American SocialHistory Project · Center forMedia and Learning
Both the author and original date of "Deep River" are unknown, as is usually the case with slave songs. It was first published in a collection entitled Slave Songs of the United States (New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867). The compilers of this first publication of the African-American spiritual were three white Northerners who heard the songs in the South Carolina sea islands in 1862-63, where they had gone to work with recently freed African Americans. The challenge they faced was the very nature of black folk music: because the genre is shared orally, melodies are subject to change slightly with each oration, and as there was no written musical language with which to capture the nuances of a genre that was unfamiliar to the compilers, the process of writing them altered them as well.