Song Yet Sung
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.
In the days before the Civil War, a runaway slave named Liz Spocott breaks free from her captors and escapes into the labyrinthine swamps of Maryland’s eastern shore, setting loose a drama of violence and hope among slave catchers, plantation owners, watermen, runaway slaves, and free blacks. Liz is near death, wracked by disturbing visions of the future, and armed with “the Code,” a fiercely guarded cryptic means of communication for slaves on the run. Liz’s flight and her dreams of tomorrow will thrust all those near her toward a mysterious, redemptive fate.
Filled with rich, true details—much of the story is drawn from historical events—and told in McBride’s signature lyrical style, Song Yet Sung is a story of tragic triumph, violent decisions, and unexpected kindness.
On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.
She dreamed of Negroes driving horseless carriages on shiny rubber wheels with music booming throughout, and fat black children who smoked odd-smelling cigars and walked around with pistols in their pockets and murder in their eyes. She dreamed of Negro women appearing as flickering images in powerfully lit boxes that could be seen in sitting rooms far distant, and colored men dressed in garish costumes like children, playing odd sporting games and bragging like drunkards—every bit of pride, decency, and morality squeezed clean out of them.
Liz had this dream in captivity, just as the flickering light of her own life was disappearing, and when she awoke from it realized with a gasp that it was some kind of apparition and she had to find its true meaning in this world before she died. This brought her more grief than her condition at the time, which was not pleasant, in that she’d been lying for three weeks, badly wounded, imprisoned in an attic on Maryland’s eastern shore.
She had taken a musket ball to the head at Ewells Creek, just west of New Market. It was five a.m. when she was hit, running full stride on a brisk March morning behind three other slave women who had made a desperate dash for freedom after two days of keeping a hairsbreadth from two determined slave catchers who had chased them, ragged and exhausted, in a zigzag pattern through the foggy swamps and marshland that ran from Bishops Head Island up through Dorchester County. They were nearly caught twice, the last by inches, the four saved by a white farmer’s wife who warned them at the last minute that a party with horses, dogs, and rifles awaited them nearby. They had thanked the woman profusely and then, explicably, she demanded a dime. They could not produce one, and she screamed at them, the noise attracting the slave catchers, who charged the front of the house while the women leaped out the back windows and sprinted for Ewells Creek.
Liz never even heard the shot, just felt a rush of air around her face, then felt the cool waters of the creek surrounding her and working their way down her throat. She tried to rise, could not, and was hastily dragged to shallow water by the other women, who took one look at the blood gushing out near her temple and said, Good-bye, chile, you free now. They gently laid her head on the bank of the muddy creek and ran on, the sound of barking dogs and splashing feet echoing into the empty forest, the treetops of which she could just make out as the fog lifted its hand over the dripping swamp and the sun began its long journey over the Maryland sky.
Not two minutes later the first dog arrived.
He was a small white and brown mongrel who ran up howling, his tail stiff, and ran right past her, then glanced at her and skidded to a stop, as if he’d stumbled upon her by accident. If Liz weren’t shot and panicked, she would have remembered to laugh, but as it was, sitting in water up to her waist, she felt her face folding into the blank expression of nothingness she had spent the better part of her nineteen years shaping; that timeworn, empty Negro expression she had perfected over the years whereby everything, especially laughter, was halted and checked, double-checked for leaks, triple-checked for quality control, all haughtiness, arrogance, independence, sexuality excised, stamped out, and vanquished so that no human emption could emerge. A closed face is how you survive, her uncle Hewitt told her. The heart can heal, but a closed face is a shield, he’d said. But he’d died badly too. Besides, what was the point? She was caught.
The hound approached and she felt her lips curl into a smile, her face folding into submission and thought bitterly: This is how I’m gonna die—smiling and kowtowing to a dog.
The dog ruff-ruffed a couple of times, sniffed, and edged closer. She guessed he couldn’t be a Cuban hunting dog, the type the slave hunters favored. A Cuban hunting dog, she knee, would have already ripped her face off.
