Lawrence Gellert's 

Negro Songs of Protest 


 

COPYRIGHT   ©  2008  by James P. Hauser

 

 Lawrence Gellert traveled through Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina during the 1930's collecting African-American folk songs.  His collection of hundreds of songs focused primarily on songs of black protest and resistance against white oppression.  Gellert's work has been largley forgotten for decades.  Only relatively recently, the respected blues researcher and writer Samuel Charters got his first look at Gellert's initial published volume of songs titled Negro Songs of Protest.
Charters was impressed with the songbook.   He described the songs as "cries of rage" and noted that "No one had ever collected such a range of African American material from the rural South which expresses so openly these feelings of black anger."

 

Charters' praise for Gellert's collection marks an important turnaround.  For many years, Gellert's songs of protest have been an object of suspicion, at least partially due to his great success at collecting such material.  Critics accused his work of being unprofessional and judged it to be unreliable.  His detractors pointed to the fact that he had not systematically documented his collection.  In particular, he had not recorded the names of those from whom he had collected the songs.  Gellert's response to the charge was that he was protecting the identities of his informants.


Additional criticism came from Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out! magazine, a folk music publication.  Silber suggested that the songs in Gellert's collection were fabrications.  In 1963, he wrote:


Frankly, as a person familiar with folk music and folklore materials for considerable time, I find it very difficult to accept the material presented by Gellert as folk songs which he really collected.  Aside from the fact of documentation which would let us know where and under what circumstances, etc. the songs were collected, the fact that no one else has ever been able to collect similar songs or the same song in a different version, would tend to indicate that this material should be approached with a great deal of care...I am strongly of the opinion that these songs of Lawrence Gellert are more likely his or someone else's original creation rather than material, which by any stretch of the imagination, could fall into the domain of folk songs.

 

A key phrase in Silber's criticism -- "no one else has ever been able to collect similar songs or the same song in a different version" -- is an absolute fallacy, a fallacy which continues to be held out as a truth today.  The main purpose of this webpage is to show that Silber's comment was inaccurate, and thereby spark a fresh debate over the authenticiity of Gellert's collection.  To achieve this purpose, a string of examples has been placed below to document the similarities between songs collected by Gellert and others.

  

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In an essay written in 2004, Charters called Negro Songs of Protest "a remarkable document in the complex history of African-American song."  In that essay, titled Lawrence Gellert and Negro Songs of Protest, Charters noted some reservations about the collection, but his review of it led him to conclude that it is likely that there was a "layer of black song that constituted the angry cry" which, for many years, he and other researchers had been looking for.  He went on to comment that "We were just never given the chance to hear it," a statement which reflects what Gellert--and black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston--have claimed about the barriers which must be overcome by a white person attempting to collect black folklore and music.  


Gellert explained his success at collecting these songs in the preface to Negro Songs of Protest:


Long and painstakingly I cultivated and cemented confidences with individual Negroes without which any attempt to get to the core of the living folk lore is foredoomed to failure...I slept on dirty floor pallets in miserable ghetto hovels or ramshackles half disappeared in malarial swamps.  I fared on the usual Black Belt coffee"bitter as gall'" taters, cow peas, perhaps augmented by sow belly or a "piece o' lean"--often neither the best nor the worst but the all in the larder.  And always there would be a brother or sister or friend to "git lookin' up"--a new contact somewhere along the lonesome red-clay road ahead.


With his essay about Gellert's work and the editorial comments he made about it in Walking a Blues Road (a book collecting Charters' writings including his essay on Gellert), Charters has backed away from his famous and often-quoted pronouncement that there was "little social protest in the blues."  Indeed, Charters wrote his editorial comments to his essay under the title The Blues' Angry Voice.


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Below are examples documenting the similarities between songs collected by Gellert and others.


The first three examples compare songs from Lawrence Gellert to songs in Dorothy Scarborough's On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs.   

