First 2017 Rehearsal

Yesterday the Spirituals Choir gathered for our first rehearsal of the 2017 season. Stacks of music were on a table at the back of our usual space, the recreation room at Windemere. Our repertoire for this year includes some slave songs we’ve sung often in recent years and some we haven’t. (Some we might not have sung at all as a group, but since this is only my sixth year singing in the choir, I can’t swear to it.)

Among the songs from the 2016 or 2015 repertoire:

  • “Wasn’t That a Wide River?”
  • “You May Bury Me in the East”
  • “In Bright Mansions Above”
  • “Done Made My Vow to the Lord”
  • “Fare You Well”

This last one, “Fare You Well,” is as close as we come to a staple, and with good reason: it’s almost unbearably poignant and powerful. A slave who’s been sold away from home bids farewell to family and friends. To sing it with one’s whole heart is to feel a little bit of what that felt like.

From the slightly more distant past come these songs, among others:

  • “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”
  • “Soon-a Will Be Done”
  • “I Want to Be Ready (to Walk in Jerusalem Just like John)”
  • “Wayfaring Stranger”

The ones I don’t recall singing before, though the choir may be done “before my time”:

  • “I’ve Got a Robe”
  • “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child”
  • “Follow the Drinking Gourd”
  • “Guide My Feet, Lord”

“I’ve Got a Robe” includes one of my favorite lines of all time: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there.”

Needless to say, there’s more!

The only time we sing our whole repertoire is at our annual appearance at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. This year the date is Saturday, July 22, and the time is 7 p.m. Circle it on your calendars. Ticket sales from this event help sustain the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part.

Our other presentations feature a selection of songs and the stories that go with them, depending on the occasion, the time available, and how the spirit moves.

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Our 2017 Schedule Takes Shape

The choir at East Chop Lighthouse, Oak Bluffs

The Spirituals Choir’s 2017 presentation schedule is growing! Here’s what it looks like now. As more dates are added, you’ll be able to find them on the “2017 Choir Schedule” tab at the top of this page.

The choir’s presentations feature songs sung by African slaves in the American colonies and the United States, along with the stories behind them. They include work songs, songs that recall Africa, songs that dream of freedom, and songs that helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. We sing at libraries, houses of worship, senior centers, and elsewhere, indoors or out. If you’re interested in arranging a presentation, leave a comment here or contact director Jim Thomas by email at Jim@US-SlaveSongs.org or by phone at 703-407-1207.

Tuesday, June 13
12 noon, The Anchors (Edgartown Council on Aging)

Saturday, June 24
3 p.m., Edgartown Library

Saturday, July 1
3 p.m., West Tisbury Library

Friday, July 14
6 p.m., State Beach, Oak Bluffs (near handicapped entrance)
M.V. Hebrew Center’s Friday evening service
If weather is bad, this will take place at MVHC, Center St., Vineyard Haven

Saturday, July 22
7 p.m., Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs

Sunday, July 23
11 a.m., Unitarian-Universalist service, Vineyard Haven

Sunday, July 30
5:30 p.m., East Chop Lighthouse, Oak Bluffs

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Our 2017 Season Is About to Begin!

Spring is here, director Jim Thomas has returned from Virginia, and our first rehearsal is set for Wednesday, April 26, at the usual time (6 to 7 p.m.) and in the usual place: the recreation room at Windenere.

Please encourage your singing friends to join us! All are welcome, but lower voices are especially needed to balance our sound.

Planning for our spring and summer 2017 performance schedule is now under way. If you have an idea for a venue where the Spirituals Choir hasn’t sung before, or hasn’t appeared in recent years, let me or Jim know.

Looking forward to seeing you on April 26!

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Upcoming Presentations

The Spirituals Choir will be giving two presentations in the first week of August. On Thursday, August 4, at 12 noon, we’ll be at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. The program is expected to last about 45 minutes. (Note that this gig was originally announced for August 3.)

