Category Archives: spirituals

Singing the History

Most of the singers in the Spirituals Choir are white. I’m one of them. People sometimes remark on this, and I’d bet good money that many more notice but are too nervous to say anything out loud.

When asked, and sometimes even when not asked, why I sing in the choir, I say that the songs are beautiful and moving and that by singing them I can begin to feel my way into the lives of those who created them. No, I will never understand what it’s like to be totally at the mercy of another person, to be sold away from family and friends, to take the huge risk of boarding the Underground Railroad and beginning the long trek north.

But the spirituals make those experiences real to me in a new way. It goes deeper than history books, deeper even than the first-person accounts by enslaved people who managed not only to escape but to get their stories into print, People like Frederick Douglass; Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Solomon Northrup, whose Twelve Years a Slave was adapted into a movie some 160 years after its publication; and all the men and women whose narratives were collected by the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

It’s a little like being in a play. In rehearsals you work your way into the character, then in performance you are that character for an hour or two. When you go back to being yourself, traces of the character often remain in your memory and maybe even in your heart.

So at the beginning of the very long Fourth of July weekend Margaret Jordan’s Washington Post op-ed caught my eye: “Too Many Americans Still Don’t See Black History as Their Own.” Jordan, a D.C. native, writes about the long-vanished family history she sees as she walks around the city. A member of the Montpelier Foundation, she writes about a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, “which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plantation of our fourth president.” And she writes this:

In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.

That’s it. That’s why I sing the spirituals and why I believe Americans of all colors and ethnicities can and should embrace them as part of our history, difficult as it can be. In self-defense the mind recoils from thinking too hard about slavery, like the finger recoils from a hot burner. But the spirituals offer a way into the history, and a way of integrating slavery into the history of the nation.

* * * * *

The Spirituals Choir’s annual full-length presentation at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, will take place on Saturday, July 22, at 7:30. Most of our performances, at libraries, schools, and houses of worship, are free. The tickets for the Union Chapel presentation are $15 and support the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. (Children under 12 get in free.) Lavert Stuart will once again be our guest organist.

 

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Two Sides of July Fourth

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, activist, and former slave Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass died in 1895, but his speech lives on. On Martha’s Vineyard there are usually two community readings of the speech each year. One takes place at the Federated Church in Edgartown on July 3, the other at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs on the 4th.

This was my second year reading at the Inkwell. That’s us, this year’s readers, in the photo. I’m kneeling in front with the purple hat mostly covering my face. Gail, also part of the Spirituals Choir, is second from right in the front row.

I can’t speak or listen to Douglass’s words without hearing in my mind the slave songs we sing in the Spirituals Choir. This year what I heard most vividly was Douglass’s evocation of the “human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!”

I can’t stop thinking of “that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.” One of the songs in our repertoire this summer is “Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” In it a girl — I’m sure it’s a girl — sings that line, and the choir answers: “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray!” Then the girl sings “Gwine to sell us down in Georgia?” And again the answer is “Yes, yes, yes . . .”

The way Dr. Thelma Johnson, member of the Spirituals Choir, sings those lines will break your heart.

So do Frederick Douglass’s passionate words, evoking the slave who can’t celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July because he is not free.

The slave songs keep the slaves’ experiences alive. That’s why I sing them. Frederick Douglass’s words do likewise. That’s why we read them every year on the Fourth of July.

 

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First 2017 Rehearsal

Yesterday the Spirituals Choir gathered for our first rehearsal of the 2017 season. Stacks of music were on a table at the back of our usual space, the recreation room at Windemere. Our repertoire for this year includes some slave songs we’ve sung often in recent years and some we haven’t. (Some we might not have sung at all as a group, but since this is only my sixth year singing in the choir, I can’t swear to it.)

Among the songs from the 2016 or 2015 repertoire:

  • “Wasn’t That a Wide River?”
  • “You May Bury Me in the East”
  • “In Bright Mansions Above”
  • “Done Made My Vow to the Lord”
  • “Fare You Well”

This last one, “Fare You Well,” is as close as we come to a staple, and with good reason: it’s almost unbearably poignant and powerful. A slave who’s been sold away from home bids farewell to family and friends. To sing it with one’s whole heart is to feel a little bit of what that felt like.

From the slightly more distant past come these songs, among others:

  • “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”
  • “Soon-a Will Be Done”
  • “I Want to Be Ready (to Walk in Jerusalem Just like John)”
  • “Wayfaring Stranger”

The ones I don’t recall singing before, though the choir may be done “before my time”:

  • “I’ve Got a Robe”
  • “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child”
  • “Follow the Drinking Gourd”
  • “Guide My Feet, Lord”

“I’ve Got a Robe” includes one of my favorite lines of all time: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t going there.”

Needless to say, there’s more!

The only time we sing our whole repertoire is at our annual appearance at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. This year the date is Saturday, July 22, and the time is 7 p.m. Circle it on your calendars. Ticket sales from this event help sustain the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part.

Our other presentations feature a selection of songs and the stories that go with them, depending on the occasion, the time available, and how the spirit moves.

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At the Anchors

20160614 jim

Jim explains how the slave songs carried two meanings, one for the slaves who sang them, another for the masters who heard them.

