Underground Railroad: A Conductor And Passengers Documented In Music

Jan 21, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 12:19 pm

Harriet Tubman may be the best-known conductor of the Underground Railroad, but a new album highlights another key figure: William Still, who helped nearly 800 enslaved African Americans escape to freedom in the years before the Civil War.

It's about time Still was more widely recognized for his efforts as an abolitionist, historian and conductor for the Underground Railroad. He's featured prominently in the new film Harriet (as portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.) and he's the central figure of Sanctuary Road, a new oratorio by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec based on Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad. Kent Tritle deftly leads the Oratorio Society of New York Orchestra, Chorus and a dynamic cast of African American soloists.

Still, who was born free in New Jersey in 1821, moved to Philadelphia in his 20s, where he worked for an abolitionist society. Soon, he became a major figure in the Railroad organization, writing down almost everything he saw and heard.

"Preserve every story, every fact, every event," sings Bass-baritone Dashon Burton with velvety authority in the role of Still. Every tiny detail was recorded by Still in his interviews with the formerly enslaved. The stories he documented were terrifying and heartbreaking.

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Consider Ellen Craft, sung with a dramatic sense of nervousness and poise by mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis. Craft, whose skin tone was light, disguised herself as a white man — an ailing slave owner — headed to Philadelphia with her enslaved valet, who was, in fact, her fiancé.

Another harrowing tale belongs to the resourceful Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself in a crate from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia, breathing through a hole the size of a nickel.

Sanctuary Road is not without a few flashes of humor. Before he climbed into his crate, Brown wrote "THIS SIDE UP" on top of it. Apparently, those who shipped him were less clever than Brown was, as he spent part of his treacherous journey upside down. Baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather, whose committed performance is touched with a whiff of bemusement, ends his scene declaring, "If only those fools could read!"

The journeys depicted are fraught with danger. Between the longer stories, Moravec and Campbell insert three frenzied chase scenes, featuring tenor Joshua Blue and depicting the enslaved Wesley Harris' breathlessly running through woods and avoiding roads.

The chorus in Sanctuary Road both comments on the action and participates in it. As angry slave holders, the singers cry out, offering rewards for runaways.

Moravec's music for Sanctuary Road doesn't try to push any envelopes. Its sweeping lyricism, à la Samuel Barber, sounds solidly American, fitting comfortably with the libretto crafted by Mark Campbell, which was drawn from Still's book. Campbell, who might be seen as America's go-to librettist, has 36 operas to his credit, including the Pulitzer-winning Silent Night, by Kevin Puts.

Americans have a long way to go to completely understand the Underground Railroad. We can't know the hell of slavery first hand. But in a piece like Sanctuary Road, we can learn about William Still — an important figure in our history — and the hundreds he ushered into freedom.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One reason we know so much about the Underground Railroad is the work of a man named William Still. He was a free black man in Philadelphia who helped nearly 800 enslaved people escape to freedom in the years before the Civil War, and he interviewed them. He wrote down accounts of their journeys, eventually publishing them all in a book called "The Underground Railroad." Now a new album pays tribute to Still's work by setting some of those stories to music. NPR's Tom Huizenga has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: It's about time William Still was widely recognized for his efforts as an abolitionist, historian and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He's featured prominently in the new film "Harriet," and now Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec has written "Sanctuary Road," an oratorio based on Still's 1872 book called "The Underground Railroad."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUARY ROAD: NO. 1, WRITE")

DASHON BURTON: (Singing) I set it to paper, preserve every story, every fact, every event.

HUIZENGA: Bass baritone Dashon Burton sings the role of William Still, who was born free in New Jersey in 1821. He moved to Philadelphia in his 20s, working for an abolitionist society, helping to guide enslaved fugitives to freedom. He wrote down everything, and the stories he documented were terrifying and heartbreaking. Consider Ellen Craft, sung by Raehann Bryce-Davis. Craft disguised herself as a white man, an ailing slave owner headed to Philadelphia with her enslaved valet, who was, in fact, her fiancee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SAME TRAIN")

RAEHANN BRYCE-DAVIS: (Singing) They see me as a sick white gentleman, a sick white gentleman who has his own valet, a black man who sits with the (unintelligible).

HUIZENGA: Moravec's music for "Sanctuary Road" doesn't push any envelopes. Its sweeping lyricism sounds solidly American - a comfortable fit with the libretto crafted by Mark Campbell, drawn from Still's book. Another harrowing tale belongs to the resourceful Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia, breathing through a hole the size of a nickel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUARY ROAD: NO. 7, THIS SIDE UP")

MALCOLM J MERRIWEATHER: (Singing) It'll be 26 hours since I had myself mailed in a shipping crate. It'll be 26 hours of being thrown this way and that, of not seeing the light of day.

HUIZENGA: "Sanctuary Road" is not without a few flashes of humor. Before he climbed into his shipping crate, Brown, sung here by Malcolm J. Merriweather, wrote on the top, this side up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUARY ROAD: NO. 7, THIS SIDE UP")

MERRIWEATHER: (Singing) Now, if only these fools could read.

HUIZENGA: Apparently, Brown spent part of his treacherous journey upside-down. The danger in these journeys is depicted by three frenzied chase scenes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUARY ROAD: NO. 6, RUN I")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Run, run, run for the woods.

HUIZENGA: "Sanctuary Road" also contains a chorus, which both comments on the action and participates in it. Here, the Oratorio Society of New York cries out as slaveholders offering rewards for runaways.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANCTUARY ROAD: NO. 6, RUN I")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Reward will be paid - runaway slave.

HUIZENGA: Americans still have a lot to learn about the Underground Railroad. We can't know the hell slavery was firsthand. But in a piece like "Sanctuary Road," we can learn about William Still, an important figure in our history, and the hundreds he ushered into freedom.

CHANG: The album is "Sanctuary Road." Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.