Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and 'Slave Songs of the United States'

Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and ‘Slave Songs of the United States’ (Charters, Samuel)

Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and 'Slave Songs of the United
States'. By Samuel Charters. 2015. Jackson: University Press of
Mississippi. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62846-206-7 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Dina Bennett, Indiana University (
[Word count: 1013 words]
Songs of Sorrow: Lucy McKim Garrison and 'Slave Songs of the United
States' by Samuel Charters is a biography of Lucy McKim Garrison, one
of the co-editors of the book Slave Songs of the United States.
Published in 1867, the book contains the spirituals created in
slavery, or "sorrow songs," sung by newly freed slaves of the Sea
Islands of South Carolina. Assisted by William Francis Allen and
Charles Pickard Ware, McKim Garrison was the first to think of
gathering the songs together for a book, but all three editors
believed in the value of the spirituals and were determined that they
should be heard.
Charters' purpose for writing Songs of Sorrow was to provide a
biography of "Miss McKim," the lesser known of the three music
collectors. Drawing heavily from the disciplines of history, oral
history, ethnomusicology, geography, and biographical studies, the
book contains a total of sixteen chapters that chronologically
present the life of Lucy McKim Garrison and the making of Slave Songs
of the United States, "the first book devoted to slave music to
appear in the United States" (255). The author's use of
correspondence letters that exist between McKim Garrison and her
lifelong friend Ellen Wright, who eventually became her
sister-in-law, reveals a lot about McKim Garrison's personal
life-history path, as well as the historical, political, and
sociocultural milieu of the day.
Each chapter begins with a poem and/or verse from some of the most
prominent writers of the day, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David
Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. Several chapters bear the
title of spirituals collected in Port Royal, the main harbor of the
Sea Islands. For instance, chapter 6, "De Northmen, dey's got massa
now," are "verses sung by slave rowers as they rowed their master to
imprisonment by Union soldiers following the capture of Port Royal,
South Carolina, on November 7, 1861" (82); and chapter 8, "Poor Rosy,
Poor Gal," is a work song of the Freedmen of Port Royal collected and
arranged by McKim Garrison (115).
Chapters 1 through 5 discuss the McKim family history and the context
for collecting the spirituals, which was during the early years of
the Civil War (1861-1865). Born into a Philadelphia abolitionist
Quaker family, McKim Garrison was the daughter of abolitionist James
Miller McKim and Sarah McKim. In 1862, when she was nineteen years
old, she journeyed with her father to the Sea Islands of South
Carolina to assist him in his work on behalf of the Port Royal Relief
Committee in Philadelphia. The committee's purpose was "to aid
efforts to feed, educate and care for nearly 1000 newly freed slaves
who had been abandoned on St. Helena Island" because of the Union
occupation of Port Royal and the collapse of the plantations (4-5).
Chapters 6 through 8 explore McKim Garrison's experiences at Port
Royal while living on nearby St. Helena Island, the largest of the
Sea Islands. Of particular importance are her encounters with Laura
Towne and Ellen Murray, two Northern abolitionists and missionaries
who assisted the freed blacks of the area. In 1852 they established
the first school for Freedmen. Named for Towne's home state of
Pennsylvania, the Penn School remained an active educational
institution until 1948 when the state took over public education. In
1974, the historic campus of the Penn School was designated a
National Historic Park District.
Chapters 8 through 11 focus on McKim Garrison's publication of two
arrangements of spirituals she collected at Port Royal. "Poor Rosy,
Poor Gal" and "Roll, Jordan Roll" were published in 1862 in Dwight's
Journal, a leading musical journal of the time. In 1865 she married
Wendell Phillips Garrison, son of abolitionist William Lloyd
Garrison, and founder and literary editor of the journal The Nation.
Chapters 12-13 detail the actual making of Slave Songs of the United
States. In collecting the "sorrow songs," McKim Garrison walked the
former slave quarters, sat in their cabins, and listened to their
stories and "wild sad songs" (104). She listened to the singing of
the Freedmen while they worked and played, and she attended praise
meetings and church services while recording and transcribing her
observations. As an accomplished pianist and performer, she was
particularly skilled at transcribing the spirituals and their lyrics
as well as arranging them for public consumption. Comprised of a
thirty-eight-page introduction, 136 songs, a list of the songs, the
"Directions for Singing," and an "Editor's Note," Slave Songs of the
United States "fulfilled the dream she had expressed of publishing a
collection of slave songs" (194-195).
Chapters 14 through 16 chronicle McKim Garrison's illness and death.
In 1877, after suffering numerous miscarriages and having two healthy
children, she suffered a paralytic stroke and never recovered. She
died on May 11, 1877, at 34 years of age.
The book concludes with three appendices that include a description
of and commentary on Slave Songs; musical arrangements for "Poor
Rosy, Poor Gal" and "Roll, Jordan Roll" for voice and piano collected
and arranged by McKim Garrison; and unsigned journal and book reviews
by her and her husband Wendell Garrison, and Charlotte Forten, an
African American teacher at the Penn School. In addition, the book
includes three sections of illustrations that feature photos of McKim
Garrison's family; her two co-editors William Francis Allen and
Charles Pickard Ware; and photos of the historical buildings on St.
Helena Island that still exist today. Special consideration is given
to a section titled "Prominent Abolitionists" that features the
photos of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Lloyd Garrison,
and Robert Purvis, an African American abolitionist.
Overall, Charters' book is a comprehensive biography that recounts
the life and experiences of Lucy McKim Garrison as well as the making
of Slave Songs of the United States. As the first book to acknowledge
the beauty and poignancy of the "sorrow songs" that emerged from the
experience of slavery, the book's first edition sold out "its copies
within weeks after its publication" (10). It faded in popularity
until it was republished in the 1920s, and has been continually in
print since then.
Read this review on-line at: