Yesterday the Spirituals Choir traveled to the big city to sing — and what a great day it was!
Having made it to Vineyard Haven in time for the 7 a.m. boat, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.
Our first stop was at Boston’s Old North Church, where we were scheduled to sing at the 11 a.m. service. Old Boston’s streets are not bus-friendly, so the bus let us off on Commercial Street. We hiked up and then down Hull Street to the church.
Appropriately enough, “Climbing Up the Mountain” is in our regular repertoire this year. When we got to the historic church, the steps up to the balcony were far steeper and narrower than Hull Street. We all made it to the top.
As with many a mountain, the view from the top was pretty cool.
We had just enough time for our accompanist, Phil Dietterich, to get used to the organ and for us and our guest soloist, Elizabeth Lyra Ross, to have a brief sound check.
To make sure that we were singing to the congregation below and not the wall behind the organ, Jim directed us from the side. The layout of the narrow balcony made this challenging: if anyone leaned forward too far, no one sitting to his or her left could see Jim. We managed!
Phil played the prelude, based on “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” then we sang the choral prelude: “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” and “Wasn’t That a Wide River?” The regular service included both a baptism and Holy Communion. Ms. Ross sang the offertory anthem, a very moving “Steal Away to Jesus.” The communion anthem featured us singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Shortly afterward, we sang the choral postlude — “Done Made My Vow,” “Soon I Will Be Done,” and “In Bright Mansions Above” — after which the service was brought to a close by Phil with his own “Improvisations on ‘Ride On, King Jesus.’”
Then it was up and down Hull Street again to meet our bus. Next stop: the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford. After checking in with Gracelaw Simmons, our contact person, we strolled around the corner and down Main Street for lunch at the Sei Bar, a pan-Asian restaurant. (Highly recommended, by the way: When you visit the Royall House, check it out.)
Before our 4 p.m. performance, we had time for a tour of the Royall House, ably guided by the museum’s part-time executive director, Tom Lincoln. While we experienced the physical house — the small rooms, low ceilings, and furnishings — Tom provided the context that linked the mansion’s inhabitants to the slaves who made their luxurious life possible. (The Royall family often consisted of only two adults and two growing children. When Isaac Royall Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth, took up residence in the 1730s, they brought with them at least 27 slaves from their sugar plantation in Antigua.)
The estate, comprising some 500 acres, was like a small, mostly self-sufficient town. Nearly all the work done to sustain it — cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and linens, gardening, orchard tending, horsekeeping, driving, carpentry, blacksmithery, and so on and on — was done by slaves. Feeding the family and their frequent dinner guests took up most of every 24 hours, which is why there are pallets in the winter kitchen for the “staff” to sleep on between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next a scant few hours later.
Virtually every room has its own fireplace. Think, said Tom, how much work went into keeping those fires burning. No kidding: felling the trees, sawing them into logs, splitting the logs, carrying the wood, starting the fire, feeding it, banking it . . .
Upstairs, close to what might have been the master bedroom, is the dressing room. Clothing was far more elaborate in the 18th century, and manners more formal. The elite, and those who aspired to lofty status, didn’t venture downstairs except in proper attire — and “proper attire” could seldom be achieved without help. Here the master and mistress of the mansion would have been dressed by their slaves, in a relationship of considerable intimacy.
What the house slaves must have known about the family they served! But, as Tom pointed out, very little of what the slaves did or thought has come down to us. Often we know no more than their first names, and sometimes not even that.
We don’t know what songs the Royalls’ slaves sang either. Since many of them came originally from the Caribbean, they might not have had much contact with slaves in the southern colonies of what became the United States.
Still, as we sang — on a porch outside the main house, facing the Slave Quarters — we couldn’t help but imagine the enslaved residents of this place singing songs like “Soon I Will Be Done” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” Surely some of the them would have accompanied the family to worship services in churches that looked much like Old North Church, and come home impressed with the Bible stories that grew into spirituals like “Climbing Up the Mountain” and “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?”
We could have hung out for hours afterward talking with members of the audience, not only about the U.S. Slave Song Project but about the work that’s being done in the Medford schools and wider community about local and national African American history. But our bus was waiting, and at the other end of the road our ferry home.
The 7:30 ferry was loading as our bus pulled into Woods Hole. The catch? The 7:30 goes into Oak Bluffs, and all of our cars were in Vineyard Haven. Lucky for us, the freight boat Governor was also loading, destination Vineyard Haven. Several of us sang most of the way across Vineyard Sound, probably driving some of our fellow passengers crazy. We sounded pretty good, if I do say so myself.