Making History Live

Making History Live

Relating the daily lives of America’s ancestors is the product of research and performance. Performer Kat Getward shares the part that music plays in the EFT “Making History Live.”

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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Interpreting the 18th century means recreating not just buildings and streets, but the people who walked them as well.

At Colonial Williamsburg, actors and researchers collaborate in a process that's documented in this Thursday's Electronic Field Trip, "Making History Live." Kat Getward, an evening colonial performer, is with us today to talk about her part in the program.

What part does music play in this EFT?

Kat Getward: In this particular Electronic Field Trip, it plays a very important part. There needs to be an understanding of how and why the music was sung. Why do they sing call work songs in the fields as opposed to hymns in the fields? It's very important to distinguish why these songs are being used.

In this EFT, the call works songs are very important because the call work songs, it is very similar to our modern-day music, where you have a caller – which in modern times is called a lead singer – and then you have the responses, which in modern times is called the chorus or background singers. It just helps you understand how music of old has transformed the music of today.

Lloyd: I have often wondered, looking at EFTs, how hard is it to train these people to give a believable performance?

Kat: It's not very hard if they actually enjoy what it is they're doing. Most of them, they come with an excitement and they're so enthusiastic about portraying people of the past, wearing the costume, singing the songs, doing the dances, so it's not very hard to train them at all.

Lloyd: I would have thought when you know you're doing a fictional character, you can just make it up. But you're not doing a fictional character for Electronic Field Trips. You are doing somebody, at least theoretically, who actually lived and worked in these times, and went to the store and went home.

Kat: Right, but when you're talking about this particular program that I'm in – I'll use the African American music program for example – we are not really portraying a specific person at Great Hopes Plantation. We are, we've taken a collection of enslaved people that we know about.

We've read about them, we've read what the masters have written about them as well as what masters have written about their music. We've read slave narratives. So we've put all that together to recreate as best we can an enslaved community of people.

Now what is very accurate is the names that we give each other as we're performing in front of the public. We've used inventories of masters, and they've listed these inventories so you get the names like Sookie and Aggie, or Great Aggie or Boswan, or Calibar. So that part is very authentic.

Lloyd: At what point, if there is one, does your name help you at all in portraying the character?

Kat: In this, when we're doing music programs, you can actually stick to the names of the inventory from 1773 of Nathaniel Burl at Carter's Grove Plantation. But when we're doing programs that's in the Historic Area, we actually use the inventory from Peyton Randolph, who we know he had 27 slaves during the mid 1770s in Williamsburg.

So it's very important that we try to bring the people to life in that aspect, especially if we're in the Historic Area.

Because now we're not talking about a collection of information that we're using to recreate a community, we're talking about real people now that we're recreating. And we have accounts of Eve Randolph, so that’s very important that since Eve was talked about in the Virginia Gazette after Mrs. Randolph died, it's very important to bring her to life. So it, the more information we have on a specific person, the better.

But it depends on what programming we're doing, and what is the purpose of that program. If we do a program specifically geared toward the Randolph slaves, we're going to do everything within our power to use the names of the people we know were on that property.

Lloyd: The, one of the few things I know about music from that day, is that the banjo is in fact an African instrument and was brought over and that's when the banjo was introduced to American music.

Kat: And in Africa, the instrument was actually called the banjar, but you know as the two cultures begin to blend with one another and learn their language, the banjar became the banjo. And if you think about the 18th century, you had lesser sorts in society who were considered poor whites, they're working alongside the enslaved.

So of course the language is being transferred between the two cultures, as well as their cultural experiences. So you have what would have been called proper English music now being transferred into country English music. You have these blending of people and they're sharing their music with one another. So that's how you get that.

We do have, we do know that some of the instruments that some of the enslaved Africans were trained to play were actually the fiddle, violin. I don’t know their names, but there were two very good enslaved fiddlers, or violinists, that lived in Richmond during the 18th century that were actually rented out by their masters to play for their masters and mistresses at balls and dances and things of that nature.

Lloyd: You were talking about call and response songs, which is a lead singer and the backup singer. Do you know any? What's an example?

Kat: I can give you an example, only if you're going to work with me here. I'm going to be the caller, you're going to have to be the one that responds. It's as simple as repeating what I say. You ready?