--C’mon boy, she said. C’mere. You hungry? You ain’t no hunting dog, is you?
She reached into her pocket and produced a piece of wet bread, her last. The dog edged forward. Sitting in water up to her hips, she propped herself up and gentle leaned towards him, her hand extended. She stroked him gently as he ate, then wrapped her fingers around his collar, ignoring the blinding pain in her face.
--You shy of water? she asked gently.
He sniffed for more bread as she calmly stroked him and tenderly pulled him into the water until he was up to his chest. She tasted warm fluid in her mouth, realized it was blood, and spat it out, edging him deeper in. A surge of dizziness came and passed. With great effort, she slowly slid backwards into deeper water, easing him in, the sound of the busy current filling her ears as it reached her neck.
The dog was eager to follow at first, wagging his tail. When the water reached his throat he began to pull back; however, it was too late. She had him now. Holding his collar, she desperately tried to yank his head into the water to drown him, but the dog resisted and she felt her strength suddenly vanish.
Over his shoulder, through the dim fog and low overhanging trees of the nearby bog, she could see the horses now, two of them, thundering through the swamp, the riders ducking through the low overhanging juniper and black gum trees, their coats flying outward, horses splashing forward. She heard a man shout.
The dog, hearing the shouting of his master, seemed to remember that he was a hunter of humans and attempted a clumsy, snarling lunge at her, teeth bared. With her last ounce of strength, she shoved his head into the water, drowning him, then pushed him away and let the current take him.
She clambered up the steep embankment on the other side and felt hooves slam into the muddy earth near her face. She looked over her shoulder and expected to see a white face twisted in fury. Instead she saw the calm, handsome face of a Negro boy no more than sixteen, a gorgeous, beautiful chocolate face of calm and resolve.
--Who are you? she asked, stunned.
The beautiful Negro boy smiled, showing a row of sparkling white teeth.
--I’m Little George, he said. He raised the barrel of his rifle high, and then lowered it towards her face. Merciful blackness followed.
Praise for Song Yet Sung
“McBride keeps the suspense high as he raises troubling questions about slavery’s legacy, the price of freedom and what it means to be human.”—People
"McBride...can deliver the cauterizing power of anger without the corrosive effects of bitterness....It just might turn out to be balm for a wound that has so far stubbornly refused to heal."—The New York Times
"Gripping, affecting, and beautifully paced, Song Yet Sung illuminates, in the most dramatic fashion, a deeply troubled, vastly complicated moment in American history."—O, The Oprah Magazine
"Powerful...A complex, ever-tightening, increasingly suspenseful web."—The Washington Post Book World
"Engrossing."—The Seattle Times
"Let McBride's beautiful language carry you back to his version of Dorchester County, Maryland, in 1850.... Noble and profound."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Prepare yourself for a thrilling ride."—Essence
"It's hard to imagine anyone being able to write to the caliber of Toni Morrison and Edward P. Jones, but James McBride does just that in Song Yet Sung....McBride's characters stick with you long after the novel is finished."—The Dallas Morning News
"A raw and captivating story of a runaway female slave and a slave catcher, both seeking freedom, forgiveness, and love."—Ebony
"Deceptively simple, the narrative is clean, spare, and relentless...Beautiful."—Portland Oregonian
How would you describe this story?
It’s a story about an escaped female slave and the slave catcher bent on catching her. On a deeper level, it’s about the web of relationships that existed during slavery.
How closely are the events in Song Yet Sung based on actual history?
