A soundscape of people oppressed - and moving up

Today's focus on 'roots music' gives new interest to the cries, hollers, hymns, and sermons known to slaves

Shane White and Graham White have recently written a subtle book, "The Sounds of Slavery, " a history of the oppression experienced by Africans in the United States at Southern plantations in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries - and how they were slowly able to develop a modicum of control over their lifestyle and culture in the move to urban America.

The accompanying CD is a remarkable soundscape of field cries, gospel hymns, sermons, and work songs, including numerous recordings produced by musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1930s.

The book has 10 chapters, including introduction and epilogue, as well as a revealing list of acknowledgments, which the authors should have used as part of the preface. It is amazing how these two men, who hail from Australia, have uncovered our past, and equally exciting is the degree to which they understand and appreciate the African-American heritage.

Some chapters document the severe oppression directed at the slaves, others tell of the vital role the church plays, original forms of worship, and the ambivalent acceptance of Christianity. The book has a nonlinear mood, as historical descriptions are interrupted both by anecdotes and by pungent interjections about the accompanying CD.

The CD is superb, highlighted by Thomas Marshall singing the Arwhoolie holler; "Job Jobeson," based on the Book of Job, performed by a remarkable trio; and an exciting reharmonization of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," sung by Clifford Reed, Johnny Mae Medlock, and Julia Griffin. "Child" features dissonant intonations, melodic curves, and enchanting rhythms. The effect is devastating.

Besides this invaluable CD, the book's strongest point is its attention to detail. Where else except in the early Marshall Stearns's "History of Jazz" do readers come across such figures as Willis Laurence James, an almost forgotten legendary figure who chaired the music departments at Spelman and Morehouse colleges and wrote "The Romance of the Field Cry." I studied with Professor James, and the Whites' research and analysis are nearly as cogent and pungent as his. James was researching how to clearly differentiate the African vocal style from the African-American; some more exploration of this topic could have been very useful.

This book could use a more dramatic style to match the drama inherent in the subject. Venues such as the riverbank levees, which played such an important role in the vocal music of 200 years ago, could be more vividly interpreted for modern-day readers.

Another shortcoming is a general lack of narrative flow to tie the book together. Most of the historical figures are mentioned for a few pages, but then you rarely hear about them again. I would have preferred to have followed a few primary musicians over a few years, and read about how their music developed. Such an important topic might have been handled with more imagination.

The book is heavily footnoted, and contains a lengthy bibliography. However, it cries for a discography to match its bibliography. Eric Clapton is mentioned in passing, but a chapter on the musical ancestry of seminal soul singers, and how their music derived from earlier roots and yet was innovative, might give the book a dose of contemporary relevance. I fear that without such a topography, the work will too soon be put aside.

This book will not only be valuable to young scholars, but may be even more important to young performers and composers, especially with the explosion of interest in "roots music," looking for new sources of original and searing music.

Ran Blake has made a study of African- American music besides recording as a pianist and teaching in the Contemporary Improvisation department at the New England Conservatory of Music.

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