Phantom Power podcast journeys into “The sound world of Harriet Tubman”
Hear the sounds Tubman experienced and the songs she sang through an audio odyssey into the Underground Railroad
Phantom Power — a podcast that dives deep into the world of sound to ask provocative questions that resonate across the human experience — celebrates Black History Month with “The Sound World of Harriet Tubman.”
Listeners will experience the sounds Tubman experienced and the songs she sang through a "sensory history” that brings this compelling story to life.
In this episode, ethnomusicologist and activist Maya Cunningham, draws on historical and musical research to embark on a sonic journey with the Underground Railroad conductor. Cunningham is currently a doctoral candidate at the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Focusing on written accounts of sound, listening, and music can put us in better touch with what everyday life was really like for enslaved people,” said Phantom Power host Mack Hagood, Miami University associate professor of Media and Communication. “The work of scholars like Maya Cunningham also shows how the sounds and music of African American people were suppressed by white enslavers, and how the skillful use of sound and music were central to their resistance, escape, and spreading of awareness in the North.”
Expertly produced by Ravi Krishnaswami, a doctoral candidate in Musicology & Ethnomusicology at Brown University, this episode explores:
- The secret gatherings called Hush Arbor meetings, where enslaved Black people would use a thick grove of trees to muffle the sound of their Christian worship and feed their resistance against enslavement.
- How Harriet Tubman used her singing voice to facilitate escapes – starting with her own – by using songs such as “Bound for the Promised Land” as encrypted messages to family and friends.
- The code songs and hymns that replaced written messages and verbal directions to stealthily warn and guide freedom travelers along the Underground Railroad, and more.
“The Sound World of Harriet Tubman” is also available now at phantompod.org, and wherever podcasts are found.
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Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.
Maya Cunningham: It’s very quiet where she lived. It’s extremely rural.
There’s nothing on the Brodas farm anymore except for grass and trees. What struck me as the beauty. You know, the wind, the soft breezes, the spring, and that’s such a juxtaposition against her descriptions of her life there. But she said slavery is hell.
Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where artists and scholars talk about sound. I’m Mack Hagood, and just in time for Black History Month, an episode we’ve been excitedly working on for a number of months now. Ethnomusicologist Maya Cunningham brings us “The Sound World of Harriet Tubman.”
Maya Cunningham is an ethnomusicologist, activist, and jazz singer, currently completing a Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in Afro-American Studies with a concentration in ethnomusicology.
I first came across Maya Cunningham’s work last year as part of the Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project, an online initiative from Ms. Magazine, honoring the 200th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s birth in 1822. It’s a remarkable package that added so many dimensions to my understanding of the underground railroad conductor and feminist icon, such as her experience of disability due to a blow to the head by a white overseer, her creation of a home for the aged, her love for the natural world, and much more.
And to my mind, the richest of these essays was Maya’s The Sound World of Harriet Tubman, which used field recordings, historical research, and ethnomusicological research to explore the roles of sound and music, and voice in Tubman’s life and leadership.
The piece even included Spotify playlists, so you could listen as you read; link in the show notes if you want to check it out.
And today, I’m thrilled to bring you what I hope will be an even more immersive experience: Maya Cunningham reading her essay. And thanks to the editing and mixing skills of Phantom Power producer Ravi Krishnaswami, her field recordings and playlist selections are mixed into the story.
And just a quick note: you’re gonna hear about the American Christian revival known as the Second Great Awakening, which stirred both black and white people from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s. You’re also gonna hear about the Invisible Church, where enslaved African Americans were able to worship secretly and autonomously through the singing of folk spirituals, which differed greatly from white religious music at the time but would go on to influence not only white gospel music but pretty much every form of popular music we know today.
If you wanna learn more about this history, a great place to start is a book edited by two of my professors at Indiana University, doctors Mellonee V. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby. It’s called African American Music and Introduction; link in the show notes.
One other note. After Maya’s essay, we will hear a short interview that Ravi Krishnaswami did with her about her work. And, of course, for our patrons, we always have our What’s Good segment, where our guest shares something good to read, something good to listen to, and something good to do.
Today we’re gonna put that in our regular feed so you can hear Maya’s fantastic recommendations at the end of this show. If you wanna learn more about being a patron, go to patreon.com/phantompower.
And now here is The Sound World of Harriet Tubman by Maya Cunningham.
[Engine Starts Up]
Maya: In Spring 2019, I went on a trip to the birthplace of Harriet Tubman. Living in Washington, DC at the time, it was a relatively short journey to Dorchester County in the Maryland Eastern shore where Tubman was raised.
