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Women in Appalachia: Songs of Slavery and Emancipation at John C. Campbell Folk School

Lilly Knoepp

Music can be used to preserve emotions and stories, even from centuries ago. A recent project is working to share the songs and music by enslaved people and abolitionists from American history.

Dr. Kathy Bullock is a former professor in the music department at Berea College in Kentucky. Bullock and others worked to record the songs from the newly published book Songs of Slavery and Emancipation” by scholar Mat Callahan.

Bullock explains that one song is called “Nat Turner,” and chronicles the rebellion against slavery that was led by Nat Turner inVirginia in 1831.

“Black folks thought of him as a hero – he died as a result. They wanted to tell the story, many times you couldn’t do it out loud, it was dangerous,” Bullock said. “It’s really the first time that people are hearing the song since the 1800s.”

Bullock explained that it was excited to get musicians together to record the songs.

“I was one of the ones asked to take about eight songs, to get folks together, to sing them and record them so that instead of notes on the page, we could get a feel for how the music would have been sung,” Bullock said.

The project alsoproduced a film about the process with the nonprofit Art History and Politics.

The songs in the book range from shape note tunes, protest songs, abolitionist ballads and more.

BPR visited the John C. Campbell Folk School as part of our Appalachian Women’s Oral History Tour and was able to pop into Bullock’s class, “African American and Appalachian Musical Connections.”

The students learned “Nat Turner” from “Songs of Slavery and Emancipation” along with other songs from Appalachia and Africa.

“We have been spending the week looking and listening and singing and performing music and stories of Black musicians who grew up or performed in Appalachia, looking at all kinds of wonderful connections between African Americans, Irish, Native Americans – just all of the folks that were here and so many of the stories that have been left out," Bullock said.

Listen to the full song:

"Nat Turner" Song
Dr. Kathy Bullock's class sings "Nat Turner" song at John C. Campbell Folk School.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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