2016 aaclfWe’re proud to be part of the Oak Bluffs library’s first African American Literature and Culture Festival. The festival begins with an art opening reception on Thursday, August 4, from 6 to 8 pm, then continues from 10 am to 5 pm on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and 6. The choir is in the closing slot on Saturday, 4 pm.

For a complete schedule, check out the festival’s webpage.

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From Edgartown to Chilmark

July is off to a great start!

Last Saturday afternoon, the Spirituals Choir gave a presentation in the brand-new program room of the brand-new Edgartown library. Fourth of July weekend is overload time on Martha’s Vineyard — too many cars, too many people, too many things to do — so we weren’t sure what kind of audience we would get. We needn’t have worried!

For one woman, it was serendipity: her grandkids really wanted to go to the library, and when they got there she saw our banner hanging outside the front door. She came and was thrilled to learn the background to some of the songs she’d known all her life.

Setting up the keyboard

Setting up the keyboard

Yesterday afternoon we headed up-island for our third annual presentation at the Chilmark library. Traffic was worse and parking harder than it had been in Edgartown on Fourth of July weekend, thanks to an event at the Community Center next door. Since there was no room in the library’s small parking lot, Reverend Phil’s keyboard had to be walked up the road from (I think) the parking lot at the bank. It arrived in the nick of time.

Once again the presentation went well. Not only was the audience attentive and appreciative, they asked good questions at the end.

At both libraries we sang the songs we presented at the Anchors in mid-June. This is about half of our 2016 repertoire. We’ll be doing the whole thing at Union Chapel on Saturday, July 16, 7:30 p.m. More about that later.

When Jim mentions a song that isn’t in the current repertoire, like “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” often the choir will start singing in the background. Sometimes the audience joins in.

Director Jim Thomas gets ready to start the program.

Director Jim Thomas gets ready to start the program.

 

choir

Sopranos, altos, and a couple of tenors at the Chilmark library. The lower voices didn’t fit in the frame!

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At the Anchors

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Jim explains how the slave songs carried two meanings, one for the slaves who sang them, another for the masters who heard them.

The Spirituals Choir officially opened its 2016 season — and its 12th year — with a June 14 presentation at The Anchors, home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. The presentation followed the regularly scheduled lunch, in which the choir was invited to partake. Most of us took advantage of the offer. Along with the food, choir members got a chance with visit with each other. At rehearsals, we sing. Director Jim Thomas raises both eyebrows at us if we chatter too much.

Jim opened the presentation by explaining how the slave songs were, among other things, a form of communication. The earliest slaves brought to the colonies early in the 17th century were young. Their median age was just over 17 years old. They were ordered not to talk while working in the fields, so they sang instead. In their African homes, people communicated by singing and drumming as well as by talking, so the transition was a natural one.

Several of the songs we sang draw on stories and imagery from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. House slaves regularly accompanied the master’s family to church on Sundays, and as Jim points out, “church” in those days was an all-day affair. Slaves marveled at the stories and brought them home to the plantation, where they grew into songs that didn’t mean quite what the masters thought they meant.

If Joshua made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, if God locked the lion’s jaws so it couldn’t eat Daniel and put out the fire before it burned the Hebrew children, then deliverance and freedom were possible for the slaves as well.

The last song on the program was ‘Great Day,” one of the last of the slave songs: it celebrates Emancipation. After slavery ended, there were no new slave songs, but we sing them to keep them alive. Slavery may have ended, in the U.S. at least, but hopes for freedom and justice have not.

Our next presentation will also be in Edgartown, on Saturday, July 2, 2 p.m., in the lovely new program room of the new Edgartown library. Join us!

The choir gets ready to sing.

The choir gets ready to sing.

 

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Black and Unknown Bards

At rehearsal tonight, Jim spoke of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “O Black and Unknown Bards,” a song of praise and wonder for the creators of the songs we sing.

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

. . .

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

. . .

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

. . .

There’s more, but especially this:

You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live . . .

They live, and as we sing them, we remember.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a poet, writer, and national organizer for the NAACP. With his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became known as the “Negro National Anthem,” on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.

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