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.