Music was an important part of life for enslaved people at Monticello and particular individuals within the enslaved community were noted for their artistic talents. Monticello guide and Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology Kyle Chattleton looks at the ways enslaved people at plantations across the United States used music and at the foundational role they played in creating a distinctly American musical tradition.
This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Kyle Chattleton: These are the sounds of present-day Mulberry Row. If we could travel back in time to this space, specifically the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, we would hear something entirely different. The sounds of spirituals being sung at John and Priscilla Hemmings’ cabin, of nails being hammered at the nailery, water boiling for cooking, newborns crying and children playing games. Mulberry Row was the center of life for the enslaved community of Monticello. And like any other community, many of its members enjoyed music: listening to it, dancing to it, playing it.
For many enslaved people at plantations throughout the United States, music-making was a way to strengthen family and community ties, resist oppression, entertain one another, and express thoughts and emotions about the past, present, and future. The legacy of this music is profound. Dr. Steven Lewis of the National Museum of African American Music argues that, “African-American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them.”
You’re listening to Mountaintop History, a podcast dedicated to telling the story of Monticello, and all who lived and labored at this plantation. I’m Kyle Chattleton.
In a letter, Mary Jefferson Randolph, granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, wrote, “This Christmas has passed away hitherto as quietly as I wished […] except catching the sound of a fiddle yesterday on my way to the smokehouse & getting a glimpse of the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes & head thrown back with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in the midst of a circle of attentive & admiring auditors.”
Isaac Granger Jefferson, an enslaved tinsmith and blacksmith at Monticello, shared that music and dancing on the plantation might last “half the night.”
These recollections offer us a window into the music of Monticello’s enslaved community. Relatedly, the present-day archaeology team at Monticello has uncovered jaw harp pieces, as well as fragments of a violin and harmonica at excavation sites across the historic boundaries of Thomas Jefferson’s plantation.
Historians also know that particular members of the Monticello enslaved community were noted for their musical talents. The largest family of enslaved or free people to live at Monticello was the Hemings family, and it was filled with musicians. The three sons of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson — Beverly, Eston, and Madison — could all play the violin, and often provided entertainment around the plantation for both the enslaved people and slave-owning families.
Numerous sources describe Eston Hemings as an accomplished violinist. In 1838, eleven years after Thomas Jefferson freed him in his will, Hemings travelled with his family to Chillicothe, Ohio. According to a local paper, he was “a master of the violin, and an accomplished ‘caller’ of dances.” Another resident described him and his band fondly:
“I wonder if the music is as good as it used to be? I was at the great Charity Ball — as a looker on — given in this city a few weeks ago, where the music was furnished by the celebrated Barracks Band, but somehow or other it didn’t affect me at all like Hemings’ used to at the balls we are speaking of. When he with his violin, Graham Bell with his clarionet and Wambaw with the bass viol cut loose, there was only one thing to do, and that was — dance.
But what did music on the plantation sound like? Oftentimes the music involved call-and-response, where one singer improvises lyrics followed by a repeated text in the chorus. Harmonies were also rich and complex, as were the rhythms. Another feature of this music were blue notes, pitches that fall outside of a “traditional” music scale. These blue notes are foundational to many genres in American music, like the blues and jazz. While all of these sounds and rhythms were emotionally felt and understood within the enslaved community, white audiences were confounded by what they heard, and Thomas Jefferson himself erroneously believed that Black people could not muster music beyond simple composition.
The abolitionist Frederick Douglass provides one of the most famous descriptions of enslaved music in his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In it, he describes his time as a slave and reflects on the deeply emotional songs that he heard while on the plantation:
“They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
This music can be seen as a form of resistance against oppression. Musicologists Emily Gale and Bonnie Gordon write that “slave songs were often used to organize, coordinate, and communicate escapes within plain sight, and earshot, of white captors.”
As Douglass explains, the music was also connected to religion, and spirituals and shout songs were sung during church services among enslaved people. These events could be held in slave dwellings, like at Monticello where people congregated at the cabin of John and Priscilla Hemmings.
Some of the most famous spirituals from this period are “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses.” But beyond the church service, these songs were also used on the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman explained that she sung “Go Down Moses” to “identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north.” And when the end of the Civil War came, the newly-freed community used this music to celebrate their emancipation. The music of the enslaved community, therefore, was sung to not only mark the anguish of oppression, but also used to aid in the search for freedom, and joyously announce the arrival of that freedom.
The sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk that the songs of enslaved people “stirred men with a mighty power,” and that they were the “articulate message of the slave to the world.” These songs were not consigned to the distant past: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Eric Clapton, and the Staple Singers’ recording of “Wade in the Water” became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Many genres, like the blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop, are directly connected to the music created and performed on the plantation. And centuries later, this music continues to leave its profound impact.
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: This episode was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.