The Black Tones: The Story of a Slave

How Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels turned an enslaved man’s narrative into an opera

The story begins in 1822. A young woman named Elizabeth Thompson is living near Charleston, South Carolina. She’s working as a maid to a wealthy family, cleaning and cooking for the family’s 13 children.

One day, the family is enjoying the day at the beach, when their hired driver takes Elizabeth Thompson on a horseback ride around the island.

Elizabeth, who is in love with her employer’s son, is captivated by the sights. A storm comes through and the sea threatens the lifeboat where Elizabeth is traveling, so they all jump into the water. At the last second, Elizabeth’s love for her employer’s son is so strong that she decides to stay with him. She gives him the kiss of life to save his life.

Elizabeth is rescued by fishermen, including her employer’s son, who help her return to Charleston. That evening, Elizabeth hears the sounds of a drum playing, and she and the fisherman return to check it out. They find a runaway slave, who tells them he is a member of the band known as The Black Tones, which is made up of many slaves from various plantations in South Carolina. The slave also said he is an apprentice to an accordion maker from Charleston, named Michael Abels.

Elizabeth invites Abel to dinner, which they all sit down to enjoy. Elizabeth wants to get Abels to teach her how to play the accordion and the drummer to teach her a drumming skill. But Michael says he can’t teach her until he can teach her how to play the accordion. Elizabeth makes the accordion for Michael, but when Michael sees how hard it is to play, he gives it back to her.

After dinner, Michael takes Elizabeth home and tells her he will teach her how to play the accordion. Elizabeth asks Michael if he has a brother, who is also in The Black Tones. Michael says he doesn’t, but that he has a sister, who was sold into slavery by her father

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