A Free Woman: The Amazing Grace of Mum Bet

In costume

In 1781, during the American Revolution, a slave named Bet sued for her freedom in a court of law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She won her case and chose a new name: Elizabeth Freeman. Diane relates the story of her life as a slave and a free woman living through momentous times.

Bet became governess for the children of the lawyer who had represented her, and she was called "Mum" as a term of respect. She ran the household and was also a midwife and healer, earning the love and respect of her community.

The epitaph on her gravestone gives an indication of her character: "ELIZABETH FREEMAN, known by the name of MUMBET, died Dec. 28, 1829. Her supposed age was 85 Years. She was born a slave and remained a slave for nearly 30 years. She could neither read nor write, yet in her own sphere she had no superior or equal. She neither wasted time nor property. She never violated a trust, nor failed to perform a duty. In every situation of domestic trial, she was the most efficient helper and the tenderest friend. Good mother, farewell."

Diane explores those "situations of domestic trial" in the music of the time. She performs in the sort of clothing Elizabeth wore, and accompanies her singing on lap dulcimer and an instrument similar to the English guitar played by women in the 1700s.

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The songs include:

- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, in Bet's time a slave song with double meanings, more about reaching freedom in the North than getting to heaven. Angels were guides like Harriet Tubman who led hundreds across the metaphorical Jordan River to a new life far from the plantations.

- The Serving Girl's Holiday, an old English song that captures the ceaseless labor it took to keep a household going before electricity or running water.

- The Riddle Song, a lullaby Bet may very well have sung to the children in her care.

- Amazing Grace, with one of its several original melodies, a hymn Bet probably sang in church.

- Wade in the Water, another slave song with instructions on how to use streams to avoid leaving a trail for the bloodhounds to follow.

- Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier, a hauntingly beautiful lament for a lost love. Bet's husband went off to fight in the Revolution and never returned.


"Thank you for your beautiful performance at the Bidwell House! You were even better than last year, which was a tough act to beat. I heard from every person how much they enjoyed the afternoon and how the combination of your storytelling and explanations and then your beautiful voice singing the songs was just perfect.
Please come back again!"

-- Barbara Palmer, The Bidwell House Museum, Monterey MA (2012)

InConcert