Cohen excavates the social history of the contraband song, a genre of poetry and music popular during the American Civil War. Written in the voices of “contrabands,” former slaves living under the protection of the Union army, contraband songs emerged in the intersections of diverse discourses and institutions of the 1860s: unionist nationalism, blackface minstrelsy, abolitionism, emancipation, antiwar satire, and the study of slave culture that began under the Port Royal experiment. The mobility and mutability of the contraband song allowed it to serve competing political agendas, and therefore Cohen argues that the contraband song offers a particularly rich opportunity to map the contested terrain of wartime culture. Ultimately, the article suggests that wartime poetry and music were crucial to the mediation of the war and must be taken more seriously in the historiography of wartime culture. Cohen analyzes a series of contraband works: abolitionist poems by John Greenleaf Whittier; African American spirituals like “O Let My People Go”; minstrel songs like “Kingdom Coming”; and an assortment of anonymous poems published as broadsides and in periodicals such as the Liberator. In addition, the article examines the use of these works in performances, quotations, recitations, and individual acts of reading. By combining close reading with an archival history of these poems and songs, Cohen proposes that “circulation” and “genre” offer valuable categories of analysis for the study of nineteenth-century poetry.
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Michael C. Cohen; Contraband Singing: Poems and Songs in Circulation during the Civil War. American Literature 1 June 2010; 82 (2): 271–304. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2010-002
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