# History wrapped up in song: “Singing Freedom” with Tsitsi Jaji, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and Ed Baptist

## Speakers

Tsitsi Jaji, poet and associate professor of English at Duke University

Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Interim Director of the vocal program, Cornell University Music department

Ed Baptist, Cornell University professor of history

## Summary

Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, poet and associate professor of English at Duke Tsitsi Jaji, and Cornell professor of history Ed Baptist, talk with Annette about ’Singing Freedom,’ a multi-layered collaboration with leading Black American composers and performers to create musical responses to materials in the Freedom on the Move archive. They talk about how music might give voice to those self-liberators and their stories, exploring ways the creative arts might grapple with racism in the past and present across literary and musical genres.

This episode was recorded in September 2021 by Bert Odom Reed and produced by Eric Harvey. We are grateful to Shawn E. Okpebholo and Rhiannon Giddens for permission to reproduce their music. Excerpts heard in this episode are from: Rhiannon Giddens, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” performed by Rhiannon Giddens from the album “Freedom Highway” (2017); Shawn E. Okpebholo, “The Rain” from “Two Black Churches” (poem by Marcus Amaker), performed by Will Liverman, baritone, and Paul Sánchez, piano from the album “Lord, How Come Me Here” (2022); and Shawn Okpebholo, “Oh, Freedom,” sung by Will Liverman, with Paul Sánchez (piano) from the album “Steal Away” (2014).

Lucy Fitz Gibbon has recently taken a full-time position at Bard College and Conservatory.

## Full Transcript

Annette Richards: (00:04)
Hello, and welcome to The Humanities Pod. I'm Annette Richards. And today in part two of our conversation about Freedom on the Move, the database of thousands of fugitives from north American slavery, we're talking about Singing Freedom, the ambitious, collaborative, creative project that aims to give voice to some of those self-liberating individuals in music and song, poetry and performance. I've got three guests with me today. Tsitsi Jaji is associate professor of English at Duke University, working in African and African American literary and cultural studies, particularly music, poetry, and black feminisms.Tsitsi's the author of "Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism, and Pan-African Solidarity." And she's also a poet whose most recent collection, the prize winning Mother Tongues, came out in 2019. Welcome Tsitsi.

Tsitsi Jaji: (00:59)
It's great to be here.

Annette Richards: (01:01)
Also here is soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, whose career has already taken her across the United States and to Europe singing music from the Renaissance to today, from art song to opera. Lucy is a member of the art song collective Sparks and Wiry Cries. And while also teaching at Bard college, she's currently interim director of vocal programs at Cornell. Thank you for joining us, Lucy.

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (01:26)
Thank you so much for having me.

Annette Richards: (01:29)
And third, but by no means least Ed Baptist, professor of history at Cornell, and one of the main architects of Freedom on the Move. Welcome Ed.

Ed Baptist: (01:38)
Oh, thanks for having me back, Annette.

Annette Richards: (01:41)
It's great to have you all here. Thank you all for joining us and let's start with you, Lucy. Why don't you bring us up to date with this extraordinary project you're working on, Singing Freedom. Tell us a bit about the idea for the project, how it came about, maybe what its relation is to Freedom on the Move, and fill us in a bit on what the main elements of this extraordinary project are.

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (02:06)
So Sparks and Wiry cries as you described aptly is a collective and we think of our work as having three main aspects. We run an online magazine, The Art Song Magazine, we curate performances and we commission works. And in many ways, Singing Freedom, which is a broad title to this multipart project, is a true reflection of all of those different activities. It engages in scholarship. It allows us to work both within the art song community and within a larger community of other creators and historians and musicians and poets alike. And it allows us to make musical bridges, both between art song and other musical forms, but also between various universities and groups of people, really throughout the United States. Sparks and Wiry cries was founded by soprano Martha Guth and pianist Erica Switzer, I think more than 10 years ago at this point. And Martha approached me in 2019 after having heard about Freedom on the Move. And we connected with Professor Baptist and had a first conversation really in the, at the very beginning of the pandemic, about whether it would be possible for us to engage with this collection of stories and this grouping of people, of lives, in some sort of musical fashion. And we were really delighted when Ed was so welcoming of this interest in engaging with the material in the archive. From there, the project started growing. In Martha's initial conception of it, it was just a song cycle; from Ed's inspired suggestion that we reach out to Rhiannon Giddens, who, as it turns out like Tsitsi was a friend of Martha's from many, many years ago, the project grew to include not just a song cycle with performances by four incredible black artists, Karen Slack, soprano, countertenor, Reggie Mobley, baritone, Will Liverman, and pianist Howard Watkins, but also to include Rhiannon's performances and now also a choral work by Joel Thompson, which will be performed first by students at Lincoln University.

