Did York Sing?

Topical Summary: Did York sing? – African culture suppressed – York's "place" – Christianization of slaves – The Second Great Awakening – "Go Down, Moses" – A unique musical genre

Did the men of the Corps of Discovery ever hear York, William Clark's black body servant, sing any of his own peoples' songs? Not that we know of. Even if someone had invited him to sing them, it is probable that he as well as many of his listeners would have considered it ill-mannered if not illegal to do so, despite the sense of brotherhood that they came to share as they worked their way up the Missouri River. From the time slavery was introduced into North America in the early seventeenth century, most slave owners took punitive steps to eradicate all traces of their workers' original African identities, from their personal names to their tribal origins – Yoruba, Ibo, Ashanti, and others. In a conspiracy that amounted to a spiritual and cultural holocaust,1 slave owners deliberately destroyed family ties, languages and religions, and only guardedly allowed some native dancing and singing. A few owners allowed their slaves to sing their own songs and dance their own dances2 but never in the presence of whites. Some were said to have permitted their slaves to sing, but only at a whisper – and never at night for fear it would encourage voodoos and foment rebellion. Some pro-slavery whites convinced one another that the slaves' singing, which everyone had heard about, or even overheard, but few had listened to, merely proved that slaves were happy with their lot.

We know that York had a reputation among the Corps as a good dancer – probably of the style now called "break dancing" – for Clark called attention to in 1805 during the New Year's Day festivities at one of the Mandan villages. He ordered his black "Servent" to dance to Cruzatte's fiddling, "which amused the Croud verry much, and Somewhat astonished them, that So large a man Should be active &c. &."2 However, if York had dared to share any of his own songs with his traveling companions, or even with the Indians they visited, that fact surely would have been worthy of remark, but no such occasion is mentioned anywhere in the journals. Finally, although Clark trusted York with a gun throughout the expedition – an extraordinary privilege for a slave, but for practical purposes every man had to be armed – what we know about the captain's treatment of his personal slave after they returned from the expedition reveals no inclination whatsoever to show any interest in, much less tolerance for, York's traditional music. Clark placed his slaves in the same class as his livestock – they were merely chattel.3

Following the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist missionaries had begun to proselytize among the slave population with special attention to the children of slaves, making use of Psalm and hymn tunes such as those by Isaac Watts. But many slave owners objected to the practice, and progress was slow. By 1800 the conversion of the enslaved population to Christianity had not reached the point where the black spiritual song could have evolved.4 However, a Second Great Awakening began to take root among rural and frontier whites in the 1790s, erupting into the Great Revival of the South with the first outdoor "camp meeting" in July of 1800 in southwestern Kentucky, and the gathering in the summer of 1801 of some 20,000 spiritually impoverished worshippers among the woods on Cane Ridge in Kentucky, a hundred miles east of Louisville. Large, free-wheeling revivals such as that, which often lasted several days and involved numerous preachers, were limited to white participants. Nevertheless, slaves who managed to observe the whites' celebrations imitated them in their own fashion at their own encampments farther back in the woods, unsanctioned by either master or church. Thus the Second Great Awakening provided a fruitful impetus for the merging of white evangelical hymnody with African-American musical traditions. This in turn fostered a steady increase in the proportionate number of Christianized slaves who cultivated the new songs. Whether Clark's slaves ever became Christians or not is unknown, and is unlikely. Clark himself belonged to the Anglican Church, whose clergymen were more conservative than the missionaries of the dissenting sects.

From the perspective of white men and women, early inquiries as to the true substance and spirit of black music were tentative and superficial. The first African-American spiritual to become widely known was brought to the attention of white people by a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, but not until twenty years after the Society's founding in 1840. On October 12, 1861, the Society's weekly newspaper, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, published three of the song's twenty or more two-line verses, plus the refrain "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land. Tell old Pharoah, let my people go." It was a metaphor for the black peoples' plea for deliverance from slavery. A white chaplain, who had heard a group of "contrabands" sing it earlier that year, was told that the song had been sung by Virginia slaves for at least the past nine years.5 There may well have been many other versions of the Biblical story of Yaweh's power-struggle with Pharoah over the Egyptians' captivity of the Israelites, for it held special meaning among slaves. Moses was the Old Testament's most powerful leader and deliverer, surpassing even Jonah and Daniel. It has been said that "Go down, Moses" might have originated in 1831 in honor of Nat Turner, a surrogate Moses and the leader of a brief and unsuccessful slave rebellion.6 An earlier historian asserted that it may have been Bishop Francis Asbury, the anti-slavery Methodist preacher, who in 1797 compared South Carolina with ancient Egypt, and made Moses the patron saint of the slaves.7 But the evidence is entirely anecdotal, and its real origins are lost, possibly forever, in the obscure history of slave music in the United States.

In 1862, "Go Down, Moses" became the first black spiritual to appear in print, both words and music, inaugurating a slightly more transparent era in the history of African-American music. The arrangement was written by Thomas Baker, an English violinist who had come to America from France as the leader of Louis Antoine Jullien's famous touring orchestra. Baker, who probably had never heard the song sung by blacks, set it in a rolling 6/8 meter, which might be the reason it was excluded from the first collection of authentic African-American spirituals, titled Slave Songs of the United States, which was published in 1867. Five years later it appeared in the Fisk University collection, Jubilee Songs, as a plaintive lament in slow 4/4 meter.

After 1900, African-American composers such as Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), and William L. Dawson (1898-1990) arranged and published, many black spirituals, providing a new and appealing body of music for white as well as black choirs in high schools and colleges. More black arrangers and composers followed, expanding the repertoire and steadily enhancing its broad cultural appeal. By the middle of the twentieth century, the large body of black Christians' spiritual songs became a unique genre in American choral music, with a wide cross-cultural appeal.

1. Jon Butler, Becoming America: The Revolution Before 1776 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000), 44.

2. See, for example, the reference to Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph, in "Jefferson the violinist.

3. York may have learned to imitate the dancing of the rest of the men, which probably represented a style of fancy footwork known as clog-dancing (clog is a Gaelic word meaning "time"), later as tap-dancing in 20th-cetury theaters and movies, or more recently as break-dancing. Brought to the Appalachian Mountains from the British Isles in the early 18th century, it featured rhythmical heel-and-toe footwork that strongly emphasized each downbeat.

4. James J. Holmberg, Dear Brother: Letters of William Clark to Jonathan Clark (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002), 13, 189. William E. Foley, Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 168-69. Robert B. Betts, , rev. ed. (Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, with the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, 2000),

5. Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 104, 111, 244-47.

6. "Contrabands" were slaves from Virginia plantations who had escaped their masters' control in 1861 and fled to the nearest haven, Fort Monroe in northern Virginia. Their owners demanded their return, but the commandant of the fort, Major General Benjamin Butler, refused their owners' demands that they be returned, on the grounds they were "contraband of war" and thus were entitled to refuge in the North.

7. Richard Newman, Go Down, Moses: Celebrating the African-American Spiritual (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1998), 68-71.

8. Miles Mark Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States (New York: Citadel Press, 1963), 40.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service's Challenge Cost Share Program