Saving Negro Spirituals

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1933

Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, who ran the Louisiana Tabasco-sauce company founded by his father, racked up some major accomplishments as a preserver of rare birds and plants (see 1892 item on our list of achievements in Nature philanthropy). A man of very wide interests and a willingness to study and devote resources to causes that interested him, McIlhenny also helped save another endangered species: the Negro spiritual.

McIlhenny had grown up with an African-American nanny who took him to her church every week during the decade or two after the Civil War—where he often heard mesmerizing songs that he came to love. Later in life he realized this music was disappearing. When he took up his preservation project in his late fifties, he could remember only about 30 tunes, and just one or two verses of each. So he began visiting old acquaintances, and located two elderly residents of the area who could remember the songs in detail. McIlhenny enlisted the help of a New Orleans musicologist and they set to work in 1930 writing down the lyrics and melodies of 125 spirituals.

They took great pains to notate the tunes and phrasings exactly as presented. The songs were performed again and again over many days so notes and words could be transposed to paper, and “no air was considered finished until it was sung back to the original singers and approval given as to its correctness,” writes McIlhenny in his introduction to the collection. Being music that was handed down orally, often by illiterate performers, many of these songs had never before been committed to print. Others were recorded in detail for the first time.

Only four of the spirituals in McIlhenny’s 325-page book are known in the same form in other songbooks. Fully 80 songs are wholly different from any other printed source, and half again as many are different in part. Musicologists have thus described the book, titled Befo’ de War Spirituals and published in 1933, as “a real treasure.” It preserved for history many elements of slave music and culture that would otherwise have been forgotten.