Annette Richards: (04:53)
It's an extraordinarily ambitious collective collaborative undertaking and Sean Okpebholo, the composer, is involved as well. Is that right?

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (05:02)
Right. So, this project has two main musical components. One of them, Songs in Flight, is a song cycle, which has music by Sean Okpebholo, but with texts by, and curated by, Tsitsi, and this piece will have the ability to work as a standalone piece of music for these artists. The individual movements also can be excerpted and performed alone, but in the context of the initial performances of this work, it will be interleaved with works curated and performed by Rhiannon Giddens. So it has a sort of telescopic, telescoping quality to the piece.

Annette Richards: (05:54)
Let's listen to a little bit of Sean Okpebholo's music. I thought we'd just play a little bit of Will Liverman, baritone, who's going to be part of this project, singing with Paul Sanchez at the piano, the second movement of "Two Black Churches." The text is the poem "The Rain" by Marcus Amaker reflecting on the 2015 shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which resulted in the death of nine parishioners.

Sean Okpebholo: (06:25)
When the reality of racism returns
All joy treads water in oceans of buried emotion
When the reality of racism returns...

Annette Richards: (07:50)
Tsitsi, let's turn to you for a moment and talk a little bit about the texts here. You're a poet and a literary and musical scholar, and so you're writing and compiling texts here. I'm wondering how you're approaching this task of bringing to life the many voices that emerge from the ads in the database. How do you choose them? What does it mean to use these, these advertisements in all their very fascinating and painful detail as the basis for songs? Tell us a bit about that.

Tsitsi Jaji: (08:22)
It's, uh, a wonderful question and a very difficult one to answer. When Martha called me in those early days of, of this wild pandemic and asked if I would be interested in a project and was describing the archive, I hadn't heard about it at that time, about Freedom on the Move, the collection of advertisements. I, I literally had chills and tears in my eyes, as I realized what a profound opportunity it was to bear witness to a history that I engage with in my scholarship, but in very abstracted ways and these portraits of self-liberating people, who we learn just enough about to have a sense of their individual and unique personhood, and also of all the complexities that are excised from these versions of their, their lives, I think have a very different, or convey a very different, relation to the past from anything I've encountered before.

And then the question of actually spending time with the archive came up and it's been very, very difficult. And in fact, the first poem that I wrote was literally about not wanting to spend time reading these, trying to figure out how to start, what to pay attention to, what was distracting in ways that seemed interesting. And in that poem, I talk about choosing to look for a woman, and the very first ad that came up for me was a woman named Phebe and her name was spelled P H E B E. And that alone seemed really interesting to me. In my poetry I tend to think a lot about the page. I love sound and I choose words that reward enunciation in, in their pacing and their phrasing, et cetera. But the page itself is also very important to me. So looking at the font, at the kind of etching that comes up in, in countless ads, it's just a generic etching of a female body. All of those things seemed both very interesting and much easier to focus on than the fact that somebody knew Phebe well enough to talk about her cheeks and about how she chose to wear her hair, and had a sensibility and a resistance, even in how she was holding her own body before she took her own body; to think that somebody could own someone like that, know them, clearly have human connection to them, and still consider them property was a difficult thing to sit with.

