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.

Leave a comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir

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.



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

Leave a comment

Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir

At the Anchors

20160614 jim

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under slavery, spirituals

This Year’s Slave Songs

The choir is well into rehearsal for the 2016 season, while eagerly awaiting the return of our seasonal singers. The summer schedule is taking shape — see the new “2016 Schedule” tab at the top of this page.

This year’s repertoire includes some perennial favorites, some we haven’t sung in several years, and some we’ve never sung before. Here’s the list:

“Climbin’ Up the Mountain”

“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”

“O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn”

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”

The four songs above all draw on wondrous events from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The slaves marveled at these stories, and took lessons from them that the masters did not intend to teach. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,” they sang, “and why not every man?” Mary is told not to weep because “Pharaoh’s army got drownded” — and other oppressors will eventually get their comeuppance too.

“Live a Humble”

“Roll, Jordan, Roll”

When Jordan appears in the slave songs, it usually means either the Atlantic Ocean, with Africa on the other side, or the Ohio River, with freedom on the other side.

“You May Bury Me in the East”

“Sit Down, Servant, Sit Down”

A song from the Underground Railroad, where those who had always had to stand while the masters sat were finally encouraged to sit down and rest.

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

The next three songs mark the first time the choir has featured a Christmas section. In these songs, the imagery comes from the New Testament. The promise of salvation was important to the slaves in ways the masters couldn’t know. For the fortunate it might come in this life before it came in the next.

“Po’ Li’l Jesus”

“Rise Up, Shepherd”

“Go Tell It on the Mountain”

“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”

“Balm in Gilead”

“Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?”

“Fare You Well”

“Done Made My Vow to the Lord”

Another song from the Underground Railroad. Slaves going on the journey vowed never to turn back. For most it was the first vow they’d ever taken of their own free will.

“Great Day”

A celebration of Emancipation, and thus one of the last spirituals. After slavery came to an end, no new slave songs were written, but the old ones have been traveling the world ever since.


If you’d like to arrange a presentation to your organization by Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir, let us know!

Leave a comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals

A New Season Starts

In one of the most eagerly awaited signs of spring, director Jim Thomas has announced that rehearsals for the Spirituals Choir’s 2016 season will start on Wednesday, April 20, from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Windemere rec room. That’s the usual place and time. If plans change, the info will be posted here.

For a taste of what we’re about, this video includes four songs from our repertoire, as sung at the memorial service for one of our members in September 2013.

All are welcome and encouraged to come sing these amazing songs and learn something about where they came from.

spirituals choir

From the choir’s presentation at the West Tisbury library, June 2014.


Filed under MV Spirituals Choir

American Slavery, 1852

From Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech given at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852:

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul. The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed cash for Negroes. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners; ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number has been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.


Fare you well

Fare you well

Fare well, everybody

Fare you well

Fare you well

If ever I do get home

— Sung by slaves taking leave of each other when one or more have been sold away


Leave a comment

Filed under slavery