Ethiopia Saluting the Colors(1915)
Burleigh's "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" is the dramatic account of a chance meeting between a Union soldier and an African-American woman, or “Ethiopian.” Language and music shift styles depending on which of the two characters is speaking.
Although best remembered for his arrangements of African-American spirituals such as "Deep River" (1917), Harry T. Burleigh also made significant contributions to the American art song. "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" was composed during the height of his success.
By the mid-19th century, “Ethiopian” had become synonymous with “African” in the Western world. In Whitman’s poem, Ethiopia is an old Black slave woman who salutes the American flag as she sees General Sherman's troops march by. The colors in her turban--yellow, red, and green--represent those found in the Ethiopian flag. As she watches, she is in turn watched by a Union soldier. Burleigh musically depicts the scene with a precise, militaristic accompaniment, including quotations of the Civil War tune "Marching Through Georgia," as well as lusher tones for Ethiopia’s memories. One of Burleigh's most ambitious songs and one he later orchestrated, "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" is worthy of inclusion in today's concert repertoire.
--Library of Congress
Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
by Walt Whitman
Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,
With your woolly-white and turban'd head, and bare bony feet?
Why rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?
('Tis while our army lines Carolina's sands and pines,
Forth from thy hovel door thou Ethiopia com'st to me,
As under doughty Sherman I march toward the sea.)
Me master years a hundred since from my parents sunder'd,
A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught,
Then hither me across the sea the cruel slaver brought.
No further does she say, but lingering all the day,
Her high-borne turban'd head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,
And courtesies to the regiments, the guidons moving by.
What is it fateful woman, so blear, hardly human?
Why wag your head with turban bound, yellow, red, and green?
Are the things so strange and marvelous you see or have seen?
Photo: Cover of Ethiopia saluting the colors, by Harry Thacker Burleigh, c1915. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.