 

 

Example 1.  In the "Work-Songs" section of her book, she includes an Arkansas work song  which has three verses which are very similar to the three verses of a song collected by Gellert from a tenant farmer in North Carolina. I found the Gellert song on page 228 of Nancy Cunard's book Negro: An Anthology

 

 

Here is the first verse from Scarborough:

 
Stan' boys stan'
Dah's now no use a-runnin'
    Use a-runnin' 
Look upon yondah hill
An' see ol' massa comin'
    Massa comin'
    See 'im comin'
 
Here is the first verse from Gellert
 
Stan' boys stan'
no use arunnin'
Look up yonder hill
White trash acomin'
Is acomin'
 
 
Scarborough's second verse:
 
Bowie knife in one hand
An' pistol in de tother
    Stan', boys, stan' 
Brother stan' by brother
    Stan' by brother
 
Gellert's second verse:
 
He got knife in one han'
Pistol in de odder
Stan' boys stan'
Brother stan' by brother
Stan' by brother 
 
 
Here is the 3rd verse from Scarborough:
 
Oberseer wid his stick
Stick am comin' floppin'
    Floppin', floppin'
Niggahs, ef you run away
Ruckus bound to happen
    Ruckus bound to happen
 
Here is the 3rd verse from Gellert:
 
Nigger don' you run 'way
Whie trash acomin'
Is acomin'
Get dat whackin' stick in yo' han'
Ruckus boun' to happen
Boun' to happen


 
Example 2.  The "Work-Songs" section of Scarborough's book includes another song "Ain't It Hard to Be a Nigger? (taken from a Howard Odum article in the Journal of American Folklore) which is very similar to another Gellert song on page 229 of Cunard's book.  
 
Scarborough's (Odum's) first verse:
 
Well it makes no difference
    How you make out yo' time
White man sho' bring a
    Nigger out behin'
 
Gellert's first verse:
 
White man go to college
Nigger to the fiel'
White man learn to read an' write
Nigger axe to wiel'
Well it makes no dif'rence how you make out yo' time
White folks sure to bring de nigger out behin' 
 
 
Scarborough's (Odum's) second verse:
 
Ain't it hard, ain't it hard 
Ain't it hard to be a Nigger, Nigger, Nigger?
Ain't it hard, ain't it hard?
For you can't git yo' money when it's due
 
Gellert's second verse:
 
Ain't it hahd, ain't it hahd
Ain't it hahd to be a nigger, nigger, nigger
Ain't it hahd, ain't it hahd
Cause you neber get yo' money when it due 
 
 
Scarborough's (Odum's) third, fourth, and sixth verses:
 
Nigger an' white man 
    Playin' seven-up 
Nigger win de money
    Skeered to pick 'em up        (matches middle of Gellert's third verse)
 
If a Nigger git 'rested
    An' can't pay his fine
Dey sho'send him out
    To de county gang               (matches beginning of Gellert's third verse)

If you work all de week
    An' work all de time
White man sho' to bring
    Nigger out behin'                (matches end of Gellert's third verse)
 
Gellert's third verse:
 
If a nigger get 'rested an' cain' has his fine
Dey sen' him out to work on de county line
Nigger an' white man playin' seben up
Nigger win de money, fraid to pick it up
He work all de week, he work all de time
White folks sure to bring de nigger out behin' 
 
 

Example 3.  There is another Gellert song on page 227 of Cunard's book which has four verses which closely match four verses from three different songs in Scarborough's book.  All three songs share the same theme and come from the same page in Scarborough's book. 
 
Gellert's first verse:
 
Nigger go to white man
Ask him fo' work
White man saynto nigger
Get out o' yo' shirt
 
Matching verse from Scarborough:
 
A Nigger went to a white man
    An' asked him for work
White man told de Nigger
    "Yes git out o' yo' shirt"
 
 
Gellert's  second verse:
 
Nigger threw off his coat
Went to work pickin' cotton
When time come to git pay
White folks give him nothin'
 
Matching verse from Scarborough:
 
Nigger got out o' his shirt
    An' went to work
When pay-day come
    White man say he ain't work 'nuff
 
 
Gellert's third verse:
 
Li'l bees suck de blossoms
Big bees eat de honey
Nigger raise the cotton an' corn
White folks gits de money 
 
Matching verse from Scarborough: 
 
Little bees suck de blossoms
    Big bees eats de honey 
Niggers make de cotton an' corn
    Whit folks 'ceive de money
 
 
Gellert's fourth verse:
 
Here sit de woodpecker
Learnin' how to figure
All fo' de white man
Nothin' fo' de nigger 
 
Matching verse from Scarborough:
 
Here sits de woodpecker
    Learning how to figger
All for de white man
    And nothing for de Nigger! 
 
 
 
 
Below are some additional examples from sources other than Scarborough.
 


Example 4.  Lines in the first verse of the song "Wake Up Boys" from Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest collection are quite similar to  lines sung by a levee camp muleskinner named Bill Gordon in Alan Lomax's book The Land Where the Blues Began.  Gordon was singing the song that the "shack rouster" (also known as the "shack bully") sang early in the morning to wake up the camp's workers.

