Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sojourner Truth, Lyricist

I've been reading Nell Irvin Painter's Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol over the last few days. It is certainly a fascinating biography. I was quite aware that Truth, a former Northern (New York State) slave, became a spokesperson for women's rights and abolition in the years before and during the Civil War. But I did not know that the illiterate activist, who dictated her life's narrative to a white writer, also composed lyrics to a song about African American soldiers that was sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body," or later, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

One might be inclined to think that an illiterate woman would not be able to come up with such touching verses, but they are indeed outstanding. The song was written in honor of the First Michigan Colored Infantry Regiment, which eventually was redesignated the 102nd United States Colored Infantry. The stirring words to the song are:

We are the valiant soldiers who've 'listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! as we go marching on.

Look there above the center, where the flag is waving bright;
We are going out of slavery, we are bound for freedom's light;
We mean to show Jeff Davis how the Africans can fight,
As we go marching on. - Chorus.

We are done with hoeing cotton, we are done with hoeing corn;
We are colored Yankee soldiers as sure as you are born.
When massa hears us shouting, he will think 'tis Gabriel's horn,
As we go marching on. - Chorus.

They will have to pay us wages, the wages of their sin;
They will have to bow their foreheads to their colored kith and kin;
They will have to give us house-room, or the roof will tumble in,
As we go marching on. - Chorus.

We hear the proclamation massa, hush it as you will;
The birds will sing it to us, hopping on the cotton hill;
The possum up the gum tree couldn't keep it still,
As he went climbing on. - Chorus.

Father Abraham has spoken, and the message has been sent;
The prison doors have opened, and out the prisoners went
To join the sable army of African descent,
As we go marching on. - Chorus.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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