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Pompey Ran Away

Pompey Ran Away” is a colonial American piece of music. It comes our way via an African player – probably a 1st generation African captive living as a slave – and a Scottish tourist who wrote down what he heard and published it when he got home. It is a missing link between African music and American music influenced by African immigrants. It is a living document of the survival of African music in the new world. Mind boggling!

I learned it from this fragment of sheet music:

Pompey Ran Away sheet music

I came across that in “Sinful Tunes and Spirituals” By Dena J. Epstein, which describes the music this way:

[It lacks] any distinctive African flavor, sounding much like other non-African dances. Presumably much was lost in the transcription, as the tunes were filtered through the ears and musical sensibilities of a musician bred in the European tradition. Perhaps only the dance steps retained African elements, but it is at least possible that African aspects of the tunes may still be identified.

Because of what the author said about the lack of African sound I didn’t expect to find any, but it looked easy enough to try the tune out so I gave it a quick shot while I was reading. It’s tricky to play, like a tongue twister. There’s no apparent form, just this circular pattern made of short melodic fragments. The major scale of the melody could easily be an Irish fiddle tune, the author is right about that. But the way the motifs are woven together could never be from that source. I stuck with the tune for a couple days and when I eventually mastered it enough to really know what it was supposed to sound like what I found was something unmistakeably west African, maybe from Ghana or Mali, which is also where most slaves came from.

In my final version I tried to create variation by using a few different octaves, doubling notes, using harmonics, and shifting the accent. But I have no idea how to play in any African style of any kind; anything African you hear in this was always there.

other versions

There’s a purely Mali-flavored version by Bob Carlin and Cheick Hamala Diabate over at Rhapsody. This feels very different than what got written down back in the day. I doubt it sounds all that much like what that poor fucking slave dude was playing, whoever he was. But it probably is indicative of what the music of his childhood sounded like.

My favorite version is by a gourd banjo player named Pete Ross. It keeps the characteristic circular rhythm which implies west Africa without being full bore west African. I found it among the samples for David Hyatt’s gourd banjo store.

The other versions that I found were all in 4/4 and sounded miles away from what was written down. For example, this is the version by Carson Hudson Jr.. Still, I loved the sound of his band (with the wicker rattle and simple drum) and I found his writing about the song cool:

Among runaway notices printed in 18th century Virginia newspapers there appear occasional references to fugitive slaves who play upon the banjo, banger, or banjar. This curious piece, with its constant repetition of phrase, is from “A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and Foreign Airs”(1782). It is subtitled “A Negro Jig (Virginia).” It is performed on a gourd banjo, accompanied by a wicker rattle and goatskin drum.

performance notes

I play it as a cross between country (representing the celtic fiddle influence) and an African kalimba player I heard once in Washington Square Park (representing the west African roots). Also there’s some punk rock in there. 80s Sonic Youth was on my mind for some reason.

The instrument is a 1965 Gibson SG going through a 12 watt National-Dobro amp made in the 1940s. The tone of this combo is incredible. I really love it. But it only works in place as a loud as a bar, because the amp makes a lot of white noise. That’s what the white noise in the recording is.

My creative work here is hereby in the public domain.

Here’s an MP3 if you want it.

9 replies on “Pompey Ran Away”

Totally dig this one, Lucas, especially the connection you’re drawing to early 80s Sonic Youth. There’s a bunch of contemporary band exploring this africa/low-fi blues connection right now. Two of my favorites are Dirty Projectors. Their recent collaboration with David Byrne, Knotty Pine, is a great example of them at the top of their form in this regard: Another great example is tUnE-yArDs, a band that’s about to put out their first release on Marriage Records. Two of the songs on it explore either side of the african/traditional influence in indie/low-fi music. Hatar has the african flavor: and News has a more old-timey feel:

Both of these bands emphasize the circular rhythms and phrase-oriented melodies you cite as coming from the african influence. It’s interesting that a lot of the more virtuosic contemporary indie bands are looking to these kinds of african techniques to express their mastery rather than the more traditional “wanky” rock version.

That’s an awesome cite, Greg. It kind of blew my mind to follow these links.

The African influence is risky because of the potential for a tie die world-music influence. But that’s just one way of recontextualizing this source and it turns out to work great in the indie context too.

Speaking musically I love the piano accents and theramin in Knotty Pine. Also the layering is really vital.

How come I recognize that electric guitar line in Hatari? Anyway that raw tone works like crazy. I’m hearing a Deerhoof angle and a some Remain in Light -kind’o Talking Heads.

I hear something not entirely unrelated to contemporary African music in this piece. Nice find and rendition, Lucas.

Hey kev, sorry it took me so long to approve your comments here. I didn’t realize there was stuff in the comment moderation queue.

Yeah, isn’t it bizarre and amazing to find that flavor of contemporary african music embedded in these old tunes? It’s like the Jurassic Park deal of using DNA in blood in mosquitoes in amber to make living dinosaurs.

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