This was, for me, a pilgrimage of sorts as an African American woman who grew up in Maryland and who was raised on her legacy. It was her story, probably Sarah Bradford’s 1886 biography read aloud by my first great teacher for Black History Month, that first ushered me into an awareness that I descend from the only group of people enslaved in mass in the United States.
I was disturbed, but my discomfort was necessary to my own life’s journey in becoming what I call the lion’s historian, an ethnomusicologist who impacts the public narrative of black music and cultures.
The long deray of Tubman’s story in my life set me on the trajectory to be able to explore the songs she sang and the sound world in which she lived so that we can better understand her life. This essay is a sound collage and discussion of the early African-American music culture that molded one of our most prolific ancestors.
The African American sound world of mid-19th century Dorchester County is evident through a black American cultural tradition called “generational transmission.”
How do we know the songs and sounds that Tubman heard and sang? African American Orality.
Tubman would’ve learned songs from her parents and grandparent, wholly informed by West African aesthetics and functionalities, but in a North American context. Next, Tubman’s Ashanti grandmother, Modesty, might have remembered the ivory-talking trumpets and the atumpan drums of the Ashanti Royal Court.
The full of bamboo flutes became cane flutes. The Senegambian akonting became the banjo, and African-American drums were made from local materials. West and West Central African vocal cultures would’ve been transformed by African American English, and West African melodies would’ve been adapted or simply transmitted like the one W.E.B. Dubois’ grandmother sang, and the Mende song “Owaka” that passed down in Mary Moran’s family.
The rich musical legacy of Africa would’ve issued forth from the Afro-descendants on the Brodas plantation. Tubman would’ve heard the work songs of men who were forced to chop lumber because her father, Ben Ross, was a timber inspector and foreman.
In the morning or at the end of the day, she might have heard her mother or auntie singing prayer moans, asking God to get them through just one more day to take care of their children. As she passed the tobacco fields, she would’ve heard field hollers.
The singing and praying bands of Maryland and Delaware demonstrate how Tubman and her family might have sounded when they worshiped during secret meetings called “hush arbors.”
To signal that a gathering would take place, they might have sung spirituals that operated as code songs like “Steal Away.”
These meetings reveal how Tubman would’ve developed the bold and unwavering Christian faith that motivated her abolitionist activism. Harriet Tubman’s deep-abiding Christian faith was the foundation, strength, and guidance for her liberation and work as an underground railroad conductor.
Black life documented during slavery reveals her relationship with God might have been nourished during hush arbor meetings. These surreptitious meetings were held by enslaved black people all over the south, often deep in woods that abutted plantations within a thick grove of trees in order to muffle the sound.
Hush arbor gatherings constituted what scholars called the “Invisible Institution” or the “Invisible Black Church,” the first cohesive unit of organization that defined and facilitated the collective identity of African America. The secret internal life of African Americans, unseen by dominant white society and slave owners, of which hush arbor meetings were a major part, was resistance against enslavement.
During my visit to the Brodas farm, I could not help but notice the thick green foliage and forestry that bordered the plantation. I could imagine the quiet singing and prayers of young Mende that might have taken place amidst those thick trees.
In the hush arbor, Tubman might have had very real spiritual experiences, especially those of what’s called a “static Christianity” that marked the second great awakening. She might have learned to interpret the dreams she said were from God. Understanding the hush arbor tradition reveals the sacred culture that led to the kind of faith that Harriet Tubman expressed, witnessed, and that was proclaimed by all who knew her.
Underground Railroad agent Thomas Garrett said about her:
“I’d never met any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul, and her faith in the supreme power was great.”
In both her 1886 biography by Sarah Bradford and subsequent biographies, it is the voice of God in Tubman’s life that helped to facilitate the bold exploits of liberation that she would perform later in her life.
She told Sarah Bradford that God gave her dreams that either foretold the future, specifically her life as a liberator and the outcome of the Civil War, or that warned her of danger. She testified that God would speak to her during freedom journeys to redirect her path away from danger. Tubman kept faith that God was watching over everything and one day all would be set right.
Biographer Kate Clifford Larson wrote that Harriet Tubman had a lovely singing voice. Tubman was a singer. She used songs to facilitate escapes, starting with her own. Although she nurtured a lifelong aspiration for freedom, she made the decision to run after learning she was going to be sold in 1849.
She surreptitiously let her family and friends know what she was doing by singing the song “Bound for the Promised Land” as a code song. The song was either an African American spiritual or a modified Methodist hymn, as some scholars argue. Based on the lyrics and melodic structure, it was probably a spiritual.
