The Spirituals Choir at Union Chapel. Artist: Barney Zeitz.
The Spirituals Choir’s annual performance at Union Chapel was a rousing success. The chapel’s acoustics are wonderful. Our songs rose to the rafters, not least on our finale, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which literally brought the audience to its feet.
Sculptor Barney Zeitz sketched us while we sang. (Barney does astonishing work in glass and metal. Check out his website for details and photos.)
Organist Lavert Stuart joined us from Cleveland, playing both a prelude and an intermezzo on Union Chapel’s impressive organ. Chris Seidel accompanied us on snare drum for the “Battle Hymn.”
Both Lavert and Chris joined us again on Sunday morning, when Jim Thomas and the choir were featured at the Unitarian Universalist Society‘s weekly service. The theme was “Cries for Freedom and Social Justice.” Frederick Douglass’s image graced the cover of the order of service.
Words from Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, prefaced the order itself:
“The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star. It smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind and moved in every storm.”
In one of the readings Douglass told of how he learned the alphabet and started learning to read as a young boy, at a time when it was illegal in most southern states to teach slaves to read and write. His mistress stopped the lessons when ordered to do so by her husband. Teach a slave to read and write, so the masters’ thinking went, and he or she becomes useless as a slave.
Douglass recounts how his mistress, at first gentle and compassionate, hardened herself to the demands of her station and became as cruel to the slaves as any other slaveholder.
The slaveowners were right: literacy was dangerous to the old order. Douglass became a voracious reader, and what he read inspired him to seek freedom. After escaping to the North, he wrote his Narrative of the Life, which demonstrated to many pre–Civil War white people both the inhumanity of slavery and the humanity of the African slaves. Douglass went on to become an eminent abolitionist orator.
His words proved an ideal setting for the spirituals, and for the concluding “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which once again brought everyone to their feet.
The next adventure for the U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir is a trip to Boston on Sunday, August 3. We’ll be singing at Old North Church in the morning, and at the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum in Medford in the afternoon.
Before that, however, we’ll be making our annual appearance at the East Chop Light for free a sunset performance on Sunday, July 27. Starting time TBA, but should be after 5:30 p.m. This is part of the Della Hardman Day celebration in Oak Bluffs, honoring the late Della Hardman, artist and educator. “Savor the moment” was her watchword, and the theme of the day. The view from the lighthouse is always beautiful, but when sun and clouds cooperate it’s spectacular.
We’ve also been invited to sing at a tribute to Congressman John Lewis, a noted veteran of the civil rights movement, at Union Chapel on August 12, More about that later.