Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 4, 2024

The songs of the ancestors

My grandmother was born in Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania, a little village in the Allegheny hill country in the southwestern corner of the state.  It's a beautiful region, whose first European settlers came in the eighteenth century from Scotland and Northern Ireland, with some later influxes from Germany and eastern Europe.

It's also got more than its fair share of poverty.  The soil is rocky and poor, and farming was never really going to work for more than the barest subsistence.  Until the coal boom of the 1880s, and then the discovery of natural gas there in the 1920s, a lot of people -- my grandmother's family included -- did little more than scrape by.  Despite her hardscrabble roots, and far more than their fair share of troubles, my grandma was always proud of the people she'd come from.  I remember spending many hours as a child listening to her stories of growing up there, and how proud she was of her Scottish ancestry.

One constant thread for her, and one I've inherited, was music.  She knew scores of old ballads, which I now know were carried across the Atlantic Ocean from Scotland and Northern England by my grandmother's ancestors and others like them -- "Annie Laurie," "Ye Banks and Braes," "Barbara Allen," "The Four Marys," and "Lord Randall" amongst them, all songs I still love not only for their nostalgia but because they're honestly beautiful.  A study by British historian and musicologist Cecil Sharp found that many songs and tunes that still persist both in the Appalachians and in the Scottish lowlands have actually changed less in their western versions; put another way, the Appalachian musical tradition preserves virtually unchanged the musical culture from its English and Scottish roots three centuries ago.

As fascinating as this is (and however important for my own personal family history), this is far from the most astonishing example of persistence in musical tradition despite distance, time, and hardship.  In fact, the reason this comes up is an article last week in Smithsonian Magazine that was sent to me by a friend and long-time loyal reader of Skeptophilia about a song still sung in Sierra Leone that was preserved close to perfectly in the Gullah Geechee culture of the Sea Islands in Georgia.

Here are the bare bones of the story -- but you really should read the entire account at the link above, because it's amazing.

In 1933, a Black linguist and anthropologist named Lorenzo Dow Turner was studying the Gullah language of coastal Georgia and South Carolina.  Gullah is a creole -- a language formed by the mixture of other languages, sometimes beginning so that people of different languages could communicate with each other for purposes of trade, but eventually solidifying into a true complex language with its own syntax, morphology, and lexicon.  In the case of Gullah, its roots come from various West African languages and English, but due to the remoteness (and difficulty of travel) of the region where it's spoken, it's had a couple of hundred years to go its own way.

Yoruba musicians [Image licensed under the Creative Commons 4toscenethesis, Mirror Children, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Anyhow, Turner was doing a linguistic analysis of Gullah, and came across a native speaker who knew a song she said had been passed down to her by her grandmother and great-grandmother.  It wasn't in Gullah; only a few words were clearly from that language.  The woman herself didn't know what the lyrics meant, only that she was singing it as her great-grandmother had.

Well, a Sierra Leonean student of Turner's recognized the lyrics as being in the Mende language -- spoken by about a third of the citizens of modern Sierra Leone, and which is related to other West African languages such as Mandinka, Bambara, and Susu.  It wasn't until much, much later that Yale University anthropologist Joseph Opala came across Turner's account, and together with ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt and Sierra Leonean linguist Tazieff Koroma set out to see if they could find the song's roots...

... and they found, in the remote village of Senehun Ngola, Sierra Leone, a woman who sang an almost identical version of the song.

Here are the lyrics in Mende:

A wa ka, mu mone; kambei ya le’i; lii i lei tambee
A wa ka, mu mone; kambei ya le’i; lii i lei ka
Haa so wolingoh sia kpande wilei
Haa so wolingoh, ndohoh lii, nde kee
Haa so wolingoh sia kuhama ndee yia

 And the English translation:

Everyone come together, let us struggle; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be perfectly at peace.
Everyone come together, let us struggle; the grave is not yet finished; let his heart be very much at peace.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention like a firing gun.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention, oh elders, oh heads of the family.
Sudden death commands everyone’s attention like a distant drumbeat.

I don't know about you, but my reaction was... wow.

That not only a song, but a song that powerful, was preserved for over two hundred years on both sides of the Atlantic is truly extraordinary.  And in the Sea Islands, without even knowing what the words meant.  Gullah and Mende have some shared vocabulary, but not nearly enough that they're mutually intelligible -- making the song's persistence in coastal Georgia even more astonishing.  And you have to wonder if that little village in Sierra Leone is the place from which the Gullah singer's ancestors were kidnapped and transported by the horrific Atlantic slave trade.

Music is one of the things that is common to the human experience, and the songs of a people are part of their cultural memory.  I'll never cease being grateful to my my grandma for instilling in me early the love of music, and for her teaching me the songs she'd grown up with.  It's a tie to my ancestors a long way back.  Our cultural roots are as much a part of our lineage as our DNA -- something British singer Rose Betts celebrates in her lovely song "Irish Eyes," which you should all put on your playlists:

It's essential that we sing -- new songs and old, the ones written yesterday and the songs of the ancestors first sung centuries ago.  The music is the important thing, whatever it is.

Whatever you choose to sing, just keep singing.


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