Slavery (the engine that drove American capitalism)

Slavery (the engine that drove American capitalism)

mike skliar's picture



Liner Notes: 

This was inspired by a NY Times article entitled "American Capitolism is Brutal. You can trace that to the plantation" which was just published in the last few days (August 2019 as I write this)

As is many times the case, I had grand visions when I started writing this that I'd distill 400 years of American history down into a few rhyming verses, and get to the heart of some uncomfortable truths... now, having done two rewrites on what i did in the last few hours, I'm not quite sure if this 'works' as a subject..... but I'm curious what folks here think of the song.....

recorded simple, live guitar, vocal and harmonica (on one of those old-fashioned harmonica racks, 'bob dylan style') to the iPhone, then a little compression, eq, etc etc., and here ya go..

EDIT- for those interested, here's a link to the article that inspired this song


That American spirit is a sacred creed
here in the land of the free
So many different roots, and many different seeds
But don’t forget one, slavery

Maybe it begins with the cotton gin
And a workforce worked to their graves
The planters making profits on the backs of their sin
buying and owning slaves

But the Northern merchants are not off the hook
cheap cotton let the mill owners save
and assessing labor costs when preparing the books
there’s more profit treating labor like slaves

Now the management tips they teach in schools
riding workers, like surfers ride waves
plantation owners gave them the tools
back when they were driving the slaves

Middle management monitors workers time
to make sure those workers behave
It was cotton, now its keystrokes, and toeing the line
As American as it was owning slaves

There’s capitalism in other places its true
And around the world, profits they crave
But here, it’s a harsher unforgiving stew
In a system that was started on slaves

Our richest one percent own four tenths of everything
And the unions that remain, have to cave
to the brand of capitalism, that we’re worshipping
founded on the backs of slaves

The engine that really drove this economic scene
In America, the home of the brave
Started way back in 1619
When we first imported slaves

(c) M. Skliar 2019

Please keep your comments respectful, honest, and constructive. Please focus on the song and not the demo.


Tim Fatchen's picture

This is quite powerful, Mike, and the link through from past to present is there.without doubt. The anger in the vocals and the drive in the setting make it ring solidly. I had a lot more to say because I still hold to Lincoln's "last best hope" and ML King Jrs "dream" words, in a probably deluded hope, but I deleted because it wasn't' really commentary on the song as such.

tcelliott's picture

Reading the lyric first. I like the condemnation of slavery, but it's an easy mark. I mean, who is like, woohoo, slavery!?!? I'm a little confused by the cotton gin line, as the invention of the cotton gin was the first real step in making slave work less profitable and un-needed and it's invention was a lot closer to the civil war than the 1600's. (Or am I confusing my history time line?) I like your third stanza which reveals far reaching systemic effects of this way of life. Oh, that immediate transition to modern day times works pretty well with the next stanza. Although, I get the feeling that it's just a bit of a stretch to compare working for middle management to slavery. And a dangerous one if examined too closely. While I don't entirely agree with your 1% line, I can easily see how it works very well as a transitional phrase from the general to the specific and helps solidify the change in timing from the 1600s into the present. I very much like brand of capitalism as a phrase. But I think that may be unintentional on your part (I could be wrong.) Then you wrap it up with a last verse that's basically a summation of your argument.
I think you've laid out your view point very well lyrically and you've really hit your audience well with this lyric. I have a few reservations with how you use "capitalism" as the bad guy (after all slavery existed in nearly every economic system in the world at some point or other) but it makes your point very well. But, really, this is among your better "include every one" prolitical/protest style songs. I think you could make one or two changes and make it more universal, but I'm not sure you'd be happy doing that. Honestly, it works pretty well as is.

Okay onto the music: I like the guitar right off. That turn around is classic folk/traditional style without being too obvious/hokey. Your phrasing is excellent, I love the melody/phrasing on that last line of each stanza. Yeah,, you've hit a good pace and performance on this one for sure. The harmonica is a nice touch and breaks up the lyric very nicely. I think you should hit the protest/rally circuit with this one.

benjo's picture


if Bob Dylan wrote and sung this
it would be an instant hit
what a great lyric / story,
so powerful and so right to be said
any body who used slaves for any reason
should have their names written on walls
so they are shamed for ever more
I'm white, and I hate that people of my colour
could have ever even considered doing that
all men and women are equal, period

sorry rant over


phoenixash's picture

Very interesting, the harmonica is a nice way to give this anger driven song a third dimension. This could be a scene in a movie or a musical about Slavery.

Swampjaw's picture

Excellent. I was reading through the NYT article, astonished by the brutality. Yeah, I knew it, but I didn't really know it like I knew it, if you know what I mean. The connections to all sorts of industries, and the white-washing of commerce so that people didn't have to look directly at the cruelty that was making them filthy stinking rich.

pfoo's picture

I read your lyrics several days ago, but wanted to read the article before commenting. I've now read several articles in the NY Times 1619 Project (which your linked article is part of). There is so much I didn't learn in history class - it just was not presented. Your song inspired me to do a deeper dive. I know that's not exactly feedback on your song, but it's hopefully taken as feedback on the effect of listening to your song.

fresh spotless youth's picture

This is some sweaty, hardcharging storytelling. I really like how you hammer those chords. This would be great with a full band, maybe Iggy and the Stooges. Great storytelling, too. I've got that NYTimes 1619 issue sitting around but haven't tackled it yet. (Enjoyed the rocking harmonica, too)