Review Essay | The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music. Edited by Harry Belafonte. New York, NY: Buddha Records, distributed by BMG, 2001. 5 Compact discs; DVD; book.

The title The Long Road to Freedom describes both the journey of the African Americans whose music Harry Belafonte engages in this collection and the path of the project itself. Conceived in the late 1950s, The Long Road to Freedom includes representations of African American musical traditions from their roots in West African societies through the work songs sung by prisoners on chain gangs in the wake of the Civil War and on into the 1960s. The recording process for this monumental project—originally five records and an accompanying book—spanned the decade between 1961 and ‘71. If that were not enough, the corporate alliance that initially supported the project had broken up by the time the recordings were completed and, as he tells it, Belafonte chose to shelve the project indefinitely rather than revamp its scope for distribution as a smaller product. Nearly thirty years passed before it was taken up again when an executive at Buddha Records searched the archives catalogue and retrieved a record for a project called “Anthology of Negro Folk Music.”

Lamenting Americans’ general lack of knowledge about cultural history, Belafonte imagined the project as a way to educate listeners about the history and breadth of African American musical practices while at the same time providing an entertaining musical package. He reasoned that the older recordings documenting some of these practices were inaccessible to most audiences because of their location in archives and their generally poor sound quality, and chose instead to direct a collection of new performances rather than assembling already existing recordings. Belafonte’s desire to make such a collection generally accessible is an admirable guiding principle, yet the performance, content, and style decisions that followed from this choice warrant critical commentary.

The Long Road to Freedom is shot through with questions not only about the project itself, but also about the representation of both the musical and socio–cultural histories around which the project is defined. In excerpts from an interview that appears in the book and in the film that documents the revival of The Long Road to Freedom, Belafonte relates RCA’s initial resistance to the project on the grounds that it lacked commercial viability. It was not until he piqued the enthusiasm of executive George Marek that Belafonte received the necessary institutional support to begin the selection of material and performers for the recordings. In our era of anthologies, re–releases, revived curiosity about folk and traditional musics, and the increasing study of all genres of African American music (both contemporary and historical), this early disinterest might be somewhat surprising. Yet it is crucial to acknowledge that Belafonte’s vision was truly pioneering at the time. The first recordings for the project—and certainly the project’s proposal—precede some of the foundational written histories of African American music, including LeRoi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka’s) Blues People (1963), Charles Keil’s Urban Blues(1966), and Eileen Southern’s important 1971 text The Music of Black Americans: A History.1 At the same time, Belafonte recorded this project in the midst of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Thus, while we may question some of the representational choices made by Belafonte and others, we also have the responsibility to view and listen to The Long Road to Freedom as itself an historical object shaped by surrounding political movements and without scholarly precedent.

Even in its earlier incarnation, The Long Road to Freedom was intended to include both recordings and an accompanying text with commentary and historical information. In its current form, the handsome book includes an introduction by Belafonte recounting the history of the project, numerous reproductions of artwork related to the subjects of the project and photos documenting the recording process, and an extended musical essay by Mari Evans with a section on minstrelsy by Al Pryor. Both the recordings and the essays are grouped along thematic lines, such as “Shouts and Early Spirituals,” “Ballads and Frolics,” “My God is a Rock,” etc. While I admire the inclusion of such an extended essay, the material covered in each section of the text is quite uneven. “The Long Road to Freedom: War,” containing songs related to African American participation in the Civil War, includes both notes specific to individual pieces as well as historical information about the Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the appeals that prominent leaders such as Frederick Douglass made for black men to join the military, and the role of slaves aiding Union soldiers. Other sections, such as “City Moods,” do little more than offer three paragraphs vaguely describing the setting and do not even mention songs by name. The richness of the historical and musical context of the former example goes far in providing the educational experience Belafonte wanted, but the contrast between the two sections also starkly reveals the paucity of the latter, leaving listeners interested in that material with few contextual resources.

With the substantial trend in releasing archival and field recordings on compact disc in a continuous quest for sonic authenticity, The Long Road to Freedom presents an interesting case, for it is both an early attempt at such a project and an historical object itself. Since the project aimed at representing musical practices that existed before the advent of recording, the performances are, by necessity, acts of historical and creative interpretation. This issue affects both the choice of material and the shaping of performances, and Belafonte et al. have used several approaches.

To represent the earliest sounds of African American music, Belafonte recorded practitioners of then-current musical practices as a kind of living history. Two examples of this are “The Roots,” performed by West African musicians, and the many contributions of musicians from the Georgia Sea Islands. Many have become skeptical about this representational strategy because it carries with it an aura of static primitive practices existing outside of cultural change and, when used without critical comment, perpetuates historical inaccuracy.

