Mear: Berea, KY - Tim Eriksen, Allison Steel & Allison Langston

We were in Berea for a remarkable convocation event at the college, celebrating the book, CD and film Songs of Slavery and Abolition, which we took part in filming and recording in 2018. We did our part at the David Ruggles Center in Florence, MA though much of the rest of it was done at the college. Mear, 49b in the Sacred Harp, is the earliest known piece of American music, or rather the earliest piece of published music written by anyone born in what would become the USA, ca. 1720. I've written about it at some length- let me know if you're super interested and I can send you some stuff, but just a few things for now. Mear is pretty much ubiquitous- the most perennial piece in what would become the shapenote repertoire, with the possible exception of Old 100. It was a favorite of many well known tunes used by abolitionists at an array of gatherings, usually with texts written especially for the cause. For the concert we used a text from William Wells Brown's Antislavery Harp, 1848, a words only book that suggests the tune Ortonville. That's a good one too, but Mear is better and seems to have been more popular in the movement, at least with Black singers. William Wells Brown was a remarkable figure- one of the most well known and respected of his day. I don't remember even hearing his name before this project, despite his having been a celebrated orator, novelist, playwright, activist and doctor, and despite my having researched a lot of adjacent history including several events it turns out he attended.

Brown was born into enslavement in Mount Sterling, KY not far from Berea (which has its own amazing history), but by the time of the Civil War he was practicing medicine in Boston, having gone through just about everything. There's a story, which he didn't dispute (though apparently didn't believe), that he was the grandson of Daniel Boone. He's now probably best known as the author of the novel Clotel, a piece of well informed fiction centering one of Thomas Jefferson's enslaved daughters. Here are the lyrics from the Antislavery Harp. Verse 3 seems to speak particularly to Brown's biography, though it speaks to untold others as well. Check out the great and still newish (2014) biography by Ezra Greenspan. Amazing that it took that long.

What mean ye that ye bruise and bind

My people, saith the Lord,

And starve your craving brother’s mind,

Who asks to hear my word?

What mean ye that ye make them toil,

Through long and dreary years,

And shed like rain upon your soil

Their blood and bitter tears?

What mean ye,

that ye dare to rend

The tender mother’s heart?

Brothers from sisters, friend from friend,

How dare you bid them part?

What mean ye, when God’s bounteous hand

To you so much has given,

That from the slave who tills your land

Ye keep both earth and heaven?

When at the judgment God shall call,

Where is thy brother? say,

What mean ye to the Judge of all

To answer on that day?