Lloyd: I'm ready.

Kat: (sings) One day, one day

Lloyd: One day, one day

Kat: (sings) I was walking along.

Lloyd: I was walking along.

Kat: (sings) And I heard a little voice

Lloyd: And I heard a little voice

Kat: (sings) But didn't see no one.

Lloyd: But didn't see no one.

Kat: That's all right, that was good right there. Call and response. That particular work song goes on, is actually talking about someone that was planning on running away. He says, “I was walking along, I didn't see no one.” As the call and response song progresses, you find that John had a pair of shoes in which he put a heel on the front of the shoe, and a heel on the back of the shoe. So when he decided he was going to walk away, no one could tell really which way he was going.

Lloyd: So the call and response song is not some made-up song by some composer 50 miles away, it's about what happens to you.

Kat: It's about their everyday life. Even today in 2008, when a songwriter writes a song, they're singing from their experiences. That's what motivates them to write. That's true to the 18th century. They sang songs about the heat, they sang songs about love, songs about marriage. They even sang remnants of war songs that were brought over maybe three and four generations by the 1700s of course. They can't remember maybe the entire songs, but they remember bits and pieces. Maybe something that they heard their mommas and their papas sing about.

But in the case of lost John, there was a message in there. It was letting everybody know he was making preparations, because he's going to run away. He's going to wear the pair of shoes that had a heel in front and a heel behind and if I may, I can finish the song very fast.

(sings)

He had a heel in front

And a heel behind

Well you couldn't hardly tell

Which way he is goin'

Which way he is goin'

And that's it, and you just repeated that. And that let everybody in the community know that something was getting ready to happen.

Lloyd: I read somewhere that work songs were made up in the field, and you worked at the pace of the song and that's the way you paced yourself and you kept going. But that some of the words, the masters never heard. Because they wouldn't have liked them because they talked about mistresses' big feet. How they hated it. I've always thought if that was true, it was clever of somebody to come up with that song just to keep the slaves moderately entertained. Because they certainly weren't going to be entertained by the work. Have you ever heard that?

Kat: That is absolutely true. To take your mind off of the work. Setting the pace, let me start there, is very important in an enslaved situation. Because you have the young and the old out there alike. You have to set a pace, because the young cannot work faster than the old.

The old can't keep up with the young, so you have to keep up a pace where everybody can work together. That’s one way you're going to keep the lash off your back. So they’re using these songs. There's one call work song that we sing, we've been singing it as far as I know since I've been in evening programs. It's:

(sings)

Hoe, Emma, hoe

You turn around, dig a hole in the ground

Hoe, Emma, hoe

Well Emma, she's from the country

Hoe, Emma, hoe

You turn around, dig a hole in the ground,

Hoe, Emma, hoe

Well Emma, she's got a crush on Lloyd

Hoe, Emma, hoe

You turn around, dig a hole in the ground,

Hoe, Emma, hoe

And see how I just interjected your name. With different people, it was very important that that person, whether he was the overseer or the foreman, if he was an enslaved person, it was very important for that person to be strong within that community, because he's the one that's going to have to keep up (sings) Emma, she's got a crush on Lloyd, and he might even interject what he considered humor might not be the best word, but he's going to say things.

He might say things (sings) Emma, she's got a great big head, Hoe, Emma, hoe. He might say things like that, and for all we know he could be talking about the master's daughter. But because they've never heard that song – the master's daughter, her name could have been Mary, Nancy, Elizabeth, but she's up in the house.

And understand human nature. You hear these enslaved people singing five, six, seven days a week. This (sings) Hoe, Emma, hoe. And it does what we call "grow on you." It's going to grow on you, even if you're gentry. And as a child, they don’t – children play together, black, white, free, enslaved – well these children, they hear these songs and they're singing too. (sings) Hoe, Emma, hoe.

And Mary, Nancy, Elizabeth is probably singing about herself but she don't know it. That's one way they use singing as a tool to release hurt, anger, pain. Now everybody in the enslaved community, they know who Emma is, but the master and mistresses in the family, they don't know who Emma is. So they go in the fields, they change the names, but this is taking the mind off of the work, and it's also releasing, just a little bit of the hardships of being enslaved.

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