Why was music so important in the early to mid nineteenth century to slaves?
Music was important to slaves in the 19th century because it provided a way for slaves to pass their history, stories, and struggle from generation to generation. In many colonies, especially in the south, it was illegal for slaves to learn to read or write. Without these skills, they couldn’t pass history from generation to generation. In response to this, slaves used spirituals such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as both way to preserve their history, as well as a way to keep time during the grueling pace of daily slave life. As demonstrated in the novel Nightjohn, music was the only way to achieve this cross-generational communication. Any slave who learns to read or write was often met with violence, as with Nightjohn’s disfigurement by the hands of Waller for demonstrating knowledge of reading and writing, and sometimes even death.
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