IN THE BEGINNING WAS NOT THE WORD, BUT THE DEAFENING silence of slavery, or so Harry Belafonte argues in his recently released The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music (BMG/Buddha Records), a five-CD box set of 80 songs tracing the musical odyssey of black Americans from West African work songs through the birth of the blues at the start of the 20th century.
In the early '60s, singer, actor, producer, and activist Belafonte bemoaned America's ignorance of the rich musical heritage of the people who had invented spirituals, ragtime, the blues, jazz, bebop, R&B, and rock and roll. So, gathering an army of artists from around the country and globe, he labored for more than a decade fashioning this sweeping psalmody of war chants, shouts, spirituals, hollers, ballads, children's songs, lullabies, minstrel tunes, chain-gang work songs, and blues melodies. And then, because the original sponsors had dissolved their partnership, Belafonte's symphony of soul languished in an RCA vault for more than three decades before finally reaching our ears. Still, like freedom, it is a treasure worth the wait.
As Belafonte points out in the set's accompanying text, "when first brought to this continent, Africans were enjoined from speaking.... Slaves were not allowed to converse with one another until they learned the tongue of their masters." The genocidal practice of slavery demanded the destruction of the captured Africans' language and culture. Free men and women were to be made silent, stripped of their tongue and story and deprived of any voice that might cry out for justice or liberty. Then, teaching them to speak in the vocabulary of their oppressors, they were to be refashioned in the image and likeness of good Christian slaves who knew only to submit and obey.
But the strategy failed, and as this anthology makes clear, African Americans soon began to stretch the new wineskins of their oppressors' language, fashioning a distinctive, original, and ultimately world-shaping musical tongue and vocabulary, one that gave voice to their own African heritage and to the length and breadth of their sufferings, struggles, and prayers in the long road to freedom.
Belafonte's anthology is introduced with a sampling of African war chants, ballads, work songs, and the music of royal festivals and harvest ceremonies, bringing us some of the sounds of Nigeria, Ghana, and the Congo and giving us a taste of the musical heritage and vocabulary that African Americans would eventually plant in the soil of their new land. Listening to these melodies and songs dispels any notion that the men and women brought in chains to this country had come without an inheritance of song or soul. Savages is a word one could only use to describe those who would enslave such people.
The account of African enslavement begins with a disturbing rendition of "Amazing Grace" accompanied by an excerpt of a "slave preacher's" sermon instructing his audience to obey their masters at all times and followed by a sampling of "shouts" and early spirituals. Two of the shouts ("Knee-bone Bend" and "Yonder Comes Day") and one spiritual ("Prayer") are exquisitely rendered by Bessie Jones, whose Georgia Sea Islands community was still singing songs and hymns of slavery in the fashion of their ancestors when these recordings were made. Valentine Pringle is the vocalist for a haunting version of "O Lord, I'm Waitin' on You," and Belafonte performs the watcher's shout "Hark 'E Angel" with masterful grace.
WHILE SHOUTS AND EARLY SPIRITUALS expressed the hopes and prayers of enslaved Africans, the men and women living in captivity soon learned that they also needed an encoded musical language with which to communicate their plans for escape and freedom. As Belafonte notes, there were "songs used to provide escaping slaves with information, to pass along warnings, escape signals, and the like, or to cover up clandestine, escape-connected meetings. …