"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen"
Lead Belly. Lead Belly: The Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. 5: Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. CD 1098. Rounder Records, 1994 [Recorded 1939-1943]. CD 6588 v.5

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Hymns: Nobody Knows the Trouble I See

The origins of spirituals remain obscure, but this musical genre dates back to the beginnings of African-American sacred folk traditions. From 1788, when the First African Church in Savannah, Georgia, became the earliest independent African-American congregation in the country, worship services incorporated the spirituals. In addition to singing traditional Protestant hymns, African-American churches embraced this other form of song, described by slaves as "spiritual himes" to distinguish them from the Biblical songs of the European tradition. Spirituals originated as singers added new words to existing melodies, often varying the lyrics with each performance. Syncopated handclapping and foot stamping served as the usual accompaniments in a time when laws in the deep South prohibited slaves from "keeping drums, horns or other loud instruments which [might] call together or give sign or notice to one another."

A yearning for freedom and hope for redemption informed the text of spirituals. For example, in "Go Down, Moses," a slave compared his plight with that of the ancient Hebrews, enslaved by the Pharoah in Egypt. Likewise, abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that hearing the words of "Run to Jesus" inspired him to escape from slavery.

Plate of "Ring-Shout in the Cabin." Found in: Parrish, Lydia. Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands. New York: Creative Age Press, 1942. Plate 22.

Bequest of John Powell.

In the Georgia Sea Islands, rural isolation preserved African-American folk practices into the twentieth century. Nowhere was the dramatic clash between African and European ideas of worship more evident than in reactions to one of the earliest documented practices: the ring shout. The shout combines shuffling circular motion with song, repeated for up to five hours, and culminating in a state of ecstasy. Ignorant of its roots in African sacred tradition, most whites disapproved of the practice, and some African-American nineteenth-century clergy even tried to ban it as "heathenish."

Parsons & Pool. Coming Soon! Parsons & Pool's Original Uncle Tom's Cabin and Tennessee Jubilee Singers. [Providence?: Parsons & Pool, ca. 1880].

Purchased with the Robert and Virginia Tunstall
Trust Fund for the Clifton Waller Barrett
Library of American Literature.

Seward, Theodore F., ed. Jubilee Songs: Complete. As Sung by the Jubilee Singers, of Fisk University, (Nashville, Tenn.) under the Auspices of the American Missionary Association. New York: Published by Biglow & Main, 1872.

Marsh, J. B. T. The Story of the Jubilee Singers. Boston: Houghton, Osgood, 1880.

In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, used the school's last forty dollars on a concert tour which they hoped would ward off bankruptcy for the five-year-old school. During the next eight years, the group of nine singers, seven of them former slaves, raised $150,000-enough to save the university and erect its Jubilee Hall, the South's first permanent structure for the education of black students. The success of the Jubilee Singers derived mainly from the public's fascination with spirituals, the first authentic African-American music which most whites had ever heard.

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