Rare Sheet Music Celebrates Frederick Douglass

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In 1847 Frederick Douglass was getting ready to leave England where he had lived to avoid being recaptured after his escape from enslavement in Maryland. He had crisscrossed Britain for the last 19 months, lecturing on the evils of slavery in his native country. Now that supporters had raised 150 English pounds (about $750 then) to buy his legal freedom, he was able to return to his family in the United States. Yet, his safe passage was by no means guaranteed.

To commemorate Douglass’s departure from Britain, his close companion and fellow abolitionist, the Englishwoman Julia Griffiths, wrote the “Farewell Song of Frederick Douglass.” Only two copies of the sheet music are known to exist—and one of them was acquired earlier this year by the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

In 1847 when Douglass first arrived in Rochester, he found a bustling city of 50,000. It was here that same year that he launched his abolitionist newspaper the North Star. It was also in Rochester that Douglass gave his most famous speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” at the majestic Corinthian Hall in 1852.

Over the last few decades, the University has assembled one of the world’s leading archival collections of rare Douglass materials, including letters, published speeches, Underground Railroad passes that had been used to smuggle slaves to safety, and other ephemera that document and expand upon Douglass’s history and activity. The collection is part of a larger repository of materials documenting the history of abolition and woman suffrage movements.

The copy of Griffiths’s song now owned by the University is tucked inside a well-worn, black cloth book including 16 bound pieces of sheet music. Now referred to as the Francis A. Williams songbook, it bears the name of its former owner stamped in gold lettering on its cover. “Farewell Song of Frederick Douglass” is scored for voice and piano. Griffiths’s brother, the lawyer T. Powis Griffiths, penned the lyrics.

Having one’s own sheet music bound was not uncommon in the 19th century, says Autumn Haag, the University’s special collections librarian and archivist for research and collections.

What makes this book so valuable is the rarity of the Douglass song. The only other known copy resides at the British Library in London.

Subtitled “On Quitting England for America — the Land of His Birth,” the song decries the United States as a brutish country. England is styled as the “land of the free, the land of the brave” while the lyrics lament “Alas! that my country should be America! land of the slave.”

The Griffiths imagine the song from Douglass’s perspective, concluding that the abolitionist leader needs to return to America and join the fight against slavery, even if it could spell his death.

“Shall I, like a coward, not join the fight? Shrink from the onslaught when battle is raging, Scared by the enemy’s tyrannous might? […] I will fight on till the foe shall have yielded, Or the years of my sojourn on earth have been told,” wrote lawyer Griffiths in Douglass’s imaginary voice.

Haag says she is struck by the use of martial imagery and words like “warfare,” “battle,” and “weapon,” especially in the last two verses. “It feels like the lyrics are already foreshadowing the Civil War,” which was to break out 14 years later.

The book’s title page shows a stylized image of Douglass, wearing a classical-style toga artfully draped over his left shoulder, meant as an allusion to ancient Greece or Rome. The image, depicting Douglass with a stoic look, sharp jawline, and a bit of a Roman nose, is not a true representation of the man, says Haag.

Was it propaganda? she muses. “Propaganda has sometimes negative connotations, but yes. It was written for a purpose.” It was written to remind Douglass’s supporters in England what he was returning home to, and to highlight to abolitionists in the United States the essential difference between the two countries at the time, says Haag.

Acquiring the rare sheet music and continually seeking out other historic Douglass materials, “illustrates the University’s commitment to Frederick Douglass’s history and legacy,” notes Jessica Lacher-Feldman, the University’s assistant dean and the Joseph N. Lambert and Harold B. Schleifer Director of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. “This is part of our stewardship of one of the most significant collections of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony materials that help us understand the political, social, and cultural history of the abolition and women’s suffrage movements. Rochester was an epicenter for these important movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s this legacy that connects Rochester and human rights to this day.”
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