Sunday, October 07, 2007

Talking Spirits IX, Part 1

This afternoon was the ninth annual "Talking Spirits" tour at historic Forest Hill Cemetery (1859) here in Madison, and my fourth year attending. The tour is presented by The Wisconsin Veteran's Museum and it was the second consecutive year that the tour has focused on the Civil War, though with all new characters. The tour started per usual with the Catlin Chapel and old receiving vault before winding through the quiet and picturesque cemetery. You can see these buildings and read about the cemetery's history in my post of a previous tour here. I've copied a map of the cemetery and drawn out our route for ease of following along. As you can see, the tour wound through many different sections over the two-hour tour. Click on the image for a closer view.

Our first spirits met on this year's tour were William Francis Allen (Scott Rawson) and a freed Negro slave (Theola Carter). Allen was a prominent 19th century historian who established the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A Harvard graduate, Allen published hundreds of reviews, articles and lectures during his lifetime and also served as director of the Madison Free Library. From 1863 to 1865, Allen taught freed slaves in South Carolina how to read and write, in service of the Freedmen's and Western Sanitary Commission.

It was during his work here that he took note of the music of the Negro culture. Fearing that these songs would be lost forever, he began to record the songs he heard. Allen found this task to be difficult in that sounds produced by the Negro voice didn't fit normal music scales with their trills and vocal inflections, but he and his assistant worked diligently to preserve them as faithfully as they could. He also noted that when four or more people sang together, they often sang different words while remaining in perfect harmony. The result of his work was Slave Songs of the United States, a work still in publication these many years later. Theola Carter performed two of these songs in the role of a freed slave as she assisted in the telling of Allen's life, her beautiful voice and sultry weather transporting one back in time, despite the traffic on Speedway Road behind them.

I'll have more on the tour over the next few days, so be sure to check back!

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