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Composer Nicholas Britell Talks the Powerful Spiritual-Field Songs in ’12 Years a Slave’

Composer Nicholas Britell Talks the Powerful Spiritual-Field Songs in '12 Years a Slave'

Composer Nicholas Britell (“Gimme the Loot”) provides a powerful musical accompaniment for Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” with a series of spiritual-field songs and stringed waltzes (which are currently available on the Columbia Records soundtrack). These originals and recreations enable us to better understand and appreciate the rich musical heritage that sprung from such inhumanity.

“My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise),” an original, opens the movie, appropriately enough, with slaves chopping sugar cane in rhythmic sync, while another original, “Yarney’s Waltz,” is a string tune in the spirit of the period. However, in arranging three other traditionals — the fiddle tune, “Devil’s Dream,” the cast’s version of “Roll Jordan Roll,” and the Virginia Reel, “Money Musk” — Britell was compelled to go on a vital research expedition, since there are no recordings or notations from the era.

“It was a rare chance to explore the music of the 1840s,” Britell recounts. “It’s an era that we don’t know what the music sounded like, especially the spirituals. There are no recordings and even the notations that were done later in the 1800s don’t adequately communicate the music. So I think Steve definitely wanted to have a powerful sense of music in the scenes, but it was very much an open canvas on which I had the opportunity to research and explore and re-imagine that sound.”

“My Lord Sunshine” was influenced by the Bible, other sacred texts, and everyday experiences. And what’s even more fascinating is that in many instances the lyrics contained multi-layered, coded messages connected to the Underground Railroad.

“As a starting point, I tried to go back to whatever primary source documents I could find from the mid-1800s and attempted to get a sense of lyrics, which were a mixture of Biblical influence and work songs of just getting through the day,” Britell continues. “I was researching lyrics and then imagining the melodies because without recordings we don’t know what these spirituals sounded like. 

“The first notated collections were around the 1860s. But in all the prefaces to the books, there were disclaimers suggesting that they couldn’t write down what it sounded like because the western notations don’t match it. In particular, the loose vocalizations — the freedom, the flexibility, the bluesiness — posed a bit of a challenge for the Western mindset.

“I wrote ‘My Lord Sunshine’ because we needed a field song. I analyzed the types of lyrics and wrote a song that coordinated the rhythm of the song with the swinging of the canes. It was functional. The work songs often had a utilitarian function in how they were coordinated with the work, keeping people rhythmically in sync.” 

“Yarney’s Waltz” fulfilled the function of an old-time waltz with an authentic dance for a masked ball. Britell was enthralled about understanding the local culture but had to be very nuanced because of the limitations of what we know of the era. 
Fiddle tunes are a combination of original songs in the style of the era along with clever re-imagination. “‘Devil’s Dream’ is a very old fiddle tune and it may have been popular in New York. And since Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from New York, I thought it would be appropriate to have him play it when we’re getting acquainted with his musical talent.
“But we made the fiddle sounds unique. The violin is held by its lower slung on the shoulder and we tuned it differently played it almost classically. In 1841, northeast musical influences would’ve been Schubert and Beethoven, in addition to the popular Irish and Scottish folk tunes.”
For “Roll Jordan Roll,” they needed to solidify the moment when Northup resigns himself to being a slave. The composer wanted a link to the spiritual tradition by using the “Roll” lyrics as homage. “That song is a new conception where there are different sources woven together into a new statement. I had read that the Jordan River may have been code for the Ohio River and I thought there was a very strong connection. Of all the music in the film, we wanted it to be a unique statement.”
Meanwhile, “Money Musk” is part of a Virginia Reel tradition that Northup plays when Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is separated from her children. “It’s a terrible counterpoint between the upbeat nature of the song and the tragedy of her experience.”
In fact, Virginia Reels are mentioned in Northrup’s book, and in his research Britell came across the “Money Musk” melody in a collection of Reels. “It was almost like archaeology in putting it together,” he says.

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