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Composer Nicholas Britell Talks the Powerful Spiritual-Field Songs in '12 Years a Slave'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 29, 2013 at 2:20PM

Composer Nicholas Britell ("Gimme the Loot") provides a powerful musical accompaniment for Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" with a series of spiritual-field songs and stringed waltzes (which are currently available on the Columbia Records soundtrack). These originals and recreations enable us to better understand and appreciate the rich musical heritage that sprung from such inhumanity.
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12 Years a Slave

Composer Nicholas Britell ("Gimme the Loot") provides a powerful musical accompaniment for Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" with a series of spiritual-field songs and stringed waltzes (which are currently available on the Columbia Records soundtrack). These originals and recreations enable us to better understand and appreciate the rich musical heritage that sprung from such inhumanity.

"My Lord Sunshine (Sunrise)," an original, opens the movie, appropriately enough, with slaves chopping sugar cane in rhythmic sync, while another original, "Yarney's Waltz," is a string tune in the spirit of the period. However, in arranging three other traditionals -- the fiddle tune, "Devil's Dream," the cast's version of "Roll Jordan Roll," and the Virginia Reel, "Money Musk" -- Britell was compelled to go on a vital research expedition, since there are no recordings or notations from the era.

Twelve Years a Slave

"It was a rare chance to explore the music of the 1840s," Britell recounts. "It's an era that we don't know what the music sounded like, especially the spirituals. There are no recordings and even the notations that were done later in the 1800s don't adequately communicate the music. So I think Steve definitely wanted to have a powerful sense of music in the scenes, but it was very much an open canvas on which I had the opportunity to research and explore and re-imagine that sound."

"My Lord Sunshine" was influenced by the Bible, other sacred texts, and everyday experiences. And what's even more fascinating is that in many instances the lyrics contained multi-layered, coded messages connected to the Underground Railroad.

"As a starting point, I tried to go back to whatever primary source documents I could find from the mid-1800s and attempted to get a sense of lyrics, which were a mixture of Biblical influence and work songs of just getting through the day," Britell continues. "I was researching lyrics and then imagining the melodies because without recordings we don't know what these spirituals sounded like. 

"The first notated collections were around the 1860s. But in all the prefaces to the books, there were disclaimers suggesting that they couldn't write down what it sounded like because the western notations don't match it. In particular, the loose vocalizations -- the freedom, the flexibility, the bluesiness -- posed a bit of a challenge for the Western mindset.

"I wrote 'My Lord Sunshine' because we needed a field song. I analyzed the types of lyrics and wrote a song that coordinated the rhythm of the song with the swinging of the canes. It was functional. The work songs often had a utilitarian function in how they were coordinated with the work, keeping people rhythmically in sync." 

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, Interviews , Awards Season Roundup, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards, Immersed In Movies


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.