Life on the Underground is a recording of improvisational music by father-son duet Raymond Johnson (hand-percussion) and Raymond C. Johnson (woodwinds).
Life on the Underground signifies humanity’s journey toward truth and enlightenment – a journey often accompanied with both great joys and duress. The joy and apprehension of such a journey is marked by the emotional ebb and flow of this sincere, heart-felt music. Each track tells a story of legends and folklore from the U.S. Abolitionist Era – a time presently reflected upon by many Black peoples across the African Diaspora of the Western Hemisphere and beyond. Today, African Americans reshape the “Underground Railroad” for modern times using the time magic known as Sankofa.
Raymond Johnson Sr: congas
Raymond C. Johnson: saxophone, flute, percussion
Recorded and mixed by Raymond C. Johnson
Album art by Aaron Warner
Released August 1, 2011
1. Northern Sun
The Northern Sun marks the path to freedom.
One of the best clues enslaved Africans could use to find north was to locate Polaris also known as the North Star to peoples of the Northern Hemisphere. Unlike other stars, Polaris maintains a stable position in respect to watchers from Earth. This astrological knowledge was encoded in sound with the folk song Follow the Drinking Gourd
“People trying to escape slavery had many clues they could rely on to find out where “north” actually was. They knew moss usually grew on the north sides of trees. They also observed that migrating birds flew north in the summer.” – Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
2. Boxy Brown
Henry Brown embarks on a daring escape and you’re invited.
Henry Box Brown was an abolitionist lecturer and performer who became renown for escaping slavery by shipping himself in a wooden crate. In 1848 Brown experienced a traumatic family separation when his wife, who was owned by another captor and pregnant with their fourth child, was sold away to North Carolina along with all their children. Brown resolved to escape from the terror of his oppressors and enlisted help being shipped in a box to Philadelphia. In March 1849, the package was accepted in Philadelphia by a leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
Later, Brown lectured across New England on the evils of slavery and participated in the publication of the Narrative of Henry Box Brown. In 1850, a moving panorama, Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery, opened in Boston. That same year, Brown, worried that he might be re-enslaved, moved to England, where he lectured, presented his panorama, and performed as a hypnotist. In 1875, he returned to the United States with his wife and daughter Annie and performed as a magician. Brown’s date and place of death are unknown, but his legacy as a symbol of the Underground Railroad and enslaved African Americans’ thirst for freedom is secure.”
3. Tombigbee’s Peg Foot
Tread lightly and stay close as river thrushes and thunder claps mark the hunt for Tombigbee’s Peg Foot.
A one-legged sailor, known as Peg Leg Joe, worked at various jobs on plantations as he made his way around the South. At each job, he would become friendly with the slaves and teach them the words to the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd …
The first verse instructs to leave in the winter. The second verse teaches to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north. Along this sojourn were trees marked with the drawings of a left foot and a round mark, denoting a peg leg. In the third verse, the hidden message instructs to continue north over the hills when they reached the Tombigbee’s headwaters. From there, they were to travel along another river — the Tennessee. There were several Underground Railroad routes that met up on the Tennessee.
4. Salem and Pearl
Bad weather and a snitch snatches the Pearl
In April 1848, dozens of enslaved Black peoples fled oppression in Washington City, Georgetown, and Alexandria in an event that came to be known as the Pearl Incident. These African American refugees were forced laborers in homes, boarding houses, hotels, and the White House. Organizers of the escape included Paul Jennings (formerly enslaved by both U.S. President James Madison and U.S. Senator Daniel Webster), Daniel Bell, Samuel Edmonson, and abolitionists Gerrit Smith and William Chaplin.
The intended means of escape was a 54 ton bay-craft schooner called the Pearl, moored at the 7th St. Wharf on the Potomac River and chartered by Daniel Drayton. To succeed, the schooner needed to travel 100 miles to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, and continue 120 miles to Frenchtown. Tragically, the Pearl was delayed due to dangerous sailing conditions and ended up being captured by a gang of slave catchers aboard a pursuing steamboat called the Salem.
Notable survivors of this incident Mary and Emily Edmonson, the Edmonson Sisters, were two members of a larger Edmonson family captured on the Pearl. Mary and Emily were fortunate to have the ransom for their freedom paid by groups of organized abolitionists — the rest of their siblings were sold to slavers in New Orleans with the bulk of the remaining Pearl survivors as punishment for their escape attempt.