[Singing “Bound for the Promised Land”]
There is much we can infer from this story. If she sang the song as an encoded goodbye, then her family would have known the song, and it is likely that they sang it together during hush arbor meetings.
The promised land in African-American spirituals had a triple meaning that referred to either Israel for the Biblical Hebrews, Heaven in the afterlife, or the free north. Her family would’ve known the code, but slaveholders would’ve been. This reveals the extent to which the inner life of enslaved African Americans was well hidden from Euro-Americans and useful for survival and freedom.
Moreover, if her owner was not suspicious of her sudden outbursts of song, it probably means that Tubman often sang loudly.
Harriet Tubman used code songs as signals instead of verbal directions to direct the group of freedom travelers that she led. According to Larson, she sang a hymn called “Hare O Hare Ye Happy Spirits,” to communicate her return to the woods, where a group hid while she went to get food.
She also sang what seems to be a variation of the spiritual “Go Down Moses” to signal danger.
[Singing “Go Down Moses”]
Also, in an encoded 1854 letter to Jacob Jackson in Maryland, she craftily warned him to be ready for a freedom journey saying he should be on the lookout for that “old ship of Zion,” the title of another African American spiritual
[Singing ‘Old Ship of Zion”]
At the end of her well-known journey that led Josiah Bailey out of bondage, she made merriment with the group when they crossed over Niagara Falls into Canada by singing, “I’m on My Way to Canada.” This song has palimpsestic lyrics to the tune of “Oh Susanna.”
Finally, during one of her last liberation exploits as leader of the Combahee River Raid during the Civil War, she sang a song with the lyrics:
“Come along, come along, don’t be a fool. Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”
Apparently, to focus the Union soldiers and escapees on their mission and to calm them down. The song was composed in 1848 by the Hutchinson family, who were famous abolitionist singers from New Hampshire.
These are the documented songs that Tubman sang to facilitate freedom escapes, but it is likely she engaged many more from the treasure trove of spirituals and hymns that were the mainstays of African American culture during that time.
After her escape in 1849, Tubman lived in the urban North, Philadelphia, Saint Catherins, Canada, and finally, Auburn, New York. Her song life would’ve included popular tunes of the day, which were show tunes, the spirituals, and hymns sung in the AME Zion Church, a traditional African-American denomination in which she was a lifelong member along with Frederick Douglass.
After the Civil War, she continued to be known for her powerful singing. Tubman sang often as a member of the AME Zion Church in Auburn, and at her speaking engagements, and during interviews.
Florence Carter, a widow of the pastor of Tubman’s Church, remembered:
“Tubman had a fine voice that was very feminine, and when she sang, as she often did, her lungs opened widely, and she would shout.”
[Singing “This Little Light of Mine”]
According to an Auburn resident, one of Tubman’s favorite songs to sing at church was “Get On Board Little Children,” also known as “The Gospel Train.” This song well narrates her life’s work as an underground railroad conductor, in which she said she never lost a passenger.
[Singing “The Gospel Train”]
Florence Carter’s memory also documents that African-American spirituals were frequently sung at Tubman’s Church. The repertoire of spirituals was probably not just limited to “The Gospel Train.” While we cannot know all of the songs Tubman sang while attending church services, the contemporary hymnal is full of hymns and traditional African-American spirituals.
Shortly before the Civil War, Tubman began to give public lectures in 1859 to raise funds to support her parents. She told her abolitionist audience stories of her enslavement, escape, and journeys back to the South to free others. She became well-known for her storytelling ability.
Tubman might have also performed spirituals and hymns during her public lectures. She sang at the founding convention of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Larson also writes that she sang spirituals during an intimate visit with Agnes Garrison and Eliza Wright Osborne in 1899.
Encouraged by Osborne, Tubman told her narrative and “Acted out parts of it, singing one of the old songs in a curious nasal mournful voice.”
At the very last moments of her life, on March 10th, 1913, Harriet Tubman passed into eternity surrounded by song. Clergy from the AME Zion Church, family members, and friends sang either hymns, spirituals, or both at a final service that she directed. She joined in the singing when she could, took a final communion, then slipped into a coma and on into glory.
Harriet Tubman’s use of songs for black liberation serves as a kind of vertex of what became a long-standing African-American cultural tradition. As we know from Tubman’s faith life after slavery and through other ethnographic evidence, African-American spirituals remained the song staples of many African-American churches and were passed down to subsequent generations.
There is a lineage of African-American women and men who, like Tubman, have used black songs in activism, drawing from the corpus of African-American spirituals to advance black freedom.