Ed Baptist: (13:27)
I mean, there, there's so many directions one could go in and, and the first thing I would say is that what's so exciting about working on this project, how it's been for me is, is the opportunity that as a historian you don't necessarily get, which is to work with other people and to really be part of a process in which other people are creating these sort of amazing things, out of the same material and things that, that you could not see in the material yourself, or you could not create, uh, yourself. And that's been incredibly gratifying.

I work with a group of other historians and education experts. And so when Lucy and, and Martha approached me, it was like this sort of dream come true to, to hear that this profound artistic response was underway, you know, to hear about it in those sort of first really disruptive and, and frightening weeks of, of the pandemic to, to hear that this creative process was underway. And there's something really, I think, significant, in it, because there's something that sort of mirrors the archive itself in certain ways, not, not the archive, you know, as it exists in a particular kind of code on a particular set of servers that, you know, particular group of historians said, Hey, why don't we do this? But, but the archive in the sense of the broader archive of, of these ads, which is an archive that enslavers had to create against their will, and they had to create it because of the resistance of hundreds of thousands of self-liberating people.

And of course the archive itself also, you know, was a tool of policing and policing we should note always implies the power to kill, and implied the power to kill right there in the laws of, uh, uh, that empowered every single white person in the United States of America and the 13 colonies before that, to kill any suspected runaway, if deemed necessary, if resistance was supposedly going on. And so that gets us to the second point, you know, which Tsitsi raised just now, which is that there's this whole detailed history to be drawn out of the, the long story of racialized and racializing police in, in the United States of America, which is one of the single most important stories I think that we can understand about the history of the United States. It's absolutely constitutive to what the United States is today in all kinds of ways, especially if we bring in the policing of, and the forced movement of indigenous people, but then that just sort of adds another sort of power of analysis to it. But the history is very detailed and winding like a river in some ways, but it's also a river that runs directly from the source to the present, right? There's a through line to where we are today and where we're gonna be tomorrow. And I'm absolutely convinced of that, but I think that, uh, understanding that reality through artistic process is something that is gonna be more persuasive than any, work of historical analysis could be.

Annette Richards: (16:36)
Mm-hmm, it's also one of the, one of the strengths of performance. Performance is necessarily in the moment, in the present, even if it's, you know, negotiating the past in all kinds of interesting and complicated ways. So that sense of bringing something into the moment is necessarily part of creating actual performance works out of this material too, and confronting audiences as well. I think, I mean, certainly one of the things that emerges so strongly from the ads is that the collective amassing of extraordinarily painful stories, one after the other, I think that's where this sort of power of this personal detail comes in.

And I wonder, maybe this is a moment for us to just listen to a little bit of Rhiannon Gidden's 2017 song "At the Purchaser's Option." I think this is perhaps an example of the kind of work she's going to be doing for this project. Giddens sings here in the voice of a young woman put up for sale, so this isn't a fugitive slave ad, but an advertisement for sale. And it's harrowing, the advertisement runs like this: "For sale, Negro wench, used to both housework and farming and sold for no fault, but for want of employ, she has a child about nine months old, which will be at the purchaser's option."

Rhiannon Giddens “At the Purchaser's Option": (17:58)
I've got a babe but shall I keep him
'Twill come the day when I'll be weepin'
But how can I love him any less
This little babe upon my breast
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul

Annette Richards: (18:41)
So Ed, you obviously know this song already.

Ed Baptist: (18:45)
Yes. Yeah. When that album was released, I mean that was the first song that I listened to, and it just knocked me on the floor, as I, as I told you, because, you know, here was this story I'd been trying to write about for 400 pages and, uh, and there, it was in about three and a half minutes and, uh, right, right there, all of it right there. And it's amazing and emotionally devastating, and, uh, that's the history of the United States wrapped, wrapped up in that song.

Annette Richards: (19:16)

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (19:23)
Yeah. I mean, there are really no words to, uh, describe this sort of depth and breadth of Rhiannon Giddens' musical and artistic genius. She is such a sort of syncretic performer drawing on her earlier training in classical music, the historical work that she does, her relationship with her partner, who is also a musician and somebody who engages in the practice of both early music, but also in improvisatory work that we might recognize more today as coming out of jazz. And there's so many different things that strike me in listening to this song. One of them is of course, this incredible power when we combine poetry and music, to be able to tell a story.

