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to seek freedom...

the Underground Railroad
in Central Pennsylvania


Christopher Densmore
ugrr news archive
January 10, 2007

State historical marker for Underground Railroad activity in Harrisburg's Tanner Alley neighborhood, located at Walnut Street near Fourth.

events and news

Christiana, PA and Underground Railroad Music

Well, not specifically Underground Railroad music, but the Keystone Sacred Harp Convention is being held in Christiana, Pennsylvania, January 27-28, at the Freight Railroad Station, not far from the Zercher Hotel.

The tie-in with the Underground Railroad is that Sacred Harp, also know as Shape Note, is an American form of hymn singing, in an unbroken tradition stretching back over two centuries, that preserves unchanged much of the "folk" harmonies of early America as well as the music of Watts, Wesley, Billings and others.

There are many references to hymns in this tradition in the literature of the anti-slavery movement. The tune "Lennox" was said to be John Brown's favorite hymn and was sung at his funeral. The theme of this song is the announcement of the "Year of Jubilee" when slaves would be set free.

Blow ye the trumpet blow,
The gladly solemn sound;
Let all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound.
Like the Spirituals, many of the lyrics are on the theme of leaving and going to a better place. A number refer to Canaan (hence the title of Fergus Bordewich's book, Bound for Canaan).
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the land of Canaan.
I'm bound fair Canaan's land to see,
I'm bound for the land of Canaan.

Oh Canaan, sweet Canaan,
I'm bound for the land of Canaan.
Sweet Canaan, 'tis my happy home;
I'm bound for the land of Canaan.
What the singers understood by Canaan undoubtedly reflected individual aspirations. A white southern slaveholder could sing the hymn with an understanding that Canaan was heaven, as might an enslaved person, though at least some people thought of Canaan in more present-minded terms-- like Canada (or even Christiana).

One hymn, known in Sacred Harp as Idumea, I have documented as being sung by African Union Methodists and Quakers at the funeral of an African Union preacher and "self emancipated slave" at Fallowfield Township in Chester County, PA, in 1841,

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
This hymn and other Sacred Harp tunes were used recently in the movie, Cold Mountain.

There are numerous others Sacred Harp tunes that can be connected to the anti-slavery movement. "When I can read my title clear, to mansions in the skies..." Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, references thirteen musical pieces, most of them in the Sacred Harp.

Some of the hymns referenced in UTC are not in the Sacred Harp, and one of that has particular interest to the Christiana Resistance. Stowe gives the chorus as:

Die on the field of battle,
Die on the field of battle,
Glory in my soul
Which almost certainly related to the hymn that John Parker and his comrades sung at Christiana, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1851, while confronting the hunters
Leader, what do you say
About the judgment day?
I will die on the field of battle,
Die on the field of battle,
With glory in my soul.
My efforts to find a pre 1851 source for this hymn have been unsuccessful. It does show up in post-Civil War collections of African-American spirituals.

The point of this e-mail is to let you know if you are interested in hearing many of these hymns, you might be interested in coming to the Sacred Harp Convention in Christiana in January. Sacred Harp is not performance music, doesn't use trained musicians or instruments. It shares common roots with the Harmonia Sacra tradition of the Mennonites. There is no set program.

If interested in attending, come on Saturday, January 27, 9:30 to 4:30, and Sunday, January 28, 2007, 9:00 to 3:00, for as short or long as you wish. No charge, and open to the public. Everyone is encouraged, but not required, to sing. You can certainly just show up, but if you would like a flyer with more information and detailed directions, let me know.

Christopher Densmore
Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College
January 10, 2007

contact information for
 Christopher Densmore:

Christopher Densmore, Curator
Friends Historical Library
Swarthmore College
500 College Avenue
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania 19081-1399

610-328-8499 (phone)
610-690-5728 (fax)
[email protected]

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