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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: May 18, 2020

Notes on a Well-Known Spiritual

Dear Constant Reader,

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is one of the best known of all African American spirituals: its melody is known everywhere, its words give voice to some of the most profound and eternal themes of human existence, and the two together are vivid and compelling artifacts of one of the most painful and compelling episodes of our history. But despite its ubiquity and familiarity, the song continues to offer other insights – as indeed any artwork should. This post is about those aspects of the tune and its history – and the significance of that early history – that you may not already know about.

Popular sources identify the tune’s documented history as beginning around 1867, some two years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, in William Frances Allen’s (1830-89) anthology Slave Songs of the United States.[1] But indirect documentation takes it back appreciably further. Here’s what the introduction to the tune (which here occurs as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Had”) says:

[This song was a favorite in the colored schools of Charleston in 1865; it has since that time spread to the Sea Islands, where it is now sung with the variation noted above. An independent transcription of this melody, sent from Florida by Lt. Col. Apthorp, differed only in the ictus of certain measures, as has also been noted above. The third verse was furnished by Lt. Col. Apthorp. Once when there had been a good deal of ill feeling excited, and trouble was apprehended, owing to the uncertain action of Government in regard to the confiscated lands on the Sea Islands, Gen. Howard was called upon to address the colored people earnestly and even severely. Sympathizing with them, however, he could not speak to his own satisfaction; and to relieve their minds of the ever-present sense of injustice, and prepare them to listen, he asked them to sing. Immediately an old woman on the outskirts of the meeting began "Nobody knows the trouble I've had," and the whole audience joined in. The General was so affected by the plaintive words and melody, that he found himself melting into tears and quite unable to maintain his official sternness.]

There are plenty of take-aways to be gained from this account. Here, in ascending order of importance, are my top three:

1. The image of a military commander charged with supervising the former slaves “melting into tears”: this is decidedly atypical behavior for a military commander bringing an assembly to order. We may of course ascribe it to the beauty of the melody and the words, and perhaps to the effect produced by the former slaves’ communal singing of those words in a context that (Allen tells us) was charged with “ill feeling.” But it also helps to know that Lt. Col. William Lee Apthorp (1837-79), a native Georgian who was raised in Iowa and eventually graduated from Amherst College,[2] was also a musician and music teacher. We musicians are predisposed to be moved by music. It’s how we roll, and in fact part of why most of us do what we do.

2. The tune's first documented performance probably occurred in 1862. Allen says that the version of the tune as it is given in his anthology was known to him in this form in Charleston in 1865, but the Florida variant he cites dates from the Union soldiers’ capture of the Sea Islands in that state under Apthorp. Those islands (since they are in Florida this can only mean Amelia Island, Big Talbot Island, or Little Talbot Island) were under Union control by mid-1862, and when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, the former slaves were no longer required to be under Union jurisdiction. This means that the assembly that Apthorp describes probably took place not long after Union soldiers took possession of the “confiscated lands” in 1861-62. But the singing was reportedly initiated by “an old woman” before being taken up by the assembled former slaves, and that means it was well known, and possibly old, already by that point. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” probably dates from the 1850s or earlier.

3. “Nobody knows”: Deliberate verbal opacity is a magnet for historians, so the phrase “when there had been a good deal of ill feeling excited, and trouble was apprehended, owing to the uncertain action of Government in regard to the confiscated lands on the Sea Islands” cannot be overlooked. I think the key to understanding this is an oft-overlooked fact of the status of former slaves in the Union prior to the Emancipation Proclamation: namely, that while they were no longer technically enslaved, they also were not free. In fact, from the Union occupation of Port Royal, S.C., in November 1861, the former slaves were classified as “contraband of war” – i.e., as property, subject to the jurisdiction and de facto rule of Union troops who confiscated confederate lands, no different than the buildings and other property found on those lands. Allen refers, with conspicuous opacity, to “the uncertain action of Government,” and these former slaves -- who had been bought, sold and traded, forbidden to own weapons or own land, and denied any skills in reading and writing -- had little reason to expect, once “ill feeling [had been] excited,” that Whites would do justly, would punish the implicitly White perpetrators who had “excited” that “ill feeling.”

When Apthorp asked the former slaves to sing for him ca. 1862, they had hundreds of songs to choose from – many or most of them arguably as beautiful and moving as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve [Seen].” But they chose that one. Is it unreasonable to suppose that the old woman who started this song (herself unknown to us) chose it out of those hundreds because she knew that the misconduct that had excited ill feeling would be effectively whitewashed, buried, dealt with perfunctorily? Or that the other former slaves joined in because they knew the same?

Nobody knows. And nobody knows what sort of Union misconduct toward their "contraband of war" occasioned this gathering where the former slaves sang what is probably the earliest documented rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Nobody knows. And that, perhaps, was the point. If so, then “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is not just a spiritual, but also a protest song or even a freedom song – a role that spirituals would play in the mature Civil Rights movement a century after that memorable day on one of the Florida Sea Islands.

I recently edited Florence B. Price’s arrangement of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which she published with Theodore Presser (Philadelphia) in 1938. Even though I know well how moving Price’s arrangements of spirituals can be, I was taken aback by this one. Price, too, did not know the specific trouble that had occasioned that rendition ca. 1862 – indeed, she may not have known Allen’s anthology at all. But she knew that Blacks in the U.S. suffered mightily from social ills, hatreds, and prejudices that were essentially unknowable to others – pains that were too deep for words, too deep for others to know. And so she set this tune to music that gave eloquent voice to that pain: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

Next time you hear or sing this familiar or even hackneyed tune, dear Constant Reader, listen to it with those circumstances in mind. You may find that you, like Apthorp, are moved to tears. And that will be a beautiful thing.

[1] William Frances Allen, Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson, 1867), 55. [2] The biography linked above states that Apthorp was a Dartmouth alumnus, but he is cited as an Amherst College alumnus (class of 1859) in W. L. Montague, Biographical Record of the Alumni of Amherst College during Its First Half Century, 1821 – 1871 (Amherst, Mass.: Press of J. E. Williams, 1883), 334.

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