And as Ed says, to kind of encapsulate the dark history, but also the undeniable will of the people who made this country in a three-minute song. One of the things that I found particularly moving was a moment sort of later in the song where we hear the, the figuration, the sort of repetitive, rhythmic character of the piece underneath Rhiannon's voice, it drops out just for a moment, and this is a technique that I recognize from Baroque music, where a composer might have a sort of underlying rhythm given to us by the continuo, by the harpsichord and by maybe a lute and other accompanying lower voiced instruments, and that rhythm and that movement forward - when it disappears, when we hear it, um, constantly throughout the song, we don't really register it, but in the moment of its disappearance, the text and the work that the voice, and in this case, the sort of upper strings are doing becomes even more clear and even more haunting and even more disturbing in this case, as she's talking about the work that her body is doing for somebody else's benefit, it's just such a brilliant use of orchestration in that moment. And one reason why her involvement in this project is really such a blessing and an honor to have her involved.

Annette Richards: (21:50)
Let's zoom out a little bit there and look at the larger project from precisely this angle. It's fascinating, the way Singing Freedom is interleaving folk and classical idioms. And it seems to highlight the complicated status of art music with respect to folk music. And, you know, the notion that art song is the music of the white oppressor, the enslaver, and that it necessarily then stands in opposition to the kinds of folk idioms that Rhiannon Giddens is so beautifully and virtuosically working with. Do you want to reflect a little bit, both Lucy and Tsitsi on that aspect of this whole project, this kind of genre-crossing, genre-questioning aspect of it?

Tsitsi Jaji: (22:37)
I think that's a wonderful question. From my perspective, I, on the one hand, I'm very conscious of how differently musicians talk about what they do and, um, producers, let's say, in that the idea that genres are discreet, separate, contradictory, segregated, etcetera, is one that is rarely embraced by musicians or at least the musicians we remember. I think Duke Ellington famously said that music is beyond category. And for many black composers of art music, this has been one of the things I would say that makes their music black, in that there are many musical practices and traditions that art music composers have drawn upon. The most obvious is probably the spirituals, which composers are still setting in chilling and gorgeous ways. And I think about a particular setting of "Oh, freedom, before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave.” In Sean Okpebholo's setting of that, the bass accompanying it in the piano, it's all these clustered chords in the bass so that you can't discern what the pitches are so much as the heaviness and the trudging rhythm of ostinato beats throughout the setting. And so that particular version takes what was at one moment, a folk song, a song that belonged to impoverished and enslaved people and hears it in a new way that for me, at least brought their bodily exhaustion, determination, and unendingness to light in a way that I'd never heard it before

Sean Okpebholo “Oh, Freedom”: (24:43)

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom,
Oh freedom over me.
And before I'd be a slave
I'd be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
No more mourning
They’ll be no more mourning
Oh no, no more mourning over me

And before I'd be a slave
I'd be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Tsitsi Jaji: (26:50)
And so he's notating that in a classical manuscript way and it's being performed in concert halls, but that's, that is in so many senses, a setting of a folk text and a folk song. And it's always in relation to this multiplicity of other expressive traditions. In part, I would say, because that repertoire of the spirituals and also repertoires of blues and roots and old time music, etcetera, they're played by so many people. And so when they're adopted in different performance settings, I think it's just part of that continuing tradition of extending freedom into the musical and aesthetic realm. To me, that's the height of musical performance of Freedom on the Move is to just range, um, without any sort of inhibition, hesitation, et cetera, across all of these different idioms and to seize them all. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of Dubois, W E B Dubois — his wife, by the way, Shirley Graham Dubois composed wonderful art songs of her own — but Dubois has this wonderful thing in The Souls of Black Folks that "I sit with Shakespeare and Shakespeare is not ashamed." And for this man who in so many ways defined the shape of African American studies to, to say that I think says a lot about the ease and confidence and, and fierce intentionality of ranging across supposed genres.

