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Peer-Review Record

Civil War Song in Black and White: Print and the Representation of the Spirituals

Humanities 2022, 11(6), 142;
by Jeremy Dwight Wells
Reviewer 1: Anonymous
Reviewer 2: Anonymous
Reviewer 3:
Reviewer 4:
Humanities 2022, 11(6), 142;
Submission received: 4 October 2022 / Revised: 31 October 2022 / Accepted: 4 November 2022 / Published: 11 November 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Sound Studies in African American Literature and Culture)

Round 1

Reviewer 1 Report

I admire and appreciate the close attention this author pays to the complex, "ambivalent," and "inconsistent" ways in which an influential group of white authors collected, commented on, and presented to the nation in writing African American spirituals during and after the American Civil War. The way the essay opens with James Weldon Johnson's dedication to these white authors in his 1925 Book of American Negro Spirituals is compelling and effective. I would consider adding these authors' names to the general description of them in paragraph two (lines 44-48); the general overview of their backgrounds is a nice touch, but I do think the paragraphs that follow will be easier to follow if the names are listed up front as I suggest.

One clear strength of this work is the author's close, detailed engagement of the varied responses to these songs we can trace in the writings of William Francis Allen, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Miller McKim, Lucy McKim, and Henry George Spaulding. The author manages to draw clear, convincing, and insightful conclusions about the conflicted and ambivalent nature of these authors' responses to African American spirituals; the author  identifies blind spots and troubling assumptions while at the same time allowing for the possibility of progressive societal and personal change through humility, openness, and acknowledgment of one's own--and one's  culture's--limitations. This is observation is smart and important.

I encourage the author to linger, if possible, over the ways in which these white authors opened up space for Du Bois, Johnson, and other Black authors to "radically reconfigure 'American music'" and culture. The shift back to these Black authors in the last paragraph is a little too abrupt, I feel. Perhaps if the last paragraph were broken into two paragraphs, the author could offer a little more analysis of how this space was opened up--beyond, of course, through the very act of preserving and publishing the songs. This might be achieved simply by restating some of the author's claims found in the previous two paragraphs (from "How did this happen?" forward). Is is possible to tie the idea of white writers acknowledging that they have something to learn with the ways in which Du Bois, Johnson, and other Black authors take up the charge of teaching white readers about America and American culture? At the very least, I'd work to strengthen some of the answers the author poses to their own "How did this happen?" question. 

The engagement with Radano and Cruz is necessary and well done. I also like seeing Stauffer here. Perhaps Stauffer's (please note the correct spelling of his last name) The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (2002) will prove helpful as well? I would also take a look at Charlotte L. Forten's unsigned "Life on the Sea Islands" (Atlantic Monthly May/June 1864). Although a bit dated, H. Bruce Franklin's The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison (1978) might prove very relevant to the author's engagement of white attitudes toward slave songs in the nineteenth century. Another interesting source to engage might be Albert Murray's The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture (1970); Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s introduction to a 2020 reprint of Murray's book might connect quite effectively with the author's thesis.

Working in some or all of the authors I recommend should not be too time-consuming or too difficult. Doing so will add another layer of texture to what is already a smart and finely crafted essay.

Author Response

Reviewer #1 provided many helpful suggestions. I appreciate their enthusiasm for the project, first of all, and welcome their pointing me toward additional texts, especially Albert Murray and Gates's foreword to the new edition. I have added notes that make reference to these sources. More substantially, I have revised the final paragraph with Reviewer #1's excellent suggestions in mind. Their comments sent me back to writings from the 1920s, specifically Alain Locke's lead essay in The New Negro, which makes reference to the spirituals early on and reclaims them as expressions of Black consciousness (rather than white desire, which is how Radano explains them). I think this lessens the abruptness of the return to African American writers at the end.

Reviewer 2 Report

This is an excellent article that contributes to our understanding of the ways in which African American spirituals became a part of the American national discourse and consciousness.

Author Response

I appreciate Reviewer #2's enthusiasm toward my project.

Reviewer 3 Report

This article is well researched and clearly and compellingly written and argued. I would not hesitate to recommend that it be published more or less as-is. While I don't know that it is especially ambitious or ground-breaking, the piece presents a remarkably cogent and thorough overview of relatively recent scholarship (Radano, Cruz, etc.) and does important work thinking about James Weldon Johnson's editorial work in relation to its nineteenth-century predecessors. 

The author's account of these nineteenth-century observers (Higginson, the McKim's, etc.) is thorough without being overwhelming or getting bogged down in minutae. The piece's careful attention to how these observers attended to both African American musical expression and Black speech is impressive and compelling.