The two main women characters Liz Spocott and Patty Cannon, are based on real figures who hail from the eastern shore of Maryland, albeit at different times. Harriet Tubman, the great abolitionist, who was born in Bucktown, MD, and for many years prior to the civil war, she moved up and down Dorchester County like a ghost, leading, at least by some accounts, as many as 300 African Americans to freedom. Historians have yet to agree out how Tubman moved so many people without being caught. She suffered from narcolepsy as a result of having been struck in the head as a child, and she dreamed frequently. She said her dreams often warned her of impending danger. Patty Cannon, of nearby Caroline County, bordering Delaware, was one of the most celebrated women criminals in the history of Maryland and southern Delaware. She and her gang, which was said to number as many as 30 men at times, kidnapped African Americans, slave or free, and sold them south. Cannon was described as an attractive, handsome woman, physically strong, charming, gypsy-like in appearance, and dangerous to be around when any money was to be made. Cannon died in 1829 in prison. She committed suicide. Tubman was born in 1820 and lived till 1913. Both were well known to blacks and whites at the height of their prowess, and feared for different reasons.
How did you research this book?
The usual torture. First off, slave narratives are not hard to find, though they can make for difficult reading, emotionally. Secondly, I drowned myself in the culture and history of Dorchester County and the eastern shore. I spent a lot of time in Cambridge, MD, in its library, and on its back roads, traveling the roads and trails that Ms. Tubman supposedly used to lead her charges to freedom. Apparently much of Ms. Tubman’s underground railroad was via the water, with the help of watermen, black and some white as well, who ferried her charges along the many creeks and rivers that line the eastern shore. This posed a challenge for yours truly as I’m afraid of deep water. I nearly drowned in Europe while researching Miracle At St. Anna. So I wrote this entire book without having once gone out on the Chesapeake. I’m terrified of open water.
Your main character in Song Yet Sung is a young woman, and there are other strong female characters as well, including the slave catcher who is perhaps the most evil figure in the book. The main characters in your previous novel, Miracle at St. Anna, were men, but your mother was the dominant personality in your bestselling memoir, The Color of Water. Was any of this the result of conscious choice, or did it just arise organically from the story at hand?
I just went with the story at hand. I’m not afraid of strong women characters. I was raised by one. I confess, however, that getting into the head of a female character to check her thought processes is little different than taking a male character’s pulse. Women characters tend to be deep, and very hip to the emotional complexities that are the pitfalls which most male characters either bumble past drunkenly, or stumble into face first.
How much is your ability to write strong female characters rooted in your relationship to your mother or other women?
Probably a good amount. The only thing worse than discovering there’s no Santa Claus is finding out that Mister Santa ain’t a Mister after all. Having a strong mother allows you to see the kind of deep muscle feminine characters have to work with.
What was “the Code” that Liz learns? How was it actually used?
I’d heard of Black Codes of the underground for years. When I studied African American music under a professor named Wendell Logan in the Oberlin Conservatory, I learned that the songs I sang in church as a child were full lyric references to freedom, like Wade In The Water, Steal Away, Come Here Jesus If You Please. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. The entire plethora of black culture, musically at least, is bent towards freedom. There is no doubt in my mind about that. Most historians look for concrete, empirical evidence of The Code, economics, letters, broken plates, etc. How can you quantify a people’s desire to be free? It’s like describing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” as a “Verse, chorus, verse, 16-bar musical statement in the key of G that expresses a young man’s hope for the future.” Right. Black people have always wanted to be free. Any insect, even God’s tiniest creature, always moves to protect itself. That’s what music, and to some extent, The Code, did for African American slaves.
Denwood Long, the white slave catcher who comes out of retirement to pursue Liz, is in many ways a sympathetic character. He even identifies powerfully with the slaves. How is this possible?
He identifies with them the way a cop identifies with the people on his beat. They are an economic means that has provided for him, and also a group he has come to admire and respect, the same way a beef provider admires cows or a worker at an animal shelter that euthanizes dogs loves dogs. I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. This is the world we live in. If you become too judgmental, you can’t be a writer. You become simply a proponent of an idea. Long was poor man born into a system that pressed poor whites into a kind of slavery. His eventual identification with slaves is a realization of his understanding of that system and his appreciation for the slave’s means of dealing with it.
Your story is set in a very particular landscape, Maryland’s eastern shore, which is shrouded in myth and superstition. Why there?