Annette Richards: (28:36)
Mm-hmm , that's brilliant. Lucy, you've been thinking about this too. Do you want to say a little bit about how you are thinking about doing this project?

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (28:43)
Absolutely. So from our perspective at Sparks and Wiry Cries as an organization that is interested in exploring not just the history of art song, which can be in some ways very problematic, but also thinking about the ways in which we as modern performers of historical works and of new works, engage in reshaping or re-understanding that history, I think this project is really important. Something that is central to the identity of an art song is, while it is existing within this tradition, that certainly has issues, um, in terms of not just class division, but even, white supremacy, you know, art song used by the Nazi party as a propaganda tool.

This art form is also an art form that is more accessible within classical music than other larger scale art forms, both from the standpoint of a composer and from the standpoint of performers. So for black composers who were born in the late 19th century and active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps they could not get an opera performed, the kinds of resources that would've been necessary to mobilize those forces may not have been available, but a singer and a pianist could be. It's the same reason why we see more women composers of art song at that time as well, from the standpoint of performers, the same story is true at a time when, you know, Marion Anderson could not break the color line at the Met until the middle part of the 20th century, but singers such as tenor Roland Hayes, um, or HT Burley, both of whom, Roland Hayes and Burley were both composers and performers, were able to engage very meaningfully with art song, and also with this reinterpretation of, and arrangement of, the spiritual tradition, reinterpreting and reexamining, these works within this other tradition.

And so I think for us this project, and being able to engage with the rich history of those performers, composers poets, many of whom have been lost to us —we don't teach them in schools, we don't teach them in conservatories, we don't necessarily even have recordings of them because the recording industry didn't have as much interest in recording those artists, even though they were making music and performing both within the United States and Europe —this project allows us to engage with that history in a way that continues to examine, and ideally, as you were saying earlier, Annette, asks the audience also to engage with in the moment.

Annette Richards: (31:50)
So Singing Freedom is quite literally going to be on the move, one of the ideas behind this project is that you are really going to be taking the performances on the road. There are a whole number of different venues, different locations where you're planning to present these performances, these works, these events, perhaps one could call them. Tell us a little bit about where these performances are going to take place and what you hope for in terms of collaboration along the way, what you hope for in terms of audiences you're going to reach.

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (32:30)
One of the really exciting aspects of this project has been the way in which we have been able to connect with people across the United States—performers, venues, historians, educators. Also maybe one of the terrifying things, because it means there's a lot of parts in motion, but this project, the song cycle by Sean and Tsitsi will premiere in New York City in January, 2023, and from there will move to Philadelphia. We are partnering with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. And that is where we will have the premier of Joel Thompson's choral work. And this is something that's very important to us because in Philadelphia, the performers of the song cycle and Rhiannon will be joined by students at Lincoln University. Lincoln University's own founding history has at its center a story of liberation and emancipation. And so it is really an incredible honor to help facilitate this expression of that history through this performance. So we'll be working with the students there and engaging with not just the incredible performers, the three singers and pianists I mentioned earlier, as well as Rhiannon Giddens, but also with young performers, which is really, I think, an exciting part of this project for us. From Philadelphia, the project will have performances in Durham, and ultimately up here in the Finger Lakes where we will be having residencies and working with students at Ithaca College, where Martha teaches and at Cornell University, as well as a performance here in the community and up in Auburn at Harriet Tubman's church.

Ed Baptist: (34:35)
Well, I guess the first thing I would say is I plan to be at all of those, uh, whether to take car, truck, bus, train, airplane, I plan to go to all those because I think all of them will be different even if the lineup of performers is the same. In some of the cases, I, I think they'll all be quite different in different spaces with different audiences. And I, I plan to try to soak it all in and learn from it. That's certainly something that I, uh, plan to do. And I just am incredibly excited to see what comes out of this particular project, working with these sources that, that I'm also working with in my own way. But as I said before, talents and approaches are I think going to be able to engage the history, engage the past and the present in, in ways that I believe are going to be transformative for me at any rate.

