; and photos of the historical buildings on St. Helena Island that still exist today. Special consideration is given to a section titled “Prominent Abolitionists” that features the photos of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Robert Purvis, an African American abolitionist.

Overall, Charters’ book is a comprehensive biography that recounts the life and experiences of Lucy McKim Garrison as well as the making of Slave Songs of the United States. As the first book to acknowledge the beauty and poignancy of the “sorrow songs” that emerged from the experience of slavery, the book’s first edition sold out “its copies within weeks after its publication” (10). It faded in popularity until it was republished in the 1920s, and has been continually in print since then.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.