The eastern shore is like the deep south, yet it’s just 80 miles to Philadelphia, which was the promised land during slavery. If a slave from the deep south fleeing north reached the eastern shore, there were scores of free blacks and slaves who operated a kind of loose network of freedom riders: abolitionists: watermen, farmers, ministers, slaves. This area produced two of America’s greatest abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who lived during the same era and were raised less than 25 miles apart. It gives you an idea on how focused that area was on abolitionism.
The eastern shore is populated in part by the watermen, simple fishermen who take in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. What was their attitude toward slavery, and what role do they play in the story?
Their attitude toward slavery was as complicated as white people’s attitudes towards blacks is today. Watermen lived difficult lives. They were poor, tough, independent, and religious. Many were Methodist, which took an early stance against slavery. Yet some fought for the south during the civil war.
In an act of resistance, some of the slaves in your story kill one of their captors, a black man who works for a white slave catcher. But they feel like murderers instead of liberators. Why?
Killing him robbed them of their humanity. Their humanity was something they cherished, and something most human beings cherish. Also, in the real world, killing is not an easy thing to do, even if you feel it’s “justified.”
Readers may be surprised to learn that the conductors of the underground railroad, or the gospel train, as it’s called in your book, were prepared to kill anyone who betrayed the secrets of the Code, including other slaves. This is another instance in which the lines of moral responsibility in your story are not always clear. To what extent are all the characters in the story victims of circumstance, or prisoners of history if you will? At what point does individual responsibility begin?
First of all, ambiguity is everything. The female driver who cuts you off in traffic and curses you out as she roars away might be the schoolteacher who saves a kid’s life the next day. We are all capable of everything. The outrage that African Americans felt -- and to some extent still feel -- for the Uncle Tom character is something most whites underestimate. Most African Americans feel under such siege, that they’re not willing to say anything to whites to jeopardize their already precarious existence – or what they perceive as a precarious existence. But when African Americans talk among themselves, it’s a different story. That being said, for someone to betray The Code during slavery must have been unthinkable. Frederick Douglass expressed outrage in his autobiography about slaves who made it to freedom and then wrote best selling books about their method of escape, like Henry “Box” Brown, who wrote about how he’d shipped himself north in a box. Douglass, in his own work swore he would never disclose the exact method by which he obtained his freedom. To my knowledge, he never did. Neither, by and large, did Harriet Tubman. Freedom was EVERYTHING. It makes complete sense that it was worth dying for, or killing for, especially if your children were involved.
Your story starts with the lines, “On a grey morning in March 1850, a colored slave named Liz Spocott dreamed of the future. And it was not pleasant.” It’s evident to us that Liz’s disturbing dreams are about the current state of African-American culture, at least certain aspects of it like hip-hop music, the prevalence of violence in some communities, sexual license, materialism, and so on. In fact, Liz’s vision of the future “brought her more grief than her condition at the time,” you write, and that was when she had been lying badly wounded for three weeks in a slave catcher’s attic. “Ain’t no freedom” in that kind of future, she says. This is a very strong charge against contemporary black culture. Why do you feel so passionately about this?
This is partly how the book got started. A few years ago, I heard a story about the introduction of some new video game, and how customers were stampeding the store, having lined up at 5 in the morning, to get into the store to buy this new game. This happened down south somewhere, it might have been Richmond. When I looked at the picture of the people fighting to get into the store and saw that the majority of them were black, it broke my heart. I said to myself. “Is this why slaves risked their lives and broke for freedom?” Like most sensible people, I’ve had enough of the beastiality, the women bashing, the homophobia, the violence, all of which lives under the heading of the music and culture known as “hip hop.” I don’t consider it hip hop. It’s recording industry manipulation made to sell CD’s, soda pop, beer, cars, cognac and tennis shoes. Most of the true hip hop pioneers have gone underground, or moved on to middle age, like Public Enemy, The Last Poets, Afrika Baambatta, etc. I don’t know what the answer is. I am certain however, that part of the answer lies in African Americans doing it themselves, taking responsibility for their own actions, and in their own communities. Fathers taking care of their own kids, mothers laying off going to the clubs and getting a good night’s sleep, and dropping aspects of this commercial culture that teaches our kids to be lazy slobs who talk a lot of jive and do nothing. And it should be said a lot of that happens now, and it has always happened. But it feels critical now. I don’t know if that’s a real feeling or not, because everything feels critical in this so called “terrorism” age. But it’s worrisome to me. I want our young people, black and white, to grow up whole. I feel like we’re raising a generation of lazy kids who aren’t made to feel responsible for their actions, who don’t know how to work. Or is it just me? I can’t tell anymore.
