Before his songbooks, Lawrence Gellert first came to public attention through his articles in the left partisan periodical New Masses. “Belinda” is the first song text in Gellert’s first New Masses article from November 1930. It is political in its critique of the grotesque practices of antebellum breeding and sexual control, and Gellert sets it up as such with commentary:
A plantation chant of other days. Simple and archaic. One of the very few slavery songs I came across. . . . Old Ben who sang it served slavery eighteen years. . . . He explained, after he finished the song in a quavery cracked voice typical of ancient Negroes, that if a fellow on a plantation saw a girl he wanted, he’d have to see her Master. He’d feel his muscles. If they were powerful and stout the Master would be pleased. Yes, he’d like to have some of his stock. Come over next Friday for an hour or so. Tell your Master I’ll pay him for your time.
The verses included the following:
Belinda she love li’ll Joe
Belinda she itch fo’ li’ll Joe
Belinda she wan’ jump broom with li’ll Joe
But Marse he say no
Marse he raise bes’ horse an’ cow
Marse he raise bes’ n——r an’ sow
Marse he sho’ know jes’ how
An’ Belinda she cain has Joe
There are two field recordings of “Belinda” in the Gellert archive at the Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University Bloomington (ATM), one on seven-inch disc from the 1920s and one on ten-inch disc from the 1930s. The seven-inch is very poor in sound quality. Nevertheless, one can pick out some of the lines above. The ten-inch is a recording of Gellert himself again singing. The latter disc boasts very good sound quality. It is perhaps another demonstration record that Gellert intended for a musical arranger.
In my recent analysis of the digital files, I identified audio back-ups for a number of song texts featured in Gellert’s early articles.
- “Diamond Joe” from New Masses (November 1930): 11
- “Pickin’ Off De Cotton (Ain’t Dat De Truff),” New Masses (January 1931): 16
- “Oh Mah Kitty Co Co,” New Masses (April 1931): 6
- “Set Down White Folks,” New Masses (April 1931): 7
- “Corn Pone, Fat Meat,” New Masses (April 1931): 7
- “Work All the Summer,” New Masses (May 1932): 22
At this late date, the collector’s print and audio record can perhaps never be authenticated to an absolute point of certainty. Still, the weight of evidence in the collector’s favor suggests honesty versus fraudulence.