The Spirituals Choir officially opened its 2016 season — and its 12th year — with a June 14 presentation at The Anchors, home of the Edgartown Council on Aging. The presentation followed the regularly scheduled lunch, in which the choir was invited to partake. Most of us took advantage of the offer. Along with the food, choir members got a chance with visit with each other. At rehearsals, we sing. Director Jim Thomas raises both eyebrows at us if we chatter too much.

Jim opened the presentation by explaining how the slave songs were, among other things, a form of communication. The earliest slaves brought to the colonies early in the 17th century were young. Their median age was just over 17 years old. They were ordered not to talk while working in the fields, so they sang instead. In their African homes, people communicated by singing and drumming as well as by talking, so the transition was a natural one.

Several of the songs we sang draw on stories and imagery from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. House slaves regularly accompanied the master’s family to church on Sundays, and as Jim points out, “church” in those days was an all-day affair. Slaves marveled at the stories and brought them home to the plantation, where they grew into songs that didn’t mean quite what the masters thought they meant.

If Joshua made the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, if God locked the lion’s jaws so it couldn’t eat Daniel and put out the fire before it burned the Hebrew children, then deliverance and freedom were possible for the slaves as well.

The last song on the program was ‘Great Day,” one of the last of the slave songs: it celebrates Emancipation. After slavery ended, there were no new slave songs, but we sing them to keep them alive. Slavery may have ended, in the U.S. at least, but hopes for freedom and justice have not.

Our next presentation will also be in Edgartown, on Saturday, July 2, 2 p.m., in the lovely new program room of the new Edgartown library. Join us!

The choir gets ready to sing.

The choir gets ready to sing.

 

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Black and Unknown Bards

At rehearsal tonight, Jim spoke of James Weldon Johnson’s poem “O Black and Unknown Bards,” a song of praise and wonder for the creators of the songs we sing.

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

. . .

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

. . .

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

. . .

There’s more, but especially this:

You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live . . .

They live, and as we sing them, we remember.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a poet, writer, and national organizer for the NAACP. With his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, he wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became known as the “Negro National Anthem,” on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.

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This Year’s Slave Songs

The choir is well into rehearsal for the 2016 season, while eagerly awaiting the return of our seasonal singers. The summer schedule is taking shape — see the new “2016 Schedule” tab at the top of this page.

This year’s repertoire includes some perennial favorites, some we haven’t sung in several years, and some we’ve never sung before. Here’s the list:

“Climbin’ Up the Mountain”

“Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”

“O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn”

“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”

The four songs above all draw on wondrous events from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The slaves marveled at these stories, and took lessons from them that the masters did not intend to teach. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel,” they sang, “and why not every man?” Mary is told not to weep because “Pharaoh’s army got drownded” — and other oppressors will eventually get their comeuppance too.

“Live a Humble”

“Roll, Jordan, Roll”

When Jordan appears in the slave songs, it usually means either the Atlantic Ocean, with Africa on the other side, or the Ohio River, with freedom on the other side.

“You May Bury Me in the East”

“Sit Down, Servant, Sit Down”

A song from the Underground Railroad, where those who had always had to stand while the masters sat were finally encouraged to sit down and rest.

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

The next three songs mark the first time the choir has featured a Christmas section. In these songs, the imagery comes from the New Testament. The promise of salvation was important to the slaves in ways the masters couldn’t know. For the fortunate it might come in this life before it came in the next.

“Po’ Li’l Jesus”

“Rise Up, Shepherd”

“Go Tell It on the Mountain”

“My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”

“Balm in Gilead”

“Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?”

“Fare You Well”

“Done Made My Vow to the Lord”

Another song from the Underground Railroad. Slaves going on the journey vowed never to turn back. For most it was the first vow they’d ever taken of their own free will.

“Great Day”

A celebration of Emancipation, and thus one of the last spirituals. After slavery came to an end, no new slave songs were written, but the old ones have been traveling the world ever since.

 

If you’d like to arrange a presentation to your organization by Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir, let us know!

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Myths About Slavery

You’ve probably run into people, most likely white people, who think that slavery wasn’t that big a deal, and even if it was, it’s over. Besides, their family never owned slaves so the whole issue doesn’t really involve them. Maybe, at some time in the past, you’ve even thought some of those things yourself.

Writes Margaret Biser in her remarkable essay: “Up until a few weeks ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.”

She summarizes and responds to the questions and reactions she encountered most often. For instance:

“People think slaveholders ‘took care’ of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest.”

 

“People don’t understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders’ actions beyond mere economic interest.”

 

Read the whole thing here.

We flinch away from the realities, maybe because we don’t want to think about our ancestors who owned slaves, or our ancestors who were slaves, or the myriad unfreedoms in our own lives today.

Singing songs the slaves sang gives us a way to enter into a world that is so hard for us to imagine. We are moved, and so are our audiences.

Last summer the Spirituals Choir sang at the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. It was a powerful experience indeed, to sing where slaves might once have sung some of the same songs we were singing. (For an account of our trip, click here.)

If you’re on Martha’s Vineyard this month, here’s our July schedule:

Wednesday, July 8, 6:30 p.m. West Tisbury library. Free.

Saturday, July 18, 7 p.m., Union Chapel. $15 at the door; under 12 get in free.

Sunday, July 19, 11 a.m., Unitarian Universalist Society, Vineyard Haven.

Sunday, July 26, 6:30 p.m., East Chop Lighthouse. Part of the Vineyard’s celebration of Della Hardman Day.

Thursday, July 30, 6:30 p.m., Oak Bluffs library. Free.

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