Again, I think this piece is essentially ready to go. If I were to suggest an opportunity for expansion and clarification, it would be to more fully consider how Johnson himself attempted to combine and synthesize this double mode (musical and lexical) of African American cultural expression. Considering Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry in relation to his Books of American Negro Spirtuals would help make clearer the stakes of the author's argument, especially because the musical and poetic forms of African American cultural production are so intertwined in Johnson's conception.

Author Response

I appreciate Reviewer #3's enthusiasm toward my project. The suggestion to address Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry was excellent, and while I have done so only in a note in the revised version of the article, I find myself now wanting to do additional thinking about the relationship between Johnson's two collections. 

Reviewer 4 Report

General comments: 

If the aim of this article is to explore the impact of publications like Slave Songs, then perhaps something on its publication history is in order? It did not make a big splash when it first came out. Talk about its reprint history?

  I think some more contextualization is needed: Why did Allen focus largely on spirituals? (he was trying to reveal the religiosity and therefore the souls of Black folk?) Explain who the Gullah were at that time. Allen’s exploration was of a very specific language, not a general “Black dialect.” Not all readers might be familiar with this history.

In the opening paragraph it is suggested that without the pioneers who “journeyed into alien spaces to collect and transcribe, spirituals might have been known much later. I don’t think so. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example (and leader George White) were not familiar with  Slave Songs, and they were inarguably the greatest popularizers of spirituals in the 19th century.

I’ve made some specific comments, which follow. Obviously, I don’t always agree with the author, but the article is well written and engaging.


p. 5, line 224: Couldn’t the use of quotation marks around “base” and “bases” simply indicate the use of a novel word, as is common editorial practice? (e.g., They call it “pickleball.”) It seems a stretch to say that he is resisting the idea that they can be “theoreticians” of their own music. as a linguist, Allen is interested in language, so this doesn’t strike me as unusual.


p. 6, ll. 251–59:  I take your point about Allen’s choice of terminology, but is his intent to disparage? In holding English as the standard against which Gullah English is being compared, then words like “corruptions” and “phonetic decay” are understandable. But I don’t think this proves disparagement. After all, discussion on phonetic decay is followed by paragraph on strange words and then by corruptions. So corruptions is in contrast to “strange words.” If you follow the logic of Allen’s argument, do you come to the same conclusion?

When he writes “the most curious of all their linguistic peculiarities is…”, this is not disparaging. Although it is certainly possible to single out problematic words, I would argue that overall Allen’s treatment of the language is quite even-handed for the time, and he does identify it as a patois, identifying it as a speech category. I understand that elsewhere you point out that Allen and other writers wrote both critically and admiringly, but I think your argument needs more nuance.


line 267: re: influence of white music on spirituals: He admitted that he did not notate songs that he recognized from white hymnody; he was seeking “unique” Black creations. Might be worth mentioning.


line 268: Evidence that Allen “works hard” to perceive its beauty? (i.e., did he really have to try?)


Perhaps this section on language could be reframed to follow Allen’s analysis more closely. 


line 351: Allen’s goal was to collect songs, not to write a folkloristic document on slavery. Is it fair to judge his work for what it does not do, when he is clear about the work’s goals? Also, the songs were not entirely decontextualized: some of them have notes on when they were performed, or how (e.g., #62, “Good-bye Brother”).


p. 8, ll. 379–87: Perhaps list these collectors/performers chronologically? (This skims a lot of history and a lot of collectors/performers who did the work, especially the Hampton people: Fenner, and later, Dett).


I really love the last paragraph. I wish these ideas framed the beginning of the article.

Author Response

Reviewer #4 was in many ways the most helpful of my four reviewers. They were certainly the most pointed in their criticisms. I appreciate that they acknowledge we read Allen differently. I have not adjusted all of my claims, but I have made several revisions, based on their suggestions. I now feature a long note about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and their important role in popularizing the spirituals. I also now acknowledge in the body of the article that Allen was encountering Gullah, which colored how he wrote about the forms of speech he encountered at Port Royal. In the original version of the article, I mentioned this only in a note. I have added notes acknowledging the vexed publication history of Slave Songs of the United States and listing additional collections of spirituals, namely the Hampton- and Fisk-associated ones. Reviewer #4 and I are engaged in healthy debate on several points, I would say, but my argument is now stronger that I have had to consider their suggestions.  

Round 2

Reviewer 4 Report

Appreciate the additional sources and clarifications!

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