March 31, 2014 § 6 Comments
Last night, we were up in Woodstock, VT, to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Durham, North Carolina. The band is comprised of three African-Americans and fronted by Rhiannon Giddens, who is of mixed white, black, and aboriginal descent, they play a mixture of traditional and modern folk/roots instruments. They’ve revived a number of songs from the slave era in the Deep South, most of which, according to Giddens, were set down in the 1850s, just before the onset of the Civil War. Most of these, however, come without lyrics, for perhaps obvious reasons. The band were incredibly talkative on the stage last night, which created an incredible community vibe inside this small theatre in small-town Vermont. Both Giddens and band mate Hubby Jenkins kept up a running monologue with the crowd, telling us about their songs, how they came to perform them, write them, play them, their traditional instruments, and so on.
Before one song, Giddens told us about her explorations of American history, specifically African-American history, and about a book she read that collated slave narratives, and analysed them collectively, as opposed to the usual individuated approach to slave narratives. However, Giddens also noted one story that stuck out for her, about a slave woman named Julie at the tail end of the Civil War, as the Union Army was coming over the crest of the hill towards the plantation that Julie lived on. Julie is standing with her Mistress, watching them approach in the song, “Julie.”
This video was shot last night, by someone sitting close by us, though I don’t know who shot it, I didn’t see it happening. This is one powerful song, and it got me thinking. I’m teaching the Civil War right now in my US History class, and as I cast about for sources I am intrigued by slavery apologists, then and now, who argue that the slaves were happy. But even more striking are the stories about slave owners who were shocked to their core when the war ended and their slaves took their leave quickly, looking to explore their freedom.
It seems that the slave owners had really convinced themselves that they and their slaves were “friends” and that their slaves loved them. That arrogance seems astounding to me in the early 21st century. But this song last night powerfully brought the story right back around.