In 1849, Harriet Tubman prophetically sang that she was “bound for the promised land,” and in 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that we as a people will get to the promised land.
As I perform and record Tubman’s songs and write curricula that culturally affirm African-American children by teaching them their history and African-American and African heritage, I’m doing my part to help black people reach the promised land goal.
Standing on the Brodas plantation back in 2019, watching the tall grasses and the flowering trees nod in the gentle Northwood breeze, I learned something from Tubman that can only be fully known by observing the land of her childhood. Its isolation led me to ask how, from this middle-of-nowhere place could, a young black girl born into slavery who was at every disadvantage rise to become one of the most widely recognized people in American history.
The land, her story, and her namesake freedom song tell the answer. Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell Ol’Pharaoh, let my people go.
Like Moses of the Bible, “who was slow of speech and tongue,” and the Moses of her people who had fainting spells. Our weakness and obscurity that we start in does not matter. With courage, faith, and God on our side, we win.”
Mack: That was The Sound World of Harriet Tubman by Maya Cunningham. And now, here is our interview with Maya Cunningham by producer Ravi Krishnaswami.
Ravi Krishnaswami: Maya, thank you so much for joining us on Phantom Power. We’re really excited to bring this story to life in sound, the way it was meant to be heard. So what drew you to this specific research question and project?
Maya: So, I’ve been working with the African American Hush Arbor Tradition for a while, and actually the first work I did was a sound studies article that has turned into a book chapter. It really (tries) understanding the sounds of black life during the time of slavery and after, during the apartheid era, the Jim Crow era, and what hush arrbors tell us about the dichotomy of sound and silence.
Especially because the hidden transcript defines the experience of African Americans here in the U.S., and so the Harriet Tubman piece is an expansion of that work. What can we learn about her and her life through a sound study of the way she would’ve experienced the sound environment, the sound culture of her early life in Maryland and the other parts of her life and the places where she lived?
Ravi: Can you tell me a little bit more about that term hidden transcript?
Maya: So, James C. Scott wrote Domination and the Arts of Resistance and coined the terms public transcript, hidden transcript. And the study is about subaltern groups who are, you know, oppressed in various ways and the way they survive with an insular kind of hidden world. Hidden encoded messages, life lived away from the view of colonists.
And then the public transcripts are sounds or things that are deemed safe to reveal. And there’s a sharp difference in the African American public transcript and hidden transcript, especially during slavery times. But that cultural trait, that’s not a great word, but that way of being is still very much something that’s a part of the African American experience and it’s embedded in the language of African America. So yes, the hidden transcript.
Ravi: Thank you that’s really helpful. So, you’re a singer?
Ravi: And how do you feel that your experience and your sort of approach to the world as a singer directed your work on this?
Maya: Yeah, well, you know, I think coming up in the black church, in African-American jazz culture, you know, I’m a culture bearer in a sense, or a tradition bearer, and there’s an internal knowledge that I have and I employ in doing the research and in writing because these are, like the songs that Tubman sang, I learned growing up and sang them, you know.
Ravi: Do you hear them differently now?
Maya: You know, Of course, melodies change, they vary depending on the region. I don’t even remember when I started to learn spirituals really, but I remember teaching them and I remember thinking critically about them in that way when I started to teach them to children.
And so now, I think I have a little more depth of understanding. I mean, yes, we know their code songs, it’s kind of like double meaning, but studying Tubman’s life and the way she used them, I realized how necessary they were because if there was no suspicion drawn to this black woman who was singing, that means that this was probably very common.
Ravi: So you did some field recording for this project. Can you tell me about that?
Maya: Yes. So just in the spring 2019, I took a trip to Tubman’s birthplace, the Brodas farm, which is a historical landmark. The store in Bucktown, where she was bludgeoned, right? She was hit. It’s still there, and then there’s a beautiful Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, not too far. And then there’s another kind of smaller Harriet Tubman Museum and the black people of that town testified before the Maryland legislature to secure the funds for the visitors center.
That being said, so I visited all of those places, and I did record a little bit, but I more so observed the sound. It’s very quiet where she lived. It’s extremely rural.
There’s one road, there’s a crossroads, a few cars drive by. There’s nothing on the Brodas farm anymore except for grass and trees. And it’s, I wouldn’t say it’s barren.
What struck me is the beauty, you know. The wind, the soft breezes, the spring, and that’s such a juxtaposition against her descriptions of her life there. And she said slavery is hell, I’m quoting her, you know? And doing field recordings and just visiting the field helped me to really understand what that was about a little more.
