Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The slave scale

"Son, if the mountain was smooth you couldn't climb it."
Wintley Phipps was told that by an old woman from the American south.

Here he talks about words written by John Newton, a slave trader before he became a Christian, and set to a melody he heard "coming up from the belly of a slave ship". The song is listed as words by Newton, melody by "unknown". You know it - Amazing Grace.

Phipps hopes when he goes to Heaven he'll meet that slave called "unknown". Perhaps Leann Rimes feels the same way:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a musician I find this a nice example of the use of the pentatonic scale in music. Phipps is a good entertainer and he is right about the scale.
But the rest of Phipps fun tale, although attractive to those who would like to believe that the song was written by a "converted Christian" who then became an abolitionist, is completely false.

Phipps says all Negro spirituals can be played with just “the black notes” on the piano. That the black notes are black is not related in any way to African people!.

Not only that, but any musician knows that the penatonic scale does not belong exclusively to the "black notes" on a keyboard.
You can play a pentatonic scale just as easily on all white notes on the piano.

Not only THAT but you don't need a piano at ALL to play a pentatonic scale. It can be played on a guitar or a flute or any number of other instruments that do not have either black or white notes.

Not only THAT but the pentatonic scale (meaning "five tones") can be found across Europe, Asia and Africa and is extremely common in Celtic and English folk music. It is no way exclusively Africans or unique to slaves.

The other part of the story (read: "myth") that Phipps tells is that the "composer" of this song, John Newton, a slave trader, converted to Christianity and that this conversion turned him from slaver to abolitionist and then he wrote Amazing Grace, taking the melody sung by the slaves aboard his slave ship in perhaps some symbolic gesture to the slaves.
Then Phipps mentions a "slave scale" saying that this is what white people in early America commonly called the pentatonic scale.

ALL of the parts of this story are completely false and here is why:

1."Amazing Grace" as we know it has its origins in a Celtic folk tune associated with the bagpipes (which ALSO play on the pentatonic scale and have no "black notes"!)
African people being transported on Newton's ship would have not had anything to do with this melody (until, perhaps, they arrived on US soil and heard it played on bagpipes by Americans of Celtic origin).
Newton MAY have heard some songs of the slaves on his ships but he didn’t take the tune from them and apply it to the song because:

Newton DID NOT write the song.

He did possibly write the words, but the music and Newton’s words were only combined for the first time AFTER HIS DEATH. He had absolutely nothing to do with the music.

2. Newton did convert and he even became a minister, but he still supported slavery.
Newton did not stop slave trading until 33 years after he converted which implies that his conversion did not turn him into an abolitionist.

3. There is no evidence to support the concept of a "slave scale" in early America.
Phipps says the term "slave scale" was common and yet there are NO references in music history nor in any book from that time to the "slave scale" and why would there be?

It makes no sense.
Among the white settlers in the United States, in the early years, who were largely of English and Scottish origin, were some excelent musicians who already knew of the pentatonic scale.
Since the pentatonic scale was common in British folk music, why would such a commonly used scale be associated only with slaves?

Phipps made up a good story. Yes indeed, very entertaining and "uplifting".
We all like mythology from time to time. As long as we realize that it IS a story.