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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'
'12 Years a Slave'

"Yarney's Waltz" fulfilled the function of an old-time waltz with an authentic dance for a masked ball. Britell was enthralled about understanding the local culture but had to be very nuanced because of the limitations of what we know of the era. 

Fiddle tunes are a combination of original songs in the style of the era along with clever re-imagination. "'Devil's Dream' is a very old fiddle tune and it may have been popular in New York. And since Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is from New York, I thought it would be appropriate to have him play it when we're getting acquainted with his musical talent.

"But we made the fiddle sounds unique. The violin is held by its lower slung on the shoulder and we tuned it differently played it almost classically. In 1841, northeast musical influences would've been Schubert and Beethoven, in addition to the popular Irish and Scottish folk tunes."


For "Roll Jordan Roll," they needed to solidify the moment when Northup resigns himself to being a slave. The composer wanted a link to the spiritual tradition by using the "Roll" lyrics as homage. "That song is a new conception where there are different sources woven together into a new statement. I had read that the Jordan River may have been code for the Ohio River and I thought there was a very strong connection. Of all the music in the film, we wanted it to be a unique statement."

Meanwhile, "Money Musk" is part of a Virginia Reel tradition that Northup plays when Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is separated from her children. "It's a terrible counterpoint between the upbeat nature of the song and the tragedy of her experience."

In fact, Virginia Reels are mentioned in Northrup's book, and in his research Britell came across the "Money Musk" melody in a collection of Reels. "It was almost like archaeology in putting it together," he says.

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.