Annette Richards: (35:38)
And I think transformative for anybody who comes into contact with this, perhaps this is a moment to just call a pause in the conversation. I feel like there's going to be much more to say about this over the next year or so, or what is the timeframe here, actually, Lucy and Tsitsi? When are we going to be hearing these performances?

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (35:58)
So the first performance of this song cycle will be in January of 2023. We have been in talks with some people at Bard and it's possible we may be workshopping the piece there in the fall 2022, but for now put January, 2023 in your calendars. The entire world has been disrupted because of the Coronavirus pandemic, but for us as singers where our very instruments have become perhaps dangerous in the context of an airborne pathogen, it really has disrupted our industry quite a lot, and so we're hoping that everything will proceed as planned through the spring of 2023, culminating with this performance and recording of the works at Harriet Tubman's church in Auburn, New York.

Annette Richards: (36:55)
And a celebration of being able to sing freely again.

Tsitsi Jaji: (36:59)
I know you said at some point you wanted me to read a poem. So I'll read the ad from the poem that I mentioned about Ahmaud Arbery and then the poem, and the poem is dedicated to Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones. This advertisement, which is naming a relative of, or at least an ancestor of some sort of the McMichaels goes like this: $100 reward. Ran away from the subscriber about 25th of December last a Negro man from the name of Edom weighing about 180 pounds, copper color, wore off a large pair of whiskers, a white fur hat and decent clothing for a Negro. Said boy is about thirty-five or six years old and was once owned by R R Hardy of Lowndes County, Alabama. Any person apprehending said boy and delivering him to me 10 miles west of Monticello, Georgia shall have the above reward or$50 if confined in any safe jail. So I can get him with the proper information of his apprehension and confinement, Shadrack McMichael.

Tsitsi Jaji: (38:10)
For Wanda Cooper Jones.
One, for three voices. Mothers say our name first, choked with wondrous love. Nothing is more holy than that first farewell: the womb, no longer habitable delivers us to a world of home. Always the first song we hear is a world of “Welcome Home!”
Two, for soprano. The hush of the living room couch, where it was before, your room, still as death, the house full of your runaway Self. My mind runs backwards. What's the sense in this? You were always marked, set, flying. Now gunshots end the race. What wondrous love will resurrect you? When I walk in the shadow of Spanish moss, I cannot see my way for salt. Is this what smoke did, years ago in the woods, beneath such strange and blistered fruit? We'll never sing so loud as our first day home, wail and mother-song in chorus. Now I rasp old sorrow songs, while on others God is calling. Run on, my boy, run on to Glory and leave me captive to this grief.

Thank you.

Annette Richards: (40:07)
Wow, that's beautiful. Thank you.

Tsitsi Jaji: (40:11)
I just have to say about all of this, that it is kind of astonishing how much creativity and life can be inspired by this long litany of death.

Annette Richards: (40:22)
Mm-hmm .

Tsitsi Jaji: (40:24)
and resisting death.

Annette Richards: (40:25)
Mm-hmm .

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (40:26)
Yeah.

Ed Baptist (40:27)
Yeah.

Annette Richards: (40:28)
Well, thank you all very much indeed, for joining us today. Thank you, Tsitsi, Lucy and Ed. It's been wonderful to talk to you.

We've been talking today with poet Tsitsi Jaji associate professor of English at Duke University, soprano, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, interim director of the vocal programs at Cornell, and historian Ed Baptist, professor of history at Cornell. Thank you to all of you.

Tsitsi Jaji: (41:53)
It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

Ed Baptist: (41:56)
Thanks as well. Thanks for having me.

Lucy Fitz Gibbon: (41:58)
Thank you.

Annette Richards: (41:00)
The Humanities Pod is a production of the Society for the Humanities, introducing you to some of the new work, the current conversations and the latest ideas of humanists at and around Cornell. The pod is recorded by Bert Odom-Reed and produced by Tyler Lurie-Spicer. Our music is from The Continuing Story of Counterpoint by David Borden, performed and recorded by Mother Mallard's Portable Masterpiece Company. Our thanks go to the College of Arts and Sciences, and we acknowledge the Cayuga Nation on whose traditional lands Cornell is situated.

End (41:57)

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