Runaway slaves carried little on their torrid trips North, but their most prized possession was often a weightless one: music. The universal medium offered guidance and respite to an estimated 100,000 who escaped servitude in the 19th century. The songs—written by and for slaves—have influenced almost all contemporary genres, seeding rock, blues, rap, and more. Now, thanks to the multi-talented Horace Scruggs III, Virginian audiences can hear these songs in live “listening and learning” concerts. Scruggs’s production, A View from a Train, which debuted on January 20 in Charlottesville, comes fourth in a yearly series that has highlighted soul, gospel, and the Civil Rights era.
Scruggs’s concerts, which blend stirring music with supporting stories and lectures, struck a nerve with audiences, allowing him and his band to perform not only new concerts each year, but also repeat performances across the state. This concert, more so than the previous three, represents an opportunity “to connect with the African American community.” Since last Summer, Charlottesville has felt the heavy pulse of racial tensions in America, and, according to Scruggs, “people are definitely looking for ways to diversify their cultural experience. For some people, A View from a Train may be an opportunity to learn more about African American culture; with that education comes a deeper appreciation, which is the end goal.”
Though the importance of Underground Railroad music is undeniable, the cultural richness that descends from it, he fears, is being slowly forgotten and replaced. “People don’t sing spirituals in the old way. I often see spirituals arranged or performed in a Western or European way. We’re reaching for an authentic presentation. Even though we are performing them, it’s not from the standpoint of a performance art—it’s from the standpoint of someone who is traveling on the Underground Railroad.”
Even among African Americans, Scruggs noted that few know the history and meanings behind the songs they grow up hearing. “In the African American community, gospel is a large part of our church experience—it’s a Sunday occurrence. But even in the African American community, most people don’t know where it came from… they don’t know the significance. They know it moves them, but they don’t know why it moves them.”
Drawing inspiration from his childhood, Scruggs “grew up singing spirituals and gospel music in an independent Black Baptist church.” He explained that “the richness of African American culture is passed down through the music.” To create A View from a Train, Scruggs selected spirituals and gospel, each linked to a specific story, theme, or geographic area. Spirituals, he noted, were the “first truly American music—they were neither European nor African—they were something totally different.” An uninitiated audience may recognize some of these songs, too, as much of the concert’s set comes from “the gospel greats that came out of the 1960s and ‘70s; even though they are somewhat contemporary and still very popular, the themes rest in ideas from the Underground Railroad.”
For maximum effect, Scruggs marries each song with a short lecture that explains the significance of the music. While many songs were designed to encourage the downtrodden runaways, some pieces were meant as literal guides. Even recognizable songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Go Down Moses” hid travel directions in their lyrics. While developing A View from a Train, a process which took many months of research and preparation, Scruggs uncovered these songs and other awe-inspiring stories of abolitionists and escaped slaves, many of which were recorded by abolitionist William Still. “Still did something he was not supposed to do: he wrote down the names and travels of people who came to freedom on the Underground Railroad. That gives me insight into their lives and stories.” A favorite of Scruggs’s is the tale of Henry Brown, who convinced a white shoe dealer from Richmond to pack him in a small wooden crate and ship him to Philadelphia. Upon arrival 26 hours later, Henry Brown is said to have hopped out of the box and exclaimed: “How do you do, gentlemen?” Scruggs found these stories of ingenuity ripe for his presentation—they convey the illimitable hope and creativity inherent in the Underground Railroad.
The history is available for anyone to research online or at the library, but without the accompanying musical links, the events risk falling flat. For this reason, intrigue, entertainment, and showmanship have proven valuable vehicles for Scruggs’s mission of education and preservation. He says the first step is to “find a group of excellent singers and musicians.” The band has worked together for years and consists of Scruggs and seven other members: Earl “E. C.” Anderson, Nadia Anderson, Sarah Brown, Brad Callahan, Chris Callahan, Gail Scruggs, and Beckie Ward. Scruggs, whose experience reaches into composition, conducting, and production, holds a Master’s in Music Education from Shenandoah Conservatory, which he puts to use as a teacher at Fluvanna County High School and as an adjunct faculty member at Piedmont Virginia Community College.
Though the temptations of commercial success have appeared to Scruggs at various points, he says he has “never wanted to be in a Top 40 band.” Education fulfills Scruggs more than any single concert, and though he performs frequently, he does not see himself as a performer, preferring the term educator. As with his previous concerts, A View from a Train balances public interest with earnest goals, and while Scruggs acknowledges that his concerts’ topics have boiled to the top of the public mind recently, he focuses on preserving the music and what it represents, not the discourse around it. “I’m not going to do anything different, but I think people are going to come with recent events in mind. For me, it’s about the education.” As one of the few remaining links to a shameful-yet-pivotal portion of the nation’s history, Scruggs wants the audience to leave his band’s performances “not only entertained, but also informed.”
Learn more about Horace Scruggs III at horacescruggsmusic.com.
Photography by Tristan Williams