Wednesday’s abominable act of racist terrorism (and yes, we must call it terrorism) casts a strange kind of shadow over this Juneteenth. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who opened fire on Emanuel AME -- a church of powerful symbolism to the Black community in Charleston and, to a degree, throughout the south -- chose the date of his attack to fall on the 193rd anniversary of the suppression of Denmark Vesey’s rebellion, which was planned at that same church. Clearly this violent racist gets the importance of symbolism, at least on some instinctual level. That the 150th Juneteenth -- a holiday marking the ultimate end of slavery -- falls just days afterward reveals both how much remains unfinished a century and a half later and how sick this unfinished business makes this country. How unfinished? Not too far from where Mother Emanuel is located, the Confederate flag flies on the state capitol, the very same flag that Roof had on his truck, right under the words “Confederate States of America.” That should provide all the answer we need.
For the past two years I’ve been researching the history of the gospel hymn “No More Auction Block For Me.”
A hypothesis I’m working with has been that this is possibly the most influential and yet unrecognized song in American history. I could very well be proven wrong on the “most influential” front, but what seems irrefutable is that this is a song that has had a massive impact on American popular music. Its recorded origins, predictably, go back to the institution of the first Black regiments during the American Civil War. An early iteration was sung as a marching song by these same regiments. It’s very likely that there were earlier versions, possibly sung in secret by slaves themselves, but the Civil War is when the song first made itself into recorded history.
This naturally placed it at a fortuitous crossroad. The Civil War, as a key event in ushering America into the modern age, was one of the first major instances of transculturation in the country’s history. There had of course been plenty of examples before with the collision of English, Scottish, German, Irish and countless other European ancestries. But for Black spirituals -- themselves the offspring of African musics and European hymns -- to travel so far and to reach so many white ears that otherwise may not have heard them; this was a giant leap in forging what we now understand as popular music. And in fact, the far-reaching travels of newly-freed Black men and women during both the Civil War and Reconstruction was what allowed what we now understand as “the blues” to form, gestate and become such a major staple of American musical culture.
“No More Auction Block” traveled along with all of these innumerable tunes and hymns. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University toured a version around the country during the 1870’s. In the decades afterward, as the Black freedom struggle evolved, so did the song. Paul Robeson performed a noteworthy version. So did Odetta (hers is particularly moving). So did Joan Baez. Bob Dylan performed it, and it is now confirmed that the hymn’s structure provided inspiration for “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The above version from Sweet Honey In the Rock is one that departs significantly from traditional renditions, but still keeps intact its gospel feel and is certainly still recognizable as its original.
Some scholars speculated that “No More Auction Block” was also a major influence on the 1948 People’s Songs Bulletin version of “We Shall Overcome” (which, at least musically, is the version we all recognize today). And, if one elongates the notational phrasing of “We Shall Overcome,” the similarities between the two are quite apparent.
What does all of this have to do with the racist murders in Charleston? Truthfully, I was already planning to write a longer blog post about “No More Auction Block For Me” in recognition of the 150th Juneteenth. Tragedy has obviously intervened here, likely reshaping, along with countless other tragedies, both discussion and action around American racism for some time. But there is a certain significance to listening to the song in light of the Mother Emanuel murders.
During the transatlantic slave trade, forty percent of all captured Africans passed through the Charleston Harbor, by far the greatest percentage to pass through any slave port in America. The city of Charleston was, in many ways, the most important of all auction blocks. Little wonder that this same harbor was the site of the Civil War’s opening battle. Its position in the South Carolinian Lowcountry and the high concentration of both slaves and freed Blacks meant that the area was a key site in terms of the preservation of African culture and its evolution into a particularly African-American one. It bears acknowledgement that Zilphia Horton, then music director at the Highlander Folk School, first heard “We Shall Overcome” while visiting a Charleston tobacco workers strike.
Charleston, then, is a site where the ghosts of unfinished Reconstruction continue to haunt. It is, like the song, a city that illustrates the torn consciousness of modernity: its hope and promise, its radical potentials for new and amazing worlds to be imagined shuffling alongside the terror and gaping wounds of a society that drives people into the dirt and holds nothing sacred. Dylann Roof, the way in which the Stars and Bars fly openly around this country; these represent the painful latter side of this contradiction. The Black Lives Matter movement, still growing and and evolving, reflects the belief in something better that animates the former.
“No More Auction Block For Me,” in its continuation and evolution well past the Civil War, touches both ends of the modern spectrum. That it hasn’t wound up a dusty museum piece 150 years after slavery’s final end should tell us quite a bit about how much of freedom’s promise has yet to be fulfilled. It should also tell us something about how insuppressible the desire for that freedom can be.