• John Michael Cooper

FLORENCE PRICE AND THE SORROW SONGS: "I'm Troubled in My Mind"

The joy that Florence Beatrice Price found in setting the ancestral melodies of spirituals and plantation songs to music is well known, but her piano-solo arrangement of I'm Troubled in My Mind has remained unpublished until recently. Like the vast majority of the invaluable musical documents of Price's creative life that are hiding in plain sight in the University of Arkansas Libraries (Fayetteville), it is not discussed or even mentioned in any of the literature on the composer, including Rae Linda Brown's much-anticipated life-and-works study completed by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. (The Heart of a Woman, due out in June, 2020). The remarks below are adapted from the foreword to the source-critical edition I published with G. Schirmer earlier this year:


I’m Troubled in My Mind is an arrangement for piano solo of a well-known African American spiritual. Its text is typical of what W.E.B. Du Bois, with a stirring explanation of the songs’ great emotional power, termed “the sorrow songs”:


Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. . . . Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, -- we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, . . . Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. . . . [1]

The text of I’m Troubled in My Mind poetically articulates much of what Du Bois describes. From the 1870s onward the song was associated with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who, according to Du Bois, “sang the slave songs so deeply into the world’s heart that it can never wholly forget them again.”[2] It appears in Gustavus D. Pike’s 1873 study The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars with the following note:


[The person who furnished this song (Mrs. Brown of Nashville, formerly a slave), stated that she first heard it from her old father when she was a child. After he had been whipped he always went and sat upon a certain log near his cabin, and with the tears streaming down his cheeks, sang this song with so much pathos that few could listen without weeping from sympathy: and even his cruel oppressors were not wholly unmoved.][3]

Lyrics of slave songs, as of all vernacular repertoires, changed considerably from time to time and place to place, but in this early edition I’m Troubled in Mind appears with the following lyrics and the melody given exactly as in Price’s setting (albeit in F minor rather than Price’s D minor):


[Chorus:] I’m troubled, I’m troubled, I’m troubled in mind, If Jesus don’t help me, I surely will die.

[Cho. I’m troubled, &c.][4]

1. O Jesus, my saviour, on thee I’ll depend, when troubles are near me, you’ll be my true friend.

2. When ladened with trouble and burdened with grief, to Jesus in secret I’ll go for relief.

Cho. I’m troubled, &c.

3. In dark days of bondage to Jesus I prayed, to help me to bear it, and he gave me his aid.

Cho. I’m troubled, &c.[5]

Price’s setting of the tune accords with this structure in a general sense (although the many restatements of the refrain would have to be omitted). It suggests an introduction that states the tune in the soprano line with bell-like accompaniment (mm. 1-8). The melody then migrates to the tenor register with a more active arpeggiated accompaniment (mm. 9-16) and then to the upper soprano register, doubled an octave higher after the manner of violin doublings and with forceful hammer-stroke responses in the lower registers (mm. 17-24). Finally it returns to the lower soprano register and bell-like accompaniment in mm. 25-32. Although this design does not provide for the repeated choruses called for by the text as given in Pike’s and some others’ versions of the tune, if one interprets the introduction as an instrumental lead-in, then the forceful motivic hammer-strokes and chromatic harmonies in the left hand in mm. 17-20 and 22-23 would coincide with stanza 3 (“In dark days of bondage,” etc.), perhaps followed in mm. 25-32 by a restatement of the melody with the “I’m troubled” refrain over the bell-like accompaniment of the opening. This textual distribution is purely hypothetical, of course, and Price may well have known the tune with significantly different lyrics or the strophes in a different order. But in any case this setting’s dramatic emotional trajectory, with climax in mm. 22-24 and dénouement in mm. 25ff., reflects her unfailing sense of form and sure-fire pacing. (The unorthodox second-inversion vii to i cadence in mm. 23-24 is an effective way of granting that forte cadence authority while tonally ensuring that the momentum is carried forward for the last eight bars.)

Price’s piano-solo arrangement of I’m Troubled in My Mind survives in the Special Collections of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville (MC 988b Box 2A, folder 9). This is the only surviving autograph source for the spiritual arranged for piano solo, although two further autographs survive setting the same text for voice and piano (both in MC 988b Box 5C, folder 29). I am grateful to the University of Arkansas Libraries for granting access to these manuscripts and permission to publish the piano-solo arrangement.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903), 250-64 at 263. [2] Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 252. [3] Gustavus D. Pike, The Jubilee Singers, and Their Campaign for Twenty Thousand Dollars (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1873), 213. The music and lyrics of I’m Troubled in My Mind were subsequently replicated in many other sources, sometimes with this explanatory note. Price have been familiar with one or more of these sources but it is equally or more likely that she knew the melody from her own experience. [4] This repeat of the chorus is indicated by a da capo in the edition. [5] Pike, The Jubilee Singers, 213.

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