Prison songs

In times of hardship, singing “brings out the soul.”

By Bill Leonard

In God’s Long Summer, Charles Marsh describes the summer of 1963 when Fannie Lou Hamer and other representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were arrested in Winona, Miss., for attempting to be served at a “whites only” lunch counter.

Mrs. Hamer, jailed with other civil rights workers, was beaten by two inmates on the orders of the police. Hamer recalled: “So they had me lay down on my face, and they beat with a thick leather thing that was wide. And it had something in it heavy.”

Marsh writes that “the next day something happened that slowly transformed the killing despair of the jail and dispersed the power of death.”

Hamer noted: “When you’re in a brick cell, locked up, and haven’t done anything to anybody ... sometimes words just begin to come to you and you begin to sing.” And sing she did:

Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go.
Had no money for to go their bail, let my people go.
Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go.
Jail doors open and they walked out, let my people go.

“Singing brings out the soul,” Fannie Lou Hamer declared, fighting Jim Crow tooth and nail.

In The Souls of the Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. DuBois summarized “the religious feeling of the slave” in terms of three discernible features: “the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy.”

DuBois called the preacher “the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil,” a person who combined “a certain adroitness with deep-seated earnestness, of tact with consummate ability.”

Music (the Spiritual) involved “that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.”

DuBois wrote wistfully: “They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days — Sorrow Songs — for they were weary at heart.” He acknowledged that these songs “are the articulate message of the slave to the world,” sometimes reflecting a “joyous” quality of life, and concluded:

But not all the past South, though it rose from the dead, can gainsay the heart-touching witness of these songs. They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.

“Frenzy, or shouting,” DuBois believed, occurred when the “Spirit of the Lord passed by,” making worshipers “mad with supernatural joy,” variously evident in silence, “low murmur and moan” or even “the mad abandon of physical fervor.”

Such frenzy was so powerful “that many generations firmly believed that without this visible manifestation of the God there could be no true communion with the Invisible.” From the prison of slavery, Sermon, Spiritual and Shout together composed a great communal “song” in the “call and response” of the enlivened congregation.        

The freedom of song finds its way into other prisons.

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and ultimately executed by the Nazis, wrote in his “prison diary” March 27, 1944, that it “is a year now since I have heard a hymn sung. But it is strange how the music that we hear inwardly can almost surpass, if we really concentrate on it, what we hear physically.... There are only a few pieces that I know well enough to be able to hear them inwardly, but I get on particularly well with the Easter hymns.”

Bonhoeffer, unable to sing “out loud,” observed: “I am getting a better existential appreciation of the music that Beethoven composed after he had gone deaf....”

The story goes that on the day before he died John Wesley sat up in bed and sang the Isaac Watt’s hymn, “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath.” Songs carry us into and out of all sorts of unsought confinements.

This weekend I’ll take the ashes of Lavelle Henton Leonard, my 95-year-old mother, to their final resting place in the Paradise Cemetery, Wise County, Texas. Her death in March came after 11 years in the “prison” of Alzheimer’s.

Over that time I finally realized that Lavelle lost her memory but not her personality which remained strong, even defiant, to the end, evident in her continuing ability to recall the words to many of her favorite hymns and to cuss when necessary — two enduring traits of many a Texas Baptist.

One of our church’s caregivers says she could get Lavelle to sing the old hymn, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” from memory when they brought her Holy Communion.

So let’s sing our hearts out every chance we get and commit some spirit-songs to memory. Who knows when we’ll need a “plaintive rhythmic melody” to voice our own “humble cry” in one of life’s many prisons?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.