Entry 5: Henry Clay Work, Abolitionist Minstrel

150dpi JPEG image of: Wake Nicodemus

“Wake Nicodemus.” Words and Music by Henry Clay Work.

Release Date: November 23, 1864.

Available: As sung by Burl Ives & as sheet music.

As the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial approaches, so too does the end of one of its most successful elements, the New York Times Disunion Blog. Clay Risen has done a great job curating and editing this collection of thoughtful short essays and I’ve been fortunate enough to be included among its authors. My final contribution will appear in a couple of weeks and discuss the history and resonances of “Marching through Georgia.” I grew to admire the song’s author, Henry Clay Work, while researching my book,  so I’ve decided to devote a couple of entries to some of Work’s lesser-known pieces in anticipation of my Disunion article. Today, I’ll focus on one of his most abolitionist Civil War tunes, “Wake Nicodemus.”

Work was unique among the Civil War’s popular songwriters because he was able to write successful (sometimes massively so) songs that were also ideologically radical for his time. His father, Alanson, served time in a Missouri prison for working on the Underground Railroad and appears to have passed his abolitionism down to his son. Henry began writing minstrel tunes at an early age, scoring his first hit when Christy’s Minstrels picked up his typical minstrel ditty, “Lilly-Willy-Woken.” Sometime shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Work sent George Frederick Root–author of several Civil War hits and co-owner of the publishing firm Root & Cady–a song called “Kingdom Coming” and Root decided to add Work to his firm’s stable of songwriters. That song became a major hit in 1862–partially due to Root & Cady’s effective marketing–and Work established himself as one of the North’s leading wartime songwriters.

“Kingdom Coming” married a jaunty and catchy minstrel melody with a description of a group of slaves taking over their master’s plantation as the Union Army approaches. Compared to the subject matter of other minstrel songs, this tale was positively transgressive. Nevertheless, northerners ate it up because Work made his radical message seem like a big joke by hiding it behind racist minstrel tropes. Even the Confederates published a version that only omitted the final verse, in which the slaves lock up their overseer and throw away the key.

“Wake Nicodemus” came out two years later and showed how dramatically northern attitudes toward slavery had shifted since emancipation. The song’s subject is an old slave named Nicodemus, who would qualify as what Spike Lee calls a “Magical Negro“–although, in this instance, the cliche isn’t mobilized to help a white protagonist. The song identifies Nicodemus as a genuine prophet and credits him with not just predicting the war but emancipation too. Feeding into another common stereotype–the supposed closeness of African Americans to the natural world–Nicodemus is laid to rest in the trunk of a hollow tree, with the expectation that he’ll “wake” when the “jubilee” comes. The chorus heralds the arrival of the event, ending with the imperative: “Meet us at the gum tree down in the swamp / To wake Nicodemus today.”

I’m convinced Work closely monitored the stream of wartime abolitionist literature coming from the South, especially as it regarded black music and culture. References to the “jubilee” in “Wake Nicodemus” echo the lyrics of actual black music from the time. In numerous “slave spirituals” transcribed by abolitionists, the jubilee serves double-duty as representing the Biblical end of history as well as the end of slavery. Work uses “jubilee” to explicitly reference emancipation in “Kingdom Coming” and “Marching through Georgia” but “Wake Nicodemus” never makes that distinction. Nicodemus could well be rising from the dead because the Rapture has arrived and some of Work’s audience may have read his song that way but, coming in 1864, most would have inferred that “jubilee” meant emancipation.

“Wake Nicodemus” doesn’t appear to have enjoyed anywhere near the same popularity as Work’s other hits. Its melody isn’t as catchy and it doesn’t possess any of the humor of “Kingdom Coming” and “Babylon is Fallen,” nor the triumphalism of “Marching through Georgia.” I’m not even sure I’d categorize it as a minstrel song. Reliable sale statistics are hard to find for Civil War music, so I usually gauge a song’s popularity by publishing information and contemporary testimony. “Wake Nicodemus” received ample press and there are lots of extant copies today, so it must have enjoyed some success, but I didn’t find many instances of people talking about it. All I could find was a December 24, 1864, letter to Root & Cady from Lima, Ohio, reporting that the song was part of a recent music “convention” where it “created a sensation.” The author interestingly reports that the singer “seemed to understand Mr. Work exactly” and I think he was getting at something intrinsic to Work’s songwriting. Those who recognized his subtext understood what he was trying to accomplish in his songs. But I think those who didn’t were Work’s true targets. He hoped that repeated exposure to songs like “Wake Nicodemus” would gradually strengthen their support for emancipation and other issues. It’s hard to determine if he was right but the success of his songs suggests he was onto something.

Additional Dispatches

  • The cover illustration depicts Nicodemus in a way that perfectly conveys Work’s relationship with minstrelsy. Nicodemus’s features are slightly exaggerated to keep with minstrel standards but he appears more intelligent than the typical minstrel character. Work still utilized minstrel tropes but his black characters were active and human.
  • I didn’t have room to say much about the fourth verse, but it provides an interesting description of Nicodemus as a slave no master was brave enough to assault but also a kind soul. Shades of Uncle Tom.
  • Does it mention slavery? You bet! The whole song is about slaves.

Next Entry: “We’ll Go Down Ourselves”

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