When Alice McGill was growing up in North Carolina, her mother began each morning with an earnest prayer: "Lord, it's me. I come before you, this mornin', knee bent and body bowed, beggin' for You to hold my little chillun in the hollow of Your hand."
Those words helped inspire McGill's latest book, "In the Hollow of Your Hand: Slave Lullabies," a collection of 13 songs accompanied by a compact disc on which McGill sings. For McGill, a former Towson State University teacher, the songs are as much about African-American history as they are about family tradition.
"I was born into a wonderful storytelling culture," said McGill, a Columbia resident. "I've been telling stories all of my life."
The roots of the music grew deep into the dark, fertile earth of the South, where McGill grew up one of eight children in Mary's Chapel, N.C. A small farming community, the area bears the name of former slave Mary Smith, McGill said.
"When she was freed, she gave some of the $200 she had saved to buy land and to build a church," said McGill, a grandmother with a ready laugh. "That's why they named it Mary's Chapel."
It was a town where neighbors looked out for their own, and those who could remember told tales of slavery. In the book, each song is accompanied by a short story that explains how McGill came to know the tune.
"Sumtimes I Rocks My Baby" was sung by her grandmother, Elnora Stokes, who would walk seven miles with a basket on her head to see her grandbabies. "Who Dat Tappin" - passed on by McGill's father, Samuel Norman Pope - was sung to slave children to let them know of an impending, secret visit from the parent from whom they had been separated by the slave master.
"Growing up, I was surrounded by family, school and music," said McGill, who declined to give her age. "I still remember my third-grade teacher [Cora Ellen Swain], who set aside every Thursday afternoon for storytelling. Everyone had a chance to tell a story, and I often think I patterned my teaching after her."
McGill drew on her memory of the songs, and her experience as a professional storyteller and a twice-published author, to complete her latest work. Sitting in the living room of her Columbia home, McGill recalled family stories and dispensed tidbits of wisdom, all while tending to an ever-ringing phone and fax machine.
Her first book, "Molly Bannaky," was published last year and explored the little-known history of Benjamin Banneker's grandmother, an English dairy maid who narrowly escaped death and came to America. McGill said she stumbled upon Bannaky while researching her grandson.
"One little sentence about her caught my eye, and I was hooked," McGill said. "I had been telling his stories for about 10 years, and I kept her in the back of my mind."
The book was a critical success, receiving several awards, and McGill followed it up with "Miles' Song," a historical fiction novel for young adults. Pat Bates, coordinator for Maryland Center for the Book, said McGill was approached by several fans at a recent signing at the Baltimore Book Festival. "Several teachers came over to her to say how much they enjoyed ['Molly Bannaky'] and how much they have used it in their teaching," Bates said. "Her books are wonderful."
Guitarist Nancy Krebs plays the music on the CD accompanying "In the Hollow of Your Hand." Krebs said the book is indicative of McGill's strong commitment to storytelling and sharing history.
"I admire her work very much," she said. "I was thrilled and honored to be a part of the project."
An avid traveler and dancer with her husband of 40 years, Marion, McGill is completing her latest book, "Here We Go Round," which is set in 1946 and centers on a little girl who worries about being displaced when her new sibling arrives. McGill is also making appearances to promote the book of slave lullabies.
She said she hopes readers take away an important lesson from the songs that have long been a part of her life.
"My hope is that history will not repeat itself," she said.