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Primary Source of the Month

A Slave Song, Barbados, 1770s-1780s

A Slave Song, Barbados, 1770s-1780s
Gloucester County Records Office (Shire Hall, Gloucester, England), Hardwicke Court Papers, GCRO list p. 29, box 58.
Image reference NW0013, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.


Musical transcriptions of early slave songs are very rare. This is the earliest one in existence. Although it was sung and transcribed in Barbados, similar songs were sung throughout the Americas. Sometimes these songs were spread as enslaved people were sold between colonies. This work song illustrates a common musical feature in African American music of the era: call and response. One person, while at work with the rest of the group, leads the song, and the others join in chorus at the end of every verse. Songs like this one helped the whole group work in time with one another, which was safer and more efficient. The song also would have provided a sense of community between the singers. Music was a way for enslaved people to relieve some of the pressure of harsh conditions, and they may have received some comfort from the message of this song: "my master bought me, so he won't kill me."

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