Folk songs often bring us to the intersection of place, history, and memory. In certain cases, digging into those songs gives us a chance to recover the true stories, long-hidden, from our past, bringing a reckoning with the history that did happen and a reimagining for our collective future.
Recently, The Bitter Southerner posted a thoughtful article which examines how the popular folk tune Swannanoa Tunnel was taken from the wrongfully convicted black community in Western North Carolina. Forced to build the railroad tunnel as convict labor during the Jim Crow era, those convicts originally wrote the tune in the “hammer song” tradition of John Henry.
Somebody Died, Babe: A Musical Cover-up of Racism, Violence, and Greed shows how the song was reshaped and romanticized into an English-based folk tune in the 1920s – 1960s to appeal to white audiences. As the site notes,
“Beneath the popular folk song…and beneath the railroad tracks that run through Western North Carolina, is a story of blood, greed, and obfuscation. As our nation reckons with systematic racial violence, the story of this song points to the unmarked graves of the hundreds of wrongfully convicted Black people who died building the tunnel.”
Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey A. Keith, a musicologist and a historian, tell how the song’s original history has been recovered and the recordings repatriated with the descendants of the original artists.
For those who care about how recovered histories can help us understand and honor the full American story, Kehrberg and Keith demonstrate how something as simple as a folk song can lead to richer understandings of our past.
(NOTE: During October, I am writing articles on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing as a country and a democracy. Besides this story of wrongful imprisonment and racial violence, you can find posts on religious liberty, voter suppression, and revealed history, in addition to a book review on how democracies die by clicking on the links.)
More to come…