Writings on Music: The Sorrow Songs

A Comparative Study of African-American and Hebraic Song Texts

Note from the Author:  “The Sorrow Songs as Lamentation” was written as my thesis paper for completion of my degree in English Literature at Bosphorus University, and was presented at the Boğaziçi University American Studies Conference “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Ethnicity, Race and Gender” held March 6-7 2003 in Istanbul, Turkey.


For DuBois, the early African American slave songs and spirituals were “Sorrow Songs” of a denarrated people sighing for rest and a hope in the ultimate justice of things. The songs sing true of a people of exile, disinherited of their homeland, who openly lamented their enslavement and strife in a way that brought them closer as a community and strengthened their cause for redemption. The songs are expressions of “deepest hurt and profoundest hope”, of a culture formed in trial and persecution, where there was no reluctance to commune and enter worship with pain, to cry out in lament.

Uniquely paralleled to the “Sorrow Songs” are the ancient Hebraic psalms of individual and communal lament of a people who suffered similar grief, oppression and alienation. In their stories and journeys through deserts of despair to lands of promise, the Israelites allowed a people many years later to find deep resonance with their own cause for freedom. The “suffering of affliction” in the lament psalms speaks too of a people who found the strength to sing true in the face of strife with hearts of deep honesty and sincere hope.

“In modern history lamentation has no generic line” and as a genre is not exclusive in form and meter. Yet the lament of the ancient near east, exemplified in the Hebraic psalm, can still find parallels in contemporary and near-contemporary settings like the songs and spirituals of the pre-emancipation African-Americans. As lovers of the literature of the past, we must learn from those who “not only sang of sorrow, but lived lament until it broke loose into the freedom of joy.”

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The Sorrow Songs as Lamentation – BarishGolland
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