Yet Liz also has a positive and uplifting vision of the future, which will also be recognizable to contemporary readers. Which vision will win out?
America has always had an uncanny ability to recover and move to the good. If we got over the civil war, we’ll get over our current malaise. It always seems like the end of the world, every day, but to God, it’s just another morning and time to get out of bed and gather souls for their final ride to glory.
Once again you are exploring the themes of race and identity and transforming love, as you’ve done in your first two books, even though they were very different from one another. Does it surprise you as you move along with your writing career how strongly these themes grip you?
It’s better than writing the same book over and over again. I don’t want to be depressed when I read a book. I create books that have a piece of me in them, and with that comes the element of race and class that other writers choose to ignore. For me, identity is everything. It powers everything in the world: I am a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an American, an Arab… what do these words mean?
The main characters in your new book seem to be seeking love as well as freedom. Is love as or more important than freedom?
Love is freedom. If you can love someone, then you have a chance to be free. Love is liberation. That’s why slave owners always wanted their slaves to marry. A better chance to keep them at home.
Were you at all intimidated by the fact that other distinguished fiction writers have taken on the subject of slavery, starting with Toni Morrison?
Obviously I deeply admire Toni Morrison. In fact The Bluest Eye changed my life in many ways. But as a musician, you learn to play your song. Just play your instrument. There are always going to be other cats who can play better than you. To change this world, we need a Big Band of Toni Morrison’s, a Duke Ellington-sized band of Toni Morrisons. I’d be happy to be the guy who carts their instruments into the room.
Spike Lee has recently optioned the film rights of your first novel, Miracle at St. Anna, which is about the friendship between a black American soldier and an orphaned Italian boy in Italy during World War II. How closely will you be involved in the making of the film?
I wrote the script for it. I worked with Spike closely for about a year. I did a tremendous amount of rewriting on that script. Spike is brilliant. Demanding. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I used to brag to friends that “no one can work harder than me,” but I have to concede that Spike’s got me beat there. That’s one reason why he’s so successful, I suppose, his talent notwithstanding. They guy goes at it hard.
What is the “song yet sung” referred to in the title of your novel?
Simple: It’s the second verse to the Negro spiritual Free At Last. Don’t give that away or you’ll spoil it for the reader.
Was the musical reference in any way an acknowledgment of your dual professional life as a writer and a musician?
Not really. Music and writing are so different, it’s not funny. It always amuses me when I hear writers saying “I have a melody in my head, and somehow it arrives on the page…” C’mon! When Stephen Schwartz (composer of Wicked) has a melody in his head, I buy it. When Wynton Marsalis, or Terence Blanchard, have melodies in their head, they know the difference between a melody and a group of assembled notes. Music and writing basically make slaves of those of us who are stupid enough to try to make them our mistresses. You can love one or the other, but you can’t make love to both at the same time.
Are you working on a new book yet?
Just started a new novel. I’m researching it now, but I’m afraid to say what it’s about. I don’t want to jinx it. But it’s not a historical novel.
What do you hope readers take away from Song Yet Sung?
Things are not what they seem. We are all human. We are all raised to follow a certain set of rules and mores, and in order to live a full life, we have to challenge those rules and mores from time to time or our lives will not be full, our children will be complacent, and we will not be doing God’s work.
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