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The Gettysburg Address and music of the Civil War

November 19, 2013|By Randy Lewis
  • The Carolina Chocolate Drops -- Dom Flemons, left, Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Hubby Jenkins. The group is included on the new two-CD album "Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops -- Dom Flemons, left, Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla… (Crackerfarm / Nonesuch…)

The legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued on Jan. 1, 1863, and the Gettysburg Address wasn’t lost on the participants in the new compilation “Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War,” created to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“Day of Liberty,” sung by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, eagerly anticipated the day when freedom would be a reality for the nation’s African Americans. That reality was commemorated in Lincoln’s most famous speech, which was delivered 150 years ago today at the battlefield of Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863.

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But when “Day of Liberty” was written 150 years ago, it included common idioms of the era long since abandoned:

Darkies don't you see de light,

De day ob liberty's comin', comin',
Almost gone de gloomy night,
De day ob liberty's comin.
High! ho! de darkies sing,
Loud! loud! dar voices ring,
Good news de Lord he bring,
"Now let My people go."

Those lyrics presented a challenge to the Chocolate Drops, an African American roots-music group specializing in songs played by or popular among African Americans of earlier times. As it turned out, the surgical substitution of a word or two made it work.

“You don’t want to sanitize it,” lead singer Rhiannon Giddens told The Times recently, “but you also don’t want it to distract from the overall message of the song.”

The group did away with the original’s references to “darkies,” “white folks” and “massa,” and also recast the antiquated and demeaning rendering of black dialect ("ob," "de") to retain the message of hope at the prospect of the abolition of slavery.

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“In this case, we changed it because we didn’t want the language to become the focal point,” Giddens said. “It was pretty easy, because it was just a word here and a word there.”

For her group, as with the other performers on the two-CD collection, this was anything but an exercise in musical anthropology.

"If you look back in history, you see this is really part of who we are as a country,” Giddens said. “There are times when there’s some kind of consensus, but this divide is always coming up again.”

Here’s a short film discussing the making of “Divided & United” and the role that music played through the Civil War:


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Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2 


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