Sunday 22 July 2012

Lear Green's Hope Chest

 Lyrics by Marion Parsons © 2003, music traditional

True story of a young girl who escaped slavery shipped in a crate in the 1850s.  The third song in the Underground Railroad Trilogy (see notes below).

I was once a freeborn seamstress in the town of Baltimore
When my son a fine girl courted, nothing could have pleased me more
Young Lear Green of eighteen summers, full of modesty and grace
Nor could years of bonded service tear the beauty from her face.

When my William offered marriage, gladly would she be his wife
“But,” said she, “how can I be yours when I cannot claim my life?
How can I your children bear you when they may be snatched away?
When I breathe the air of freedom, then shall be our wedding day.”

“Seal me in a sailor’s old chest, ship me to the north by freight.”
“No, my child, I could not bear it if you met an evil fate.”
I would sooner give my right arm or pluck out my good right eye
Than be shut into that coffin and endure that dreadful ride.

But she would not be discouraged, such young hope burned in her breast
So with quilt and food and water Lear lay silent in the chest
I too boarded the same steamer to supply what aid I could
While the girl I loved as daughter trembled in her tomb of wood.

Once and once again I sought her through the watches of the night
Though I dared not speak a whisper nor reveal a ray of light
Soft I stepped among the cargo, loosed the rope and raised the lid
Just to give a breath of clean air and to hear if she yet lived.

But no doubt our earnest praying found the good Lord’s faithful ear
And some guarding angel kept her, kissed her heart and calmed her fear
Eighteen hours to Philadelphia, where with trusted friends beside
Lear arose to hope and freedom, glad and fair as any bride.

I sing this unaccompanied to the tune of the abolitionist hymn “Once To Every Man and Nation”; the melody is a traditional Welsh tune called Ton-y-Botel.

The story of Lear Green comes from the 1878 book “The Underground Railroad” by William Still; the book can be viewed online here, with Lear's story starting on page 281.  This story is one of a trilogy of songs I wrote about the Underground Railroad: the other two are The Lily of the South and Isaac Forman’s Regrets.

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