By Jacqueline Briggs Martin
In an introduction to this book we read that the title comes from Harriet Tubman who “used to dream that she was flying over the landscape ‘like a bird.’” This introduction also tells readers how important song was in the lives of African American slaves: “Whether working on ships or docks, in forests or fields, slaves sang. The music helped them pace their movements, lift their spirits, and communicate with one another.” A remarkable quote from Frederick Douglas appears in an end note:
“’Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart.’”
There is sorrow in every song. I see these songs as the oral history of a people who typically could not write down their stories. Even the titles say this is how it was—“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There are messages of escaping, crossing over, “Go Down Moses,” “Deep River,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Steal Away.”
The songs they made to help themselves survive also recorded their lives, their hopes, their sustenance. This would be a book worth having just to have the collected songs. But we also get the illustrations, which are unforgettable. The colors are bold and intense. Some, like the dedication page or the page accompanying “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” look like stained glass windows. The backgrounds are sometimes quiltlike, some like block printing. And the people’s eyes are haunting. The painting of Harriet Tubman which faces “Go Down Moses” appears to be looking directly at us, challenging us to stand up, do our part.
I wish the commentary accompanying the songs and the paintings included more information about the history of the songs. I’d like to know where they were first heard, who wrote or sang them. The resource page at the back of the book lists websites that would provide such a history. It would be great for readers to get a bit of this from this book.
But with that said, I am glad this book exists. It will remind young readers that songs come from somewhere, they have a beginning. Sometimes that beginning is sorrow. And that will be a link for them to the sorrow and the tragedy and the outrage that was slavery in America.