Other sections cultivated a sense of historical reenactment through grouping recordings either as if they were part of a continuous performance context or by including peripheral sounds that aid in setting the scene for the listener’s imaginative interaction with the recordings. “Shouts and Early Spirituals,” a re–creation of slaves’ New Year’s practices, employs the former strategy with tracks bleeding into one another and with greetings and farewells framing the beginning and end of the section. Likewise, “Bad Men, Booze and Minstrels” includes an abbreviated “Folk–Minstrel Scene” with jokes and songs. In the essay on minstrelsy Al Pryor carefully points out that the project collaborators have chosen not to include the most degrading aspects of typical minstrel acts. Less formal musical sounds appear in several tracks of street vendors’ cries in “City Moods,” field, sunrise, and graveyard hollers in “Country Moods,” and the appearance of children’s game songs in both of these sections. Credits for collection, direction, arrangement, and conducting suggest that at least some of these street cries, hollers, and game songs were based on field recordings. All of these are also included as part of the overall musical-historical argument of the collection that aims to link less formal sonic communications such as these to other, more explicitly musical-cultural expressions.

The earliest music not documented in notation no doubt feels most opaque to us, but music that is documented in notation, such as songs from the Civil War, or that has remained in continuous circulation, such as spirituals, presents a different but related problem. Should the performances sound as we imagined they might have been sung by slaves or marching troops, or should they use stylized arrangements more palatable to audiences today who are experiencing them solely as listeners rather than participants? In many of the recordings, the use of thick harmonies and variable ensemble size within individual pieces point to the latter strategy, a choice that seems to be informed by the desire to fulfill the dual task of education and entertainment, and the strong influence of Leonard de Paur, the principal arranger. De Paur, a student of esteemed African American choral conductor Hall Johnson, continued the practice of using the kind of concert arrangements of vernacular and religious music initiated by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late nineteenth century.

While one might criticize some of the performances mentioned above for regularizing varied musical practices for the purpose of recording, the acoustic blues performances in the collection by Gloria Lynne, Joe Williams, and Brownie McGhee remind us that, even though we now think of blues as falling into standardized textual and harmonic patterns, historical evidence suggests that form was far less standardized in its early days. Williams occasionally sneaks an extra beat or two into the total cycle, and Brownie McGhee’s performance of “Black Woman” has quite variable cycle lengths.

The choices to stylize vernacular and religious music to achieve a more concerted sound, to create musical–dramatic units for particular sections, and to record current practices as living history will no doubt draw criticism on the grounds of inaccuracy and inauthenticity. Though I hesitate to enter into the quagmire surrounding this hot-button topic, it is an issue raised by the creators and marketing strategies of the project itself. The participants interviewed in the film—a record executive, an archivist,

Leonard de Paur, Joe Willams, and Harry Belafonte
(The Long Road to Freedom 40)

the engineers and producers who transferred the material to digital media, and Belafonte himself—repeatedly refer to the original recordings as documenting the most authentic versions of early African American music and of affirming their commitment to preserving the original vision of the project.

Two points are worth raising in this regard. First, as a document finally released at the beginning of the twenty–first century, The Long Road to Freedom is one of many musical collections now appearing that draw their appeal from a currently vast interest in revivals of folk and traditional music. (See the folk revival symposium in the previous issue of this journal). Second, the entire project is itself an argument about the persistence of African practices in African American music and, importantly, appreciating rather than disparaging those influences, and Belafonte chose to use what he perceived to be the most accessible performances to make that musical-historical argument. The artistic choices here, the fact of even making the choice to try to represent these older traditions, pushes forward the still difficult question of how best to render these older practices in sound rather than simply flailing our hands in the air at the impossibility of the task. Whether or not one agrees with Belafonte’s choices, the project provides some beautiful performances from which to ground further discussion.

A final comment about the project: most of the selections are disappointingly short, an issue obviously shaped by the material constraints of the original format. However, many of the performances are achingly beautiful and sure to tantalize listeners. It is precisely because this project is so stimulating that I would have hoped for more information about both how material was chosen and how to learn more about related music and history. This subject is too vast for any such project to be definitive, and I hope that future edition of this ambitious, valuable project might include more supplemental material and reflection on its own history in order to best serve its own stated goals.

Jessica M. Courtier
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Works Cited

Jones, LeRoi (Imamu Amiri Baraka). Blues People: Negro Music in White AmericaNew York: W. Morrow, 1963.

Keil, Charles. Urban Blues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. “Who Hears Here? Black Music, Critical Bias, and the Musicological Skin Trade.” Musical Quarterly 85.1 (2001): 1–52.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.

  1.  For a stimulating and lucent account of and contextualization for these and other early monographs on the history of African American music, see Ramsey.
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