Monthly Archives: July 2013

Choir to Sing at East Chop Light

With Vineyard Sound spread out before in front and the historic lighthouse behind, there are few more scenic places to sing on Martha’s Vineyard than East Chop Lighthouse. This Sunday at 6 p.m. the Spirituals Choir returns for its eighth annual visit. There’s no charge. Bring a chair or a blanket to sit on.

Jim Thomas (left) leads the choir.

Jim Thomas (left) leads the choir.

Thanks to Marie Allen for taking these photos as last year’s performance!

The choir’s appearance is part of the annual celebration of Della Hardman Day, which honors the life and work of the late artist, community inspiration, and Oak Bluffs resident.

“Savor the moment,” a Della axiom, is the theme.

In previous years, the lighthouse has been open for visitors. The view from the top is spectacular.

jim 1Jim Thomas manages to direct the choir, sing lead, play the drum, and provide historical context for the spirituals all at the same time. We think he has eyes in the back of his head!

partial choir

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Trayvon Martin, Race & Anthropology

Many eloquent writers are trying to come to terms with the not guilty verdicts in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. Leith Mullings’s essay is one of the best I’ve seen. She’s the president of the American Anthropological Association. “Anthropology,” she writes, “is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror.”

She notes as well that “our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II,” and, a little later: “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, cultural anthropologists in particular have understood race to be a social construction—not a biological given (indeed, this is almost a mantra). Race is constructed in the sense that racial hierarchies are created at specific historical moments, frequently linked to labor exploitation, conquest, nation-building, and racialized definitions of citizenship.”

The essay contains a link to Charles Blow’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin.”

Leith Mullings is also the widow of the late Manning Marable, author of the stunning, Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

 — SJS

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MV Times Features Slave Song Project

The new Martha’s Vineyard Times (July 17, 2013) has a lovely story about Jim Thomas, the U.S. Slave Song Project, and the Spirituals Choir. Check it out!

July 2013 poster smThank you, Gwyn McAllister, for doing such a good job.

It’s been a distressing week for all of us. The slaves sang these songs to get them through days worse than most of us can imagine. Come hear some of these songs at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, this Saturday, July 20, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Kids 12 and under get in free.

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

— From “Balm in Gilead”

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Union Chapel

On Saturday, July 20, the Spirituals Choir returns to Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for its annual performance: “Songs From the Field: The Mystery of Spirituals.” We’ll be joined by organist Lavert Stuart from Cleveland — and if you were there last year, you know how versatile he is. The concert starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15; kids under 12 get in free.

Sunday, July 21, we’ll be part of the morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Society, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. Lavert will join us there too. The service starts at 11 a.m.

July 2013 poster smOn

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June 29 Concert

Last Saturday, June 29, the Spirituals Choir returned to Katharine Cornell Theatre for a full-length performance. The program, “Songs from the Field: The Underground Railroad,” followed the experience of African slaves in the U.S. We opened with “Oh, Wasn’t That a Wide River?,” one of at least three slave  songs that commemorates the Middle Passage, the crossing of the Atlantic. (The others include “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and “Deep River.”)

The next section combined songs of hope and determination with songs that refer explicitly — though nearly always in code — to the Underground Railroad, the network that helped runaway slaves escape to the North from (approximately) 1830 to 1860. Most Americans learn “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” when we’re growing up, but we don’t learn that it was a slave song or that “Sweet Chariot” was a code-name of Harriet Tubman, probably the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Along with “Swing Low,” we sang “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Sit Down, Servant, Sit Down,” all of which relate to the experiences of runaway slaves on the “Railroad.”

Especially poignant is the haunting “Fare You Well,” which might have been sung by slaves leaving on the Railroad or by those parted from family and friends by the buying and selling of the plantation owners.

We finished with the jubilant “Great Day!,” which celebrates Emancipation: “This is the day of jubilee / The Lord has set his people free.”

As well as singing lead in his powerful baritone, director Jim Thomas explained the various ways the slaves used the songs, where some of the imagery came from, and what some of the lyrics meant to listeners who knew the code: “Hear the Angels Singing” seems to be entirely about heavenly choirs — until one realizes that Underground Railroad conductors were called “angels.”

After the singing, Jim invited questions and comments from the audience, and the audience obliged. (Among the audience, by the way, was Kate Taylor — who definitely knows some of these songs!)

The choir’s next full-length performance will be on Saturday, July 20, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. We’ll be joined, as we were last year, by the celebrated organist Lavert Stuart. On July 21, we’ll be part of the morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Vineyard Haven.

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