St. Louis Woman
Tries to Preserve Legacy of Song
Ann Pittman is writing a book and is the subject of a documentary video on the music of her parents and grandparents.
Thursday, December 23, 1999; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (reprinted by permission)
By Chris Carroll
Ann Pittman has been remembering, writing down and performing Negro spirituals since the 1960s, but still songs remain locked inside her that have gone unheard for decades.
Sometimes they bubble into her conscious thoughts about the days of slavery and sharecropping, and she grabs a pen and paper and records whatever she can remember. Sometimes it is a chorus. A title, even an isolated phrase sung to her a lifetime ago by her grandmother as a lullaby or her mother at washing time.
She sings them strongly, with a low voice mellowed around the edges by her 91 years. When she dies, the songs she has not documented die with her, she says.
“For a long time, I never knew it wasn’t written down or set to music,” she said. “This all came down to me orally from my parents, and some of it is unique to my family.”
Her goal has been to preserve a legacy of song that preserves her ancestors’ efforts to maintain their spirits and their dignity under a system that refused to acknowledge even their humanity.
She’s finally getting some help.
Pittman and her music are to be the subject of a documentary video and printed study guide funded by a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council.
Rick Ulman and Bob Butler, St. Louis-area musicians and musical historians, are producing the video with the $2,500 grant. It will feature Pittman performing some of the 150 or more spirituals she knows. The video was shot Monday at a local recording studio, and the pair plans to release the project early next year.
Ulman and Butler, co-founders of FIDLSTYX, a music educational, research and performance group, became aware of Pittman through her performances at various folk festivals.
She likewise knew they were looking to document old music and approached Ulman for help. She turned out to be the ideal subject for an educational video on a nearly extinct style of music, Ulman said.
“This is someone who, like many rural Americans, black and white, has a strong family tradition, but she also has a fairly sophisticated education,” he said. “That’s what makes her so valuable — she has something to communicate. And she has the book learning that allows her to communicate.”
At 74, Pittman became the oldest person to earn a degree from St. Louis University when she received a bachelor’s degree in communication in 1982. She wanted the college education to help her in the writing of a book about the music of her parents and grandparents.
She says she is now looking for someone to help her organize reams of material for the book, to be called “Hand Me De Bounty Down,” after another spiritual passed down through her family.
The song’s title reflects Pittman’s strong guardianship over the nuances of her music. She insists that “the” be spelled “de,” because that’s how her parents said it, and made her say it, as well.
“We were raised between two cultures,” she said. “My mother wanted me to pass the test at school, but at home I talked like my mother wanted. I said ‘this and that’ at school, but at home, if I didn’t pronounce it ‘dis and dat,’ I’d get spanked for talking sassy.”
Pittman’s parents were sharecroppers on a tenant farm in Mississippi, and her grandparents were born slaves in Virginia.
Her family’s spirituals, like spirituals sung by African-Americans elsewhere, were double-edged, expressing genuine spirituality and covert social criticism at the same time.
The song “Hand Me De Bounty Down,” for instance, is at once a request for help from God but also a reproach to slave owners who would claim to be devout:
I’ll tell you how some folks do,
‘Fore yer face dey got love for you,
‘Hind yer back dey scandalize yer name,
Jes’ de same you got to bear de blame.
“It can be material and it can be spiritual at the same time,” she said. “What the song really means is don’t be a hypocrite. But they couldn’t say it directly to the owners without getting themselves in trouble.”
Some of Pittman’s early memories are of her father sitting by the fire, late at night, shotgun nearby, reading the Bible. As he guarded his family from robberies and lynching parties, he turned his devotions into songs that echoed through the family’s history over the years.
She’s not about to let them be forgotten.
“If the people who recorded the Ten Commandments had just died with it in them, we would not have enjoyed what they had to offer,” she said. “I’m endeavored in the same way to hand down these beautiful songs I have to offer.”
The pictures of Ann Pittman (with her daughter, above) were taken in the office of the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, Ellis Library (University of Missouri-Columbia) during the 1996 meeting of the Missouri Folklore Society.