This event has ended. Visit the official site or create your own event on Sched.
avatar for Lara Langer Cohen

Lara Langer Cohen

Lara Langer Cohen is Assistant Professor of English at Swarthmore College. The author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (2011) and co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (2012), she has also published essays on subjects including 19th century mourning poetry, amateur newspapers, and summer jams. She is currently working on a book project tentatively titled Before Subculture: Nineteenth-Century Genealogies of the Underground.

“Solomon Northup’s Singing Book”
Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave was not the first adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative into another medium. Northup, a talented fiddler, adapts his own narrative through the inclusion of a musical score at the end of the book: a setting of a song called “Roaring River” that he earlier recounted enslaved people on the Red River plantation singing and patting. The song’s reappearance, translated out of the improvised performance Northup describes and into staff notation, enacts a series of transformations: it turns text into music, which it asks readers to sing in the voices of its characters. The study of slave narratives has been profoundly shaped by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s identification of the “talking book” as a foundational trope, but Northup’s slave narrative asks us to consider the meaning of a “singing book,” as well.

Twelve Years a Slave became a bestseller, with 30,000 copies printed by the end of the 1850s—a number that far exceeds typical print runs for sheet music at the time. Although it is impossible to know how many readers actually played or sang “Roaring River,” these sales mean that it was one of the most widely distributed songs of the 19th century, and thus an unexpected part of the long history of pop music. What kinds of performances and listening experiences does it script, and what demands do these make on readers? How does the book’s music relate to its non-musical voice? In particular, how does the narrative’s transformation into a singing book respond to its depictions of compulsory Black musical performance? These questions are further complicated, I argue, by the score’s unusual arrangement of music and lyrics, which are both separate and rhythmically unsynchronized, making it impossible to play and sing at the same time.

Twitter Feed