Ravi: That’s really well said. Thank you.
Ravi: Is there anything else you’d like our audience to think about outside of, you know, sort of on the margins of this story?
Maya: I wanto go back to the hidden transcript. It’s oftentimes that when this comes up all the time, you know, we were just talking, about the contested versions of American history, and there’s an official narrative that when you go to the Smithsonian Museum of a American history, which is nice.
But there’s a version of American history, there’s an industry section and it’s very celebratory and there’s one little section there about the experience of African-Americans and then you go to the African-American Museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and there’s this other history.
I think that, you know, studying Tubman’s life in this way, the inside, emic view, or trying to get to that view anyway, of the Africans who were brought to the U.S., is deeply important and is necessary and should not ever be excluded, but should be centered in the study of U.S. history and so forth.
And my hope is that this work that we are doing will contribute to that. So those are some parting thoughts.
Ravi: So I’ve got just one more set of questions. Which are only for our Patreon subscribers. This is a new thing we’re doing on Phantom Power, so we have a little bonus content.
So if you would be able to tell us, first, one good thing to read.
Maya: What do you mean?
Ravi: It could be about black sound culture. It could be about life during Harriet Tubman’s, you know, lifetime.
Maya: Okay. Read her autobiography because there’s lots of quotes. That her voice comes through, and so that really is an inside.
There’s a documentary, I mentioned it in the piece, called The Language of Crime. It’s not a book, but it’s a documentary, that is very important. It’s about a Mende song that is passed down in a family.
So African American identity is not homogeneous, but seems to be contested within like, Colonial Project of the U.S., and there seems to be this kind of visceral pushback from some folks when you describe African Americans as Africans living in America or Africans and I’ve had people actually tell me, “Oh no, you’re American.” People who are not African American, and to tell somebody, “I know your identity, and I’m going to assign it to you,” is an act of power, undue power, that’s asserted against anyone.
And so when we read things like the Tubman biography or look at the language we cry in to see just what it meant to be an African in America, I think that that’s very important, if someone is African American, to understanding the essence of our heritage and understanding that internal perspective and gaining an empathy that is very important.
Ravi: Yeah. It’s interesting because I think that there’s something about working with sound that seems to help in terms of gaining empathy. And I think that’s what’s kind of magical about your piece.
Okay. The next question is, something to listen to. You’re an accomplished singer, so it could be even your own work, but something you’d like to direct our listeners to listen to.
Maya: Oh, can I talk about my favorite singers?
I love Oumou Sangaré, she’s a singer from Mali. Fatima, I’ve been listening to her lately. Just speaking back to that question of identity. That was Sulu region of Mali and just Mali, generally is a heritage place of African America, you know, in terms of instruments, many argue in terms of the blues.
So, I think his name is Ali Farka Touré. He has a son Vieux Farka Touré, just getting into them.
And then of course, you know, I love the jazz singer. Lorez Alexandria, Sarah Vaughn. I love the, the horn players. Freddie Hubbard, you know, Wayne Shorter, Charles Tolliver.
Ravi: All right. That’s great. And finally, one good thing to do.
Maya: Of course, now that, you know, since we’re kind of in the realm of Tubman’s life. So these heritage journeys are really powerful, like going to the eastern shore, not too far, like I think in the county next Talbot County is where Frederick Douglass was born.
To go see these kind of heritage sites, birth places, I think those kinds of opportunities are all over the country. So I think that that’s something to do.
Ravi: And they’re not always easy to find. Sometimes you have to kind of know what you’re looking for.
Maya: Absolutely. In the case of the Harriet Tubman heritage site, though, I think there’s an app that you can take and kind of go on that journey of escape that she took.
It took about, I think by the time she let people out on a Saturday night or a Friday night, I think it was Saturday night, they would be actually out of the state in the next county by the next day. And then they would be in, Philadelphia within one week.
So, yes, it was a very fast journey, but you can actually take that journey. It’s a trip that you can do, and you can see all of those heritage sites. So, for those who are listening, do that
Ravi: All right. Well, Maya, thank you again for spending some time with us.
Maya: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Mack: And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Maya Cunningham for that beautiful essay, and to Ravi Krishnaswami for the gorgeous editing and mixing.
You can learn more about and listen to all the music you heard today through Maya’s Spotify playlist.
And you can check out her website and the original Ms. Magazine article. All of that is in our show notes or at phantompod.org. Subscribe to the show at phantompod.org/subscribe.
Phantom Power’s production team includes Craig Eley, Ravi Krishnaswami, and Amy Skjerseth.