William Sidney Mount created the original The Power of Music in 1847 amidst the combative politics of the expansion of slavery.
Set in rural New York, The Power of Music depicts a moment that illustrates race relations in the northern United States. Inside the barn, a young boy plays the fiddle while two white men listen. A black field hand stands apart from this scene, leaning against the barn door as he eavesdrops. His thoughtful smile and attentive gaze suggest musical knowledge and experience, a point reinforced by the similarity between the black man’s curled left hand and the fiddler’s grip around the violin. Though each figure may be enjoying the same music, the barn door separates them.
The Power of Music parallels the widespread belief in the North that free blacks were a part of society but apart from whites. Mount, an admitted slavery supporter, was no civil-rights defender. Interestingly, though, he shows the black field hand with great detail and sympathy, simultaneously promoting the segregation of races and the dignity of African Americans.