More On The Slave Narratives

The Works Progress Administration transcripts of slave narratives comprise one of the most valuable resources we have for African American women's voices and songs. Lyrics to numerous lullabies and other songs are documented in this voluminous collection, and they are embedded in narratives that not only give us texts but also provide some context for understanding their meaning and their function within plantation life. These songs come from former slaves who were interviewed by WPA workers. These elders are treasured informants who allow us a glimpse into the past that shapes our present.

The WPA Slave Narratives consist of transcriptions of narratives gathered and prepared by the Federal Writers' Project in the South and Southwest, 1936-38, and deposited in the Library of Congress. In 1941 they were assembled in 17 volumes under the title, Slave Narratives, a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. These volumes are available in the Library of Congress's Manuscript Division and on microfilm.

Many of these slave narratives are also available on the Library of Congress web site, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. The online collection is searchable by subject, descriptive information, narrator and words-in-text, though "lullaby" has not been indexed as a keyword, subject or descriptor.

A number of supplements to the original 17-volume set have appeared as well. Supplemental series 1, co-edited by Jan Hillegas and Ken Lawrence, was published in 1977. It includes narratives from Alabama (v. 1), Arkansas, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington (v. 2), Georgia (v. 3-4), Indiana and Ohio (v. 5), Mississippi (v. 6-10), North and South Carolina (v. 11), and Oklahoma (v. 12). The 10 volumes of supplemental series 2, published in 1979, consist of narratives from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington (v. 1), and Texas (v. 2-10). Supplement 3 is an index to the main series and supplemental series, edited by Donald M. Jacobs and assisted by Steven Fershleiser, and published in 1981. The index includes categories such as music and dancing but doesn't make more specific distinctions. It also doesn't include many incidences of a narrator's performance of a song.

The 17-volume Slave Narratives has also been edited and re-organized by George P. Rawick and published as The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972). This collection contains more than twice the number of narratives as the Library of Congress Web site, including two additional multi-volume sets of narratives and interviews from other archives.

One important guide to the Slave Narratives that focuses music is the encyclopedic African-American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale, and Dance, 1600s-1920: An Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Collections, and Artworks, compiled by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990). The authors divide their discussion of Rawick's edition of the WPA narratives into two sections: literature and song collections. In the literature section they highlight descriptions of singing, dancing and other music making in each volume of the narratives. In the section on song collections, they list the first lines of choruses, first lines of verses and couplet texts for every song sung in the narratives.

The other main source for collected slave narratives is online: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries "Documenting the American South" has a subsection entitled North American Slave Narratives. When completed, this project will include all the narratives of fugitive and former slaves published in broadsides, pamphlets or book form in English up to 1920, as well as biographies of former slaves published before 1920. The collection is full-text searchable, though searches for phrases and words like "go to sleep"and "lullaby" bring up in-text descriptions rather than songs.

Compiled by

Judith Tick
Senior Research Analyst, Feminist Sexual Ethics Project

Melissa J. de Graaf
Research Analyst, Feminist Sexual Ethics Project