The Long Song of Democracy, Freedom and Slavery

This post comes from Dr Catherine Bateson, a lecturer and tutor of US history, specializing in 19th century American history, Civil War history, and Irish American musical culture. She is the Vice Chair of the Scottish Association for the Study of America and the co-founder of the War Through Other Stuff Society. Dr Bateson spent the first semester of 2018-19 teaching US history at the University of Gloucestershire.

Recently the BBC aired its dramatisation of Andrea Levy’s successful 2010 story The Long Song (still available on iPlayer at the time of writing). Over three nights, Levy’s tale of the slave girl July unfolded, detailing life before and after emancipation on Jamaica in the 1830s. It was an evocative series, capturing unflinching assessment of Caribbean slavery’s brutality, the events of the 1831 Baptist War slave revolt, abolition, and the reshaping of relations after the system of chattel bondage ended but its trappings and infrastructure remained. While it may be set in the Caribbean and focus on colonial British slavery developments, as an American nineteenth century historian I couldn’t help but watch this series without feeling a sense of familiarity.

July in The Long Song (BBC 2018)

Much of what The Long Song depicts – especially in regard to plantation life, slave/master relations and a reconstructed labour environment after the end of slavery – echoes developments a few hundred miles away in the southern United States. That sense of familiarity increased having just completed lecturing on the university’s Democracy, Freedom and Slavery course (HM4406). Its lectures and seminars assess the sweep of American history from the nation’s independence in 1776 through to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. More than just a survey course on eighteenth and nineteenth century history, each week is designed to focus on developments, debates, inclusions and exclusions, practical realities, ideals, unresolved issues and tensions – topics which all relate to how the concepts of American democracy and freedom were shaped.

The area with the most impact was the final part of course title – Slavery. From exploration of slavery and abolition’s developments, to discussion of the veracity of slave history sources and personal narratives; to analysis of the way in which slaves faced abuse but also rebelled and shaped their own lives within chattel bondage, and to how slave history has become central to American historical scholarship – no stone of American slavery studies was left uncovered. Many of these aspects could all be found within The Long Song as well. For instance, while the system of slavery is still in place in the first episode, July and her fellow house slaves are depicted in tight kinship network families – something slave historians have argued were in place on American plantations. Slaves also engage in examples of day-to-day resistance to their bondage. July deliberately picks the pearls off dresses and slaves work at their own slower pace. In one amusing moment, they deliberately place a bed-sheet on the dining table instead of smarter Irish linen, much to the embarrassment of plantation owner and her dinner guests.

All of these fictional incidents have real-life contemporary counterparts on plantations throughout North America, South America and the Caribbean. One of the best historical studies on day-to-day resistance in America comes from the Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust, whose work on South Carolina slaveholder James Henry Hammond details how his slaves engaged in regular acts of personal disobedience, including a notable habit of tapping the plantation cellar’s wine and alcohol supplies. The examples, historians have argued, serve as a reminder that slaves had moments of power within plantation systems, while having no democracy and freedom in their own right.

James Henry Hammond’s Redcliffe Plantation, South Carolina – where his slaves engaged in day-to-day passive resistance to their bondage in the mid-1800s

However, beyond its similarities to American plantation slave life and emancipation’s aftermath, The Long Song also resonated with aspects of the nineteenth century history I research. The clue is in the story’s title: July narrates her life as if it is one long ballad song, with interjecting slave voices telling parts of their own tale, weaved into a lyrical narrative history. Near the conclusion, she notes that these forgotten slave stories – each personal account and experience – should be remembered, sung and re-sung from generation to generation. It ties in with the background use of slave work and spiritual songs throughout, which the film adaption of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years A Slave does similarly. Using song to tell the history of a culture, resistance, hope and sorrow is embedded in the slave experience.

Songs that sang of freedom, democracy and many of the topics related to HM4406 could also be heard amongst white immigrant communities in mid-nineteenth century. This is particularly the case with the group I study: the Irish who served in the American Civil War. In one ballad example, Battle of Bull Run, written to commemorate the role of Irish soldiers fighting at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, lyrics noted how these men had ‘gone to fight a glorious cause’ to keep the United States of America together. They were ‘to defend the Flag and Union, the Government and its laws’ against southern Confederate secession. On countless battlefields of the war, immigrant soldiers’ blood ‘flowed where Freedom bled’ according to the Confederate Irish song Erin’s Dixie. Both sides extolled justifications for service and the war, but Irish American Civil War songs were mostly mute in relation to any broad anti-slavery sentiments (due to complicated racial relations between the Irish and African Americans). Overwhelmingly, two hundred songs written by and about the Irish wartime experience focused on singing about American democratic republicanism and liberty. Lyrics highlighted how they were fighting for ‘our’ homes and nation – the United States and all of its appealing democratic ideals that had been passed on and lauded since the country’s founding.

Battle of Bull Run (New York: James Wrigley, 1861)

Lecturing on HM4406, watching The Long Song and thinking about my research simultaneously has left me with two interconnecting impressions about the role of culture to tell history and the use of culture to show how contemporaries expressed their historical experiences. Songs detailed the lives of Irish soldiers in the Civil War, and they also detailed the life of slaves on plantations across America and the Caribbean. They are forms of lyrical literature with voices that sit alongside and complement more traditional written sources. They aid historians’ understanding of different views and wider artistic articulations of society and everyday life for communities. Yet these examples also emphasise the role of modern culture to tell these history – The Long Song is fiction, though rooted in true examples. 12 Years A Slave and both versions of Roots (perhaps the best non-fiction comparisons to The Long Song) provide the most accurate adaptations of slave experiences on screen. All of these are helping inspire historians to engage further with scholarship on cultural history and on using cultural history as part of wider studies.

While fictionalised history may also serve as a form of escapism, they also reveal issues that have a very long and unfinished history to this day. As July says in the conclusion of The Long Song, these tales are like songs of lives ‘that are now lost but…should never be forgotten’. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to observing how the battle for American racial inclusivity, democracy and freedom goes on into the twenty-first century.


Neil Wynn says:

Interesting discussion … the obvious link to make perhaps might be with slave song – gospel songs. How odd that English rugby supporters sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”!! Even religion and hymns could subvert the white domination. what would be interesting too would be to consider how slavery differed between USA and Caribbean perhaps? Another course there ….!

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