Hard Times in Old Virginny

Published:August 21, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

As we noted earlier, today is the anniversary of Nat Turner’s rebellion. Whether this uprising of slaves, which took place over two days in 1831, was “successful” and whether I fairly quoted Thomas Jefferson is an issue raised in the comments. Our reader appears uncomfortable with the notion that Turner, and his acts, have become iconic. Whatever the case, they became the subject of literature then and now, just as did the failed uprising of the enslaved blacksmith Gabriel, in 1800.

The African American folksong below, “Uncle Gabriel,” was anthologized inĀ Black Writers of America (1972), and it probably dates to after 1831, the year of Turner’s rebellion. That’s because, if you read closely, it actually conflates the two incidents, placing Gabriel not in his home county of Henrico but in Turner’s neighborhood of Southampton. As the singer might say, hard times either way.

Oh, my boys I’m bound to tell you;
Oh! Oh!
Listen awhile, and I will tell you;
Oh! Oh!
I’ll tell you little ’bout Uncle Gabriel;
Oh, boys, I’ve just begun.
Hard times in old Virginny.

Oh, don’t you know old Uncle Gabriel?
Oh! Oh!
Oh, he was a darkey General,
Oh! Oh!
He was the chief of the insurgents,
Way down in Southampton.
Hard times in old Virginny.

It was a little boy betrayed him,
Oh! Oh!
A little boy by the name of Daniel,
Oh! Oh!
Betrayed him at the Norfolk landing;
Oh, boys I’m getting done.
Hard times in old Virginny.

Says he, How d’ye do, my Uncle Gabriel?
Oh! Oh!
I am not your Uncle Gabriel,
Oh! Oh!
My name it is Jim McCullen;
Some they calls me Archy Mullin.
Hard times in old Virginny.

They took him down to the gallows,
Oh! Oh!
They drove him down with four grey horses,
Oh! Oh!
Brice’s Ben, he drove the wagon,
Oh, boys, I am most done.
Hard times in old Virginny.

And there they hung him, and they swung him,
Oh! Oh!
And they swung him and they hung him,
Oh! Oh!
And that was the last of the darkey General;
Oh, boys I’m just done.
Hard times in old Virginny.

IMAGE: Painting of Gabriel, by Ana Edwards