53. Harriet Tubman
Written by Marcus Shelby
Performed by the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra
From the CD Harriet Tubman (Noir Records, USA 2007)



   I will not stand still


This is an oratorio by Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, adapted from historian Kate Clifford Larson’s 2004 book Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Random House 2003). Listen to Kate Clifford Larson reading from her book at WGBH Forum Network at www.forum.wgbh.org/wgbh/forum.php?lecture_id=1395

You’ll recall back in song number 97, the version of Samuel Stennett’s I’m Bound For The Promised Land by the Charioteers with the story of John P. Parker and the Underground Railroad. Well, the Underground Railroad had a major heroic figure, and her name was Harriet Tubman. She was the leader of that network of escape routes that ran from slavery in the south to freedom in the north – as far north as Canada, the Promised Land of slave field songs and spirituals, the destination of an underground railroad that didn’t go beneath the ground and wasn’t a railroad, but in Tubman had a Mosaic figurehead.

Tubman was called the Black Moses because of her literal and symbolic role in the Underground Railroad – the title of the second Tubman biography was Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (Sarah Hopkins Bradford, 1886). But at some point in Tubman’s life, one thing, then another, and another, started getting lost. Not to say that she would have noticed or not, but while she was alive a process began in which she was gradually embalmed in layers of myth and legend, and at some point the historical veracity of her life, parts of major and minor facts, figures, people, places, events, times, bad things, inexplicable things, all slowly disappeared beneath layers of myth and folklore, and in a way the Moses metaphor was an example of this process. Shelby’s oratorio could be seen and heard as part of this long line of myth making, which goes as far back as 1869 when the first biography of Tubman, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by Sarah Hopkins Bradford was published. But it is not. Marcus Shelby’s Harriet Tubman is the subject of a critical and creative revision, one of a number of revisions of Harriet Tubman.

We’re not sure how these things come about, but there was a period in the early twenty first century when a small handful of people – historians, mainly, but also high profile politicians, as well as Shelby, an orchestral jazz composer of a literary persuasion – were revisiting Harriet Tubman. They were all unpeeling the myth of Tubman to discover the facts about the life of this former slave who became an American folk hero. Or they were finding new ways of making her present in the here and now. Here are a few things and thoughts about them and their work, which we recommend. We’ll start with a heading and a press release.


One. Revising & revisiting Harriet Tubman I: Kate Clifford Larson


Harriet Tubman is one of the giants of American history—a fearless visionary who led scores of her fellow slaves to freedom and battled courageously behind enemy lines during the Civil War. And yet in the nine decades since her death, next to nothing has been written about this extraordinary woman aside from juvenile biographies. The truth about Harriet Tubman has become lost inside a legend woven of racial and gender stereotypes. Now at last, in this long-overdue biography, historian Kate Clifford Larson gives Harriet Tubman the powerful, intimate, meticulously detailed life she deserves.

Drawing from a trove of new documents and sources as well extensive genealogical research, Larson reveals Tubman as a complex woman— brilliant, shrewd, deeply religious, and passionate in her pursuit of freedom. The descendant of the vibrant, matrilineal Asanti people of the West African Gold Coast, Tubman was born into slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland but refused to spend her life in bondage. While still a young woman she embarked on a perilous journey of self-liberation—and then, having won her own freedom, she returned again and again to liberate family and friends, tapping into the Underground Railroad.

Yet despite her success, her celebrity, her close ties with Northern politicians and abolitionists, Tubman suffered crushing physical pain and emotional setbacks. Stripping away myths and misconceptions, Larson presents stunning new details about Tubman’s accomplishments, personal life, and influence, including her relationship with Frederick Douglass, her involvement with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and revelations about a young woman who may have been Tubman’s daughter. Here too are Tubman’s twilight years after the war, when she worked for women’s rights and in support of her fellow blacks, and when racist politicians and suffragists marginalized her contribution.’

- Press release – Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero


Two. Revising & revisiting Harriet Tubman II: The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra

The commission

Marcus Shelby has received support from the Creative Work Fund and the Committee for Black Performing Arts at Stanford University to compose a new work on the life of Harriet Tubman ‘Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman’ is an original secular oratorio for jazz orchestra and chorus composed and written by Marcus Shelby, based on a book of the same name by Kate Clifford Larson. The oratorio and supporting outreach and education materials will tell the compelling story of Harriet Tubman, a genuine American hero.

Shelby’s oratorio will tell the remarkable story of Harriet Tubman, a woman who rose out of humble beginnings, escaped slavery and dedicated her life to challenging the grave injustices in her day. Working on the Underground Railroad, Tubman personally led 70 slaves out of bondage at great risk to her own life, and helped dozens more to freedom. During the Civil War, she led raids for the Union and served as a nurse. After Emancipation, Tubman turned her great energy toward the woman’s suffrage movement, again helping to push our nation to live up to its responsibility to stand for true civil rights for all. Throughout her life, this courageous woman worked to unite American women and men of all colours and classes in a common struggle for liberty.’



The CD

Harriet Tubman is an original oratorio for jazz orchestra and vocal ensemble chronicling the life one of America’s greatest heroes. Once again working with his remarkable 15-piece jazz orchestra, MSJO, composer and librettist Marcus Shelby adapted historian Kate Clifford Larson’s book Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land (2004) to create a deeply inspired tribute to Ms. Tubman.