Lines from Lomax's book:

I hate to call you, but I gotta do
I don't want ya, but Mr. Charley do

Lines from Gellert:
 
Ah wouldnn't call you, but jes' has to
Ah doesn't wan' you, but white folks do

 
Example 5.  "Early in the Morning" from Gellert's Me and My Captain volume is obviously a variation in lyrics and tune from  "The Midnight Special."   Below are the lyrics to "Early in the Morning." 
 
Early in the morning
When the ding dong ring, Lordy
Go marching to the table
See the same old thing
There's nothing on the table
'Cept a knife and a pan Lordy
You say something bout it
You have trouble like a man
 
Yonder come my woman
How do you know, Lordy
She wears the same old clothes
That she always wore
Umbrella on her shoulder
Pocket book in her hand, Lordy
Look here,  Mister Tyree
Come to pay out my man

Wake up in the morning
Wring my hand and scream, Lordy
Cause found it where nothing (Note 1)
It were just a dream 
Now, here I am a setting
In this low down jail, Lordy
Just like a old ship
What ain't got no sail

Note 1:  The printed lyrics use the word "where" not "were"

 

Example 6.   Negro Songs of Protest includes a song titled "Work All De Summer" which opens with two lines that match lines in Howlin' Wolf's version of "Sittin' on Top of the World."  It also has the line You don't know my mind, When you see me laughin', laughin' jes' to keep from cryin'  which matches lines in the song "You Don't Know My Mind" recorded by many performers including Virginia Liston, Clara Smith, and Leadbelly.  Also, Langston Hughes is often associated with the phrase "laughing to keep from crying."
 
Lyrics from Gellert's "Work All De Summer":
 
Work all de summer, summer
Work all de fall, fall
Gonna make dis Chris'mas, Chris'mas
Chrismas in mah overall 
 
Lyrics from Howlin' Wolf's "Sittin' on Top of the World"
 
Worked all the summer
Worked all the fall
Had to take Christmas 
In my overalls
 
According to the entry for "Sitting on Top of the World" in Wikipedia, the verse in Howlin' Wolf's version also appeared in a version recorded by Ray Charles in 1949.
 

Example 7. There are a whole string of songs which contain some lines about standing on the corner and then having some sort of encounter with the law.  Examples include recordings such as Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed's "Original Stack O'Lee Blues," Julius Daniels' "My Mamma Was a Sailor," and Big Boy Teddy Edwards' "Louise."  These lines can also be found in versions of "Railroad Bill" and a song titled "Lee Brown" collected by John Lomax from a convict at Parchman Farm.  Gellert's "Standin' On De Corner" in Negro Songs of Protest contains lines similar to these other songs.

Example 8.  "Oh Mah Kitty Co Co" in Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest has the line "Goin' somewhere dey ain't heard 'bout Jim Crow."  There is an article by Guido Van Rijn titled "Coolidge's Blues" which includes two songs with similar lines.  One of them was "North Bound Blues" by Maggie Jones (issued on Columbia14092) which contains the lines "Gonna leave this Jim Crow town" and "Going where they don't have Jim Crow laws."   The second song was "Cow Cow" Davenport's "Jim Crow Blues" which includes the lines "I'm tired of being Jim Crowed, gonna leave this Jim Crow town" and "Yes, sir, I'm leaving here from this old Jim Crow town."  Rijn's article is included in the book Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From edited by Robert Springer.


 Note:

The author of this website believes that even more examples may be found in Steven Garabedian's  PH. D. dissertation titled "Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Blues Music, White Scholarship, and American Cultural Politics

 

 

Sources:

  

Negro: An Anthology by Nancy Cunard (Editor) and Hugh D. Ford (Editor).  This anthology includes the essay "Negro Songs of Protest, North and South Carolina and Georgia" by Lawrence Gellert.  It was self-published in 1934 by Nancy Cunard.


Negro Songs of Protest by Lawrence Gellert.  This songbook contains 24 songs collected by Gellert.  It was published in 1936.


Me and My Captain: Chain Gang Negro Songs of Protest by Lawrence Gellert.  This songbook contains 24 songs collected by Gellert.  It was published in 1939.

 

Walking a Blues Road: A Blues Reader 1956-2004 by Samuel Charters.   This anthology contains Charters' essay "Lawrence Gellert and Negro Songs of Protest" and his editorial comments titled "The Blues' Angry Voice."

 

"Reds, Whites, and the Blues: Lawrence Gellert, "Negro Songs of Protest," and the Left-Wing Folk-Revival of the 1930s and 1940s".   This article was published in American Quarterly, volume 57, Issue 1, pages 179-206.