Chains Questions and Answers
by Laurie Halse Anderson

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What songs relate to the book Chains?

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Chains presents a specific situation: that of enslaved Africans in colonial New England. While African-American songs from the 19th century, especially the Civil War era, are more familiar today, people from Africa and their American-born descendants had developed a significant musical tradition by the late 18th century.

The church was one important domain where distinctive music developed. According to the Library of Congress, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was one of the earliest established, such as the Philadelphia congregation established by Richard Allen. In 1801, he published the first African-American hymnal, or collection of spiritual songs.

While some African-American music was distinct, and much of it drew on African traditions, black people also learned and sang European and Euro-American songs. To some extent, performance was occasion- and context-specific, as African songs and dances might be performed on traditional religious feast days that were merged into the Christian calendar. Numerous African instruments, such as drums and other percussion instruments, continued in use in the Americas.

[Southern, Eileen. 1997. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton.]

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Isabel is a slave in America, so any of the songs traditionally sang by slaves would work well as a "soundtrack" song for Chains. "Wade in the Water" is a particularly well known slave song. Another popular song would be "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." This song even sings about the freedom of home and a river, which applies quite well to Isabel's and Curzon's escape in a boat. "Song of the Free" would work well too. It is a song that goes to the tune of "Oh! Susanna" and is about slaves gaining freedom by escaping to Canada. A fourth slave spiritual song that would work is "Go Down Moses." It sings about a people being oppressed so much that they cannot even stand. This applies well to Isabel's situation because there are times that Madam Lockton beats Isabel so mercilessly that Isabel is delirious. Here are some lyrics from the song:

When Israel was in Egypt's land
Let my people go
Oppress'd so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

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