Monthly Archives: May 2013

Benefit for One Fund

On Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m., the M.V. Spirituals Choir will perform at Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Also on the program is Vintage Voices, an Vineyard ensemble directed by Phil Dietterich (the choir’s accompanist — he’ll be very busy that night!). Guests also include several singers and musicians from the Boston area.

The concert is a benefit for the One Fund, which was established to help victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Tickets for this family-friendly concert are $10 for adults, $5 for students, and $20 for families.


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New Choir Date

Mark your calendars: The Spirituals Choir will be performing on Wednesday, June 5, from 7 to 7:30 p.m. at the M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. This is an appetizer for the Film Center’s screening of Cabin in the Sky (1943), featuring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong.

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We Sing in Edgartown

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

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)

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."

Jim leads the choir and the audience in “Amen.”


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This season the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir is singing several spirituals about Emancipation, like “Oh Freedom” and “Free at Last,” and others about the Underground Railroad, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Hear the Angels Singing.”

Yearning for freedom and a better life comes through so clearly in many spirituals. Did you know that in the antebellum U.S. South the slaves’ yearning for freedom was considered a disease?

At rehearsal tonight, director Jim Thomas told us about “drapetomania.”

Drapetomania, as described by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), was the “mental illness” that supposedly caused black slaves to try to escape. The word comes from the Greek drapetes (a runaway slave) and mania (madness). Drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was “much more curable” than other forms of “mental alienation.” Slaves, he advised, should be treated like children and forced to submit to adult (white) authority. Treating them as equals only encouraged the disease. Slaves should be treated kindly, but if symptoms of drapetomania surfaced nevertheless “whipping the devil out of them” was advised.

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last



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