In the tradition of the great jazz oratorios, such as Ellington’s Black Brown and Beige, Marcus Shelby explores American history using the great narrative of African American music. The double CD will be released nationally on Noir Records on May 20, 2008. Harriet Tubman is one of America’s greatest, yet least understood, heroes. Called the ‘Moses of Her People,’ Tubman is most often recognised for her work as a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad. But, her significant contributions hardly stop there. Tubman also worked as a scout, nurse and spy for the Union in the Civil War and was a pioneer in advocating for the civil rights of women and the elderly. In all of her work, music was Tubman’s constant companion — she even used music to communicate coded messages to escaping slaves! Shelby notes that he ‘tried to organise this composition to reflect the sources of the language of jazz — field cries, blues hollers, work songs, spirituals, scat singing — and to portray this music’s profound relationship to Harriet Tubman’s heroic story.’

- Press release, via Braithwaite & Katz


Three. Demythologising Harriet Tubman: Milton C Sernett

Marcus Shelby’s composition is the sonic representative – or if you prefer, the musical correlative – of a burst of scholarly activity around the life and work of Harriet Tubman, of which the good Doctor Larsen’s work is, we have learned, the most informative and in depth contribution (and just so you know, Tubman comes up smelling of roses: the life and achievements are as astonishing as the myth, if not more so).

Hailed as the first scholarly book and definitive text on Harriet Tubman, Larson’s book appeared in something of a vacuum. Very little of an historical nature had been written about Tubman since the publication of Harriet Tubman, by Earl Conrad in 1943: as historian Milton C Sernett, author of Harriet Tubman – Myth, Memory, and History (Duke University Press, 2007) puts it, Tubman was more important to Americans as a symbol than as an ordinary human being, and his book looks at how the myth was made and reinforced via movies, literature, the arts and the places she lived in. Against this mythologising, Sernett looks at attempts at making historical analyses of Tubman’s life, which is where Larson comes in.

Sernett reminds us to remember that Tubman’s elevation to legend began while she was still alive: she was already a national icon at the time of her death in 1913, and spent most of the twentieth century as the subject of a dearth of quasi-historical and fictional narratives mostly aimed at children (and that’s how most of us will have learned about her) but very few scholarly investigations. The effect of this myth making process was that by the beginning of the twenty first century Tubman had a greater standing in the American imagination as a folkloric rather than historical hero. Larson’s book, complete with new information about Tubman’s life and work is, Sternett tells us, a valuable corrective to the romanticised perception of Tubman’s life, it is a text which restores the humanity to the icon, and includes details about Tubman’s family and descendants – most of whom were, ironically, aware of Tubman’s life through the not always historically accurate and often fictionalised books about her.

Sernett also analyses two other books on Tubman, which were published around the same time, and which you might be interested in – Catherine Clinton’s Harriet Tubman: the Road to Freedom (Little, Brown and Co. 2004), and Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (Jean M. Humez, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).

You might also be interested to know that Sernett, in addition to charting the revisiting and revisions Tubman’s life has recently undergone, also pinpoints the text in which black people were given pride of place in the story of the Underground Railroad with which Tubman would become synonymous. It’s Let My People Go, by Henrietta Buckminster, and it was published in 1941.

Buckminster, Sernett writes, was a pseudonym for pro civil rights journalist Henrietta Henkle. Sernett quotes Henkle/Buckminster’s preface to the 1959 edition of her book, in which she writes: ‘Having been born here in Ohio, I had heard of the Underground Railroad most of my life – that daring, clandestine, venture which smuggled slaves out of the South and into Canada – but I had given it little thought,’ and here’s Sernett: ‘In the process of doing research for an article on the ‘railroad’ for a magazine, Buckminster/Henkle pored over old court reports, newspapers, diaries, letters, and books. As a result, she recalled many years later, she was set afire. She thought she had discovered something of ‘the mystique of the United States’ and came away ‘with the conviction that if we knew more about the courage, faith, idealism, practical good sense which went into the fight against the monolithic slave power, we would be better equipped to deal with present problems.’ Sernett also suggests that the most comprehensive and best researched account of the Underground Railroad can be found in Fergus M Bordewich’s Bound For Canaan: the Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement, published in 2006 by Amistad.

Milton C Sernett is Professor of History at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. He is also the author of Bound For the Promised Land – African American Religion and the Great Migration (Duke University Press, 1997)

Dr. Larson is Adjunct Professor of History at Simmons University in Boston, and is also the consulting historian for the National Park Service’s Harriet Tubman Special Resource Study. Her website www.harriettubmanbiography.com is an excellent source of information on Tubman’s life and work for the cause of black emancipation, her role in the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the suffragist movement – as is the online Harriet Tubman Journal, www.harriettubmanjournal.com, set up in 2004 by James A McGowan


Four. Honour By Law: The Harriet Tubman Bill

Composers like Shelby and historians like Larson and Sernett aren’t the only Americans interested in keeping Tubman’s name alive or in finding new ways of making her contribution to suffrage resonate in the here and now. Here is a press release from the office of Senator Barbara A Mikulski dated July 31 2008:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Mikulski, Cardin Introduce Bill to Honour Harriet Tubman’s Life on Eastern Shore and in New York

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin (both D-MD) today joined Senators Charles Schumer and Hilary Rodham Clinton (both D-NY) in introducing legislation to honour the life of Harriet Ross Tubman, the most famous ‘conductor’ of the anti-slavery resistance network known as the Underground Railroad.

The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park and The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park Act will establish two parks, one in Maryland and one in New York. The National Historic Park in Maryland will trace Tubman’s early life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she was born and later escaped from slavery to become one of the leaders on the Underground Railroad. The National Historic Park in New York will be located in Auburn and will focus on her later years where she was active in the suffrage movement and in providing for the welfare of aged African Americans.

Harriet Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland, where she spent nearly 30 years as a slave. She escaped slavery in 1849, but returned for more than 10 years to the Dorchester and Caroline counties where she led hundreds of African Americans to freedom. Known as ‘Moses’ by African-American and white abolitionists, she reportedly never lost a ‘passenger’ on the Underground Railroad.’




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