The Desponding Negro

Words by John Collins; music by William Reeve, 1792

What was originally planned for the character telling this story? What happened to change the plan? What is the man who was enslaved doing now?

How is the character’s life different as a “free” black man from the life he would have led as an enslaved individual? Do you think he is really “free”?

What was the goal of the writer of this song? Who was the audience for the song? How well did he achieve his goal? What does the author think about slavery?

What emotions does the character express? How do the words express these feelings? How does the music express them? What emotions was the author trying to make the audience feel?

What lines in the song play on the emotions of listeners? How would its impact change if it were sung in third, instead of first, person? How else did the author humanize Africans forced into slavery?

When this song was written, where was slavery legal in the United States, where was it illegal, and where was it gradually being phased out? What kinds of arguments were used to argue for or against slavery? How does this song figure into those arguments?

Compare this song with the actual music of enslaved Africans during this period. How are they the same? How are they different?

"The Desponding Negro" John Townley on The Top Hits of 1776. © 1976. Available on YouTube and on Spotify.

This recording is sung solo, as it would have been on the musical stage.

View the lyrics for "The Desponding Negro."

View the published score.

This song was written by British poet, orator, and musical entertainer John Collins (1742–1808) in a collection of theatrical stories and songs called The Brush: A Medley of the Follies, Vices, and Absurdities of the Age. Like many of Collins’s texts, “The Desponding Negro” was set to music by William Reeve (1757–1815). It appeared in publication as early as 1792.

The text tells of an enslaved African who is struck by lightning and blinded on the deck of the slave ship. Since he would be expensive to maintain in such a state and worthless on the auction block, his captors throw him overboard. He survives, only to become a beggar.

British composers often wrote songs about Africans and African Americans in dialect. These songs were predecessors to the minstrel songs that were popular in the 1840s and well beyond. In early songs, the use of dialect is inconsistent. In “The Desponding Negro,” there is no dialect, even though it is sung from the perspective of a Black character. The serious tone of this song also sets it apart from later minstrel songs. “Pathetic” songs, as they were called, presented sad stories of enslaved people and, in flowery language, attempted to draw sympathy and appeal to their listeners’ consciences.

These songs were part of the growing anti-slavery sentiment in England. Abolitionism was slower to gain widespread support in the United States. When this song appeared, slavery was beginning to be gradually phased out in many of the northern states, and only a relatively small number of abolitionists were advocating for an end to slavery in all states.

Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, sold at publick sale in May 12th, Christiansburg, Montgomery County by Lewis Miller

"Miss Fillis and child, and Bill, sold at publick sale in May 12th, Christiansburg, Montgomery County," Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed April 30, 2021

halfpenny (ha' penny): A copper coin of half the value of a penny.

bark: A rowing boat.

Compare this song with music actually composed by enslaved Africans during this period. How are they the same? How are they different? Rewrite this song as an African American might really sing it.

Chart the story's plot using this graphic organizer:

Write a single event in each block in the order it occurs. Add as many blocks as needed to include the whole story.


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