One day when a former Chief of the Music Division (now enjoying retirement) was browsing through an auction catalog, she came across a listing for a piece of early 19th century sheet music. Entitled “The African’s Pity on the White Man” and published in England, the item was being sold in excess of $1,000 (this was in the early 1990s). A quick hunt in one of our under-processed collections revealed that we owned a copy of this sheet music. We had it quickly cataloged for our Special Collections, where it now can be found with the call number: Music-Res. (Sheet) 93-3.
Why the high price? No doubt the dealer was aware of the market for “black memorabilia” or “black collectibles.” Recent articles have noted how the market for these items have increased, while having the ironic (and uncomfortable) result of perpetuating negative and stereotype imagery. (See this article on the website of the Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Some of you might have seen Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (see also IMDb and Wikipedia) which also comments on popular and stereotype images of African-Americans in popular culture.) But this song is different. Here are the lyrics (punctuation and capitalization as in the original):
The Winds roar’d
and the Rains fell!
the poor white Man
faint and weary came
and sat under our Tree. He has no Mother
to bring him Milk
no Wife to grind him Corn
Let us pity the white Man
no Mother has he!
What’s going on here? It appears that the African is pitying the white man. Are the lyrics of the song to be taken literally?
Let’s take a look at the composer of this unusual song. Though born in France, François-Hippolyte Barthélemon (1741-1808) spent most of his life in England, where he began his composing career writing songs and music for plays. He gave up writing for the theater due to too many political intrigues, but continued writing songs and instrumental music. In addition to composing, he excelled on the violin and wrote at least two treatises on thorough bass realization.
In 1766 he married Mary (also known as Polly) Young, great-granddaughter of Anthony Young (who was at a time credited as composer of “God Save the King”) whose descendents included a number of musicians. Mary was also the niece (through marriage) of noted composer Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778). Arne and his wife became very close to the Barthélemons, and after the death of Thomas, his widow Cecilia lived the remainder of her life with the Barthélemons. Another well-known acquaintance was Joseph Haydn. While was visiting London in the 1791-92 season (at the invitation of Salomon), Haydn spent much time with the Barthélemons and often stayed at their retreat in Vauxhall.
Barthélemon’s wife died on September 20, 1799. According to his daughter Cecilia Maria Barthélemon Hanslowe (whose brief biography of her father appears in the posthumous publication of his score to Jefté in Masfa), her father became increasingly religious in his later years, took an active interest discussing spirituality and morality. He made the acquaintance of many in the Anglican religious community. (I’ve not been able to find much information about the dedicatee of the song, Madame Villars de Malortie, although that could be revealing.)
In setting up a chapel, Barthélemon called upon the services of his friend, the Rt. Rev. Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London. Porteus was a leading voice of abolitionism in England. He was instrumental in getting the British Parliament to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, repealing the sale of slaves in England — an early step in eradicating slavery. (Last year saw acknowledgments of the 200th anniversary of this law.) It is conceivable that Barthélemon wrote this song to support the Bishop’s efforts in sensitizing people to the plight of Africans being taken as slaves. The composer has chosen to depict the African as pitying the white man so as to gently shame white people into recognizing the inhumanity they are commiting by maintaining the slave trade.
Though François-Hippolyte Barthelemon died July 20, 1808, perhaps the value of this song is not so much its musical content, but rather as one of the cultural artifacts that are tied to social and political acts of their time.