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by Jason Gubbels

November 20, 2013

The Music of 12 Years a Slave

by Jason Gubbels  |  November 20, 2013

One of the most astonishing films of the year is Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, the story of Solomon Northup, a middle-class musician from upstate New York kidnapped and sold into antebellum Louisiana. Based on Northup's 1853 autobiography, 12 Years a Slave is a rare big-screen consideration of America's most singular and defining tragedy, an insistent rebuke to Hollywood's habit of viewing the institution of slavery through prisms both sentimental (Gone With the Wind) and cartoonish (Django Unchained).

And as Ann Powers astutely noted in a far-reaching review, 12 Years a Slave might also be this year's finest film about music. While Hans Zimmer's score provides adequate ambiance for the onscreen horrors, this film's musical subtext goes deeper. Northup's skills on the violin led to his kidnapping, yet also helped sustain him through years in bondage, mirroring the ways American slave culture utilized music as means of survival. Stripped of their names, children, religion and even drums, slaves fought back with their voices, recasting Old Testament language as the bedrock for a new body of work: spirituals. Songs helped briefly temper the tedium and pain of forced labor, provided figurative escapes from reality, helped sustain aspects of communal living that were destroyed by the plantation system, and masked themes of revolt beneath symbolic language. Yet as the film makes clear, even music was viewed as an exploitable resource by the white overseers.

In addition to Zimmer's score, singer John Legend helped curate a companion soundtrack album incorporating new material inspired by the film, including Legend's take on the old spiritual "Roll, Jordan, Roll" (itself the name of Eugene Genovese's influential 1974 study on subtle forms of slave rebellion) and Alabama Shakes' update of the Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln 1960 jazz suite "Driva Man."

Our appended playlist draws from both Legend's project and McQueen's film, a broad consideration of antebellum musical culture and the complicated ways African American performers have returned to/reconsidered these sources. Field recordings from prison yards and isolated Gullah Geechee communities offer rare approximations of slave-era ritual, while black string band and banjo tracks rub shoulders with such storied ensembles as The Fisk Jubilee Singers. The dramatic soprano of Jessye Norman makes room for the dark gospel of Blind Willie Johnson. Blues singer Taj Mahal sings of following the Drinking Gourd (aka The Big Dipper) to freedom, while the Golden Gate Quartet bids Pharaoh farewell. Scott Joplin's 1910 post-plantation opera "Treemonisha" shares space with Charles Mingus' 1963 slave-dream ballet "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady." Paul Robeson ponders "No More Auction Block," while Jelly Roll Morton tips his hat to a pateroller-confounding trickster.

Throughout these varied tracks, subtext is always key. Whether singers are going to the mountaintop or boarding trains, escape and freedom remain the constant driving force. Consider this the shadow soundtrack to 2013's most essential movie experience.

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