The M.V. Spirituals Choir made its 2013 season debut at “the Anchors,” the home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. This was an after-lunch performance for the CoA’s day program. The acoustics were superb, the audience appreciative — our summer is off to a great start!
Phil Dietterich, aka “Reverend Phil,” at the keyboard
As is customary, director Jim Thomas talked about the significance of the spirituals, and introduced each song with a few words about its significance. We opened with “Oh, Wasn’t That a Wide River?,” about the crossing of the Atlantic from Africa to North America. The next two spirituals, “In Bright Mansions Above” and “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” express the slaves’ yearning for a place where they could sit at the table instead of serving at it. “Sit Down Servant, Sit Down” was sung on the Underground Railroad, where runaway slaves actually did have a chance to “sit down and rest a little while” without overseers and bloodhounds breathing down their necks.
Part of the choir (right) and part of the audience (left)
Jim noted that since Emancipation the spirituals have been reinterpreted to suit the purposes of whoever sings them. “Wade in the Water,” for instance, is widely used for baptisms, but originally it wasn’t about baptism at all. “Wade in the water” was lifesaving advice for runaways: if they walked in streams or crossed rivers, the dogs tracking them would lose their scent. “Angels” was a codeword for Underground Railroad conductors, who might be hiding in the woods before a planned escape.
After our last number — “Great Day!,” celebrating Emancipation — Jim invited the audience to join us in a rousing “Amen!” The room almost burst with rousing harmony.
Our next performance is on Saturday, June 1, 7:30 p.m. at Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. We’ll be joined by the choir of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church from Arlington, Mass. Hope to see you there!
Jim leads the choir and the audience in “Amen.”