An anti-slavery anthem reimagined for today
Turn right at the Batmobile. Take the elevator behind the John Bull locomotive. If you hit Julia Child's kitchen, you've gone too far. My first week as an intern at the National Museum of American History, I spent a lot of time trying to get my bearings among the objects and exhibitions. But somehow I completely missed the fact that there's an entire two-story house on the museum's second floor.
The Ipswich house, featured in Within These Walls, is nestled neatly into a gallery, offering an intimate view of everyday American life through its different inhabitants over 200 years. Josiah and Lucy Caldwell, for example, owned the house between 1822 and 1865, during which time they were active in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. Lucy Caldwell hosted meetings for the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society in the parlor of the house. In the Caldwell's section of the exhibition, I spotted a small piano with sheet music propped up that immediately drew my attention as a guitar player, singer, and songwriter.
I was interested in sheet music because I came to the museum this summer to join three other musicians (Hannah Rose Baker, Rose Alia Rodgers, and Libby Weitnauer) as the inaugural cohort of the Making American Music program. In collaboration with curators, Smithsonian staff, and Grammy-award-winning Smithsonian Folkways artist Dom Flemons, we aim to interpret American history through song. We get to explore the collections, conduct research, and, most importantly, perform music for museum visitors.
The song in the Caldwell-focused part of the exhibition, "Get Off the Track," was written by Jesse Hutchinson Jr. In it, emancipation is imagined as a train moving across the nation, gathering speed. The song expresses a belief in the inevitability of slavery's end and a warning for those who stand in the way of progress. The song says, "Roll it along through the nation / Freedom's car, emancipation." Sung by groups such as Lucy Caldwell's Anti-Slavery Society in parlors, it was arranged for piano and voice with fairly simple notes that would have been accessible to amateur musicians.
Imagining Lucy Caldwell humming the song inside her home, we couldn't wait to bring the song to life for museum visitors. Our challenge was to make this 19th-century song resonate in 2018. Nineteenth-century Americans would have sung it hopefully, but we can perform it today with the joyful knowledge of emancipation, as well as the awareness that the train may have track ahead of it in the quest for equality.
With that in mind, we reworked the song by speeding it up and arranging it as a rousing string-band number, turning the first half of the verses into a fiddle tune and the second half into a sung—almost shouted—refrain. We shortened the lyrics, making it easier for audiences to join in as the song builds momentum and energy, while maintaining the song's overall message. With our version of "Get Off the Track," we hope to honor the proud tradition of social protest as represented by the Caldwells and countless other Americans who have helped along the train toward justice and equality. The spirit of the song seems to translate even today. It feels great when we hear museum visitors clapping along and yelling out "Roll it along!" and "Get off the track!" along with us at the refrain.
"Get Off the Track" is just one of many songs we're re-interpreting and playing this summer as we explore music's ability to tell a diverse set of stories about our history. Stay tuned as the Making American Music internship continues this summer—and hopefully in semesters to come.
Kelly Bosworth is a musician and a PhD student in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University.
Want to learn more about the residents of the Ipswich house? Discover the mysterious story of Chance Bradstreet, an enslaved man who worked in the house.
Making American Music is supported by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation and the John Hammond Performance Series Endowment Fund.
Within These Walls is made possible by the generous support of the National Association of Realtors, Discover Card and the David Greenewalt Charitable Trust.