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Uncovering the story of Sawney Freeman, who may have been America's first Black composer

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sawney Freeman lived in Connecticut over 200 years ago. We're talking about him today because he was a musician, likely born into slavery, and the notes he once put to paper are being heard again. Diane Orson of Connecticut Public Radio has this story.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: A few years ago, parishioners at a small Connecticut church discovered their community's historical ties to slavery. Probate records from the 1770s listed an enslaved child named Sawn or Sawney. In 1790, a farmer posted a newspaper ad about an enslaved musician who'd run away.

JIM MYSLIK: As part of that ad, he said, Sawney is a fiddler. And he took with him a fiddle.

ORSON: Jim Myslik is a member of St. John's Episcopal Church in the town of Essex.

MYSLIK: Sawney was later emancipated. He probably was mostly an agricultural worker. What we also know about Sawney is that he was a musician.

ORSON: And not just a fiddler, but also a composer.

MYSLIK: In 1801, there was an ad in the Connecticut Journal that advertised something called the Musician's Pocket Companion, written by Sawney Freeman, a free man of color from Connecticut.

ORSON: This makes Sawney Freeman one of the earliest published Black composers in the United States. Church members found an online database of American music collections. It listed a manuscript with music attributed to Sawney Freeman, part of a library collection in Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

ORSON: I'm with Eric Johnson DeBaufre in the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford. He's the rare books and special collections librarian here, and he's taking me deep into the archive where Sawney Freeman's music sat quietly for centuries.

ERIC JOHNSON DEBAUFRE: The paper is quite fragile-looking. It is all done by hand in a very clear dark ink.

ORSON: The words, by Sawney Freeman, or by S.F. are written near many of the tunes. So how did this 1817 manuscript wind up in this library? Johnson Debaufre says it belonged to the father of the Watkinson Library's first librarian.

JOHNSON DEBAUFRE: How did he know about Sawney Freeman? Because this copybook seems to be the only record of Sawney Freeman's musical compositions that has survived.

ORSON: Music is central to worship at St. John's Church in Essex. So the library digitized the fragile documents and the church music director transcribed the notation into something contemporary players could read. In February, St. John's gathered musicians together for a first-ever recording of works by Sawney Freeman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ORSON: Violinist Ilmar Gavilan is a member of the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet.

ILMAR GAVILAN: A Black violinist myself, I was very surprised because I always thought this was a later event of people of color playing European instruments. And you just think back, oh, my gosh, that really did exist. I'm not alone. Somebody else was in love with the violin.

ORSON: Nineteen-year-old violinist Briana Almonte said the experience was thrilling.

BRIANA ALMONTE: An early Black composer composing these works. This is, like, revolutionary.

JESSICA VALIENTE: It's important to play this music because people need to know that we were here.

ORSON: Jessica Valiente played piccolo and flute.

VALIENTE: I think that when people imagine the past, they often imagine a past where we weren't there, but we made many contributions that people have yet to know.

ORSON: Sawney Freeman's contributions are still being uncovered, and now, after centuries of silence, we can hear his musical voice singing.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.