Category Archives: spirituals

Dedication

The Spirituals Choir’s presentation schedule generally doesn’t begin till mid-June. Through May, we’re learning the songs we haven’t sung before, getting reacquainted with familiar ones, and coalescing as an ensemble. Our summer members often don’t return till the end of the month.

But when we were invited to sing at the unveiling of the plaque marking the 28th stop on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail, no way could we turn it down.

Stained-glass windows in the Grace church sanctuary honor the Rev. Absalom Jones (left) and the Rt. Rev. John Burgess.

The 28th stop on the trail is at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. Grace Episcopal has demonstrated its commitment to local African-American history in multiple ways. The plaque that has been mounted near the Woodlawn Avenue entrance to the parish hall commemorates the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746–1818), first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church; the Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess (1909–2003), first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church; and liturgical artist Allan Rohan Crite (1910–2007), whose mural was installed in Grace’s children’s chapel in the 1950s.

The parish hall was packed with attentive listeners as speakers introduced each of the honorees and the church’s commitment to local African-American history and the struggle for racial justice. Elaine Weintraub, co-founder with Carrie Tankard of the M.V. African-American Heritage Trail, spoke of how the trail began with a promise she made to a young student who asked where the black people were in Vineyard history. Elaine said she didn’t know but she would find out. And she did.

In the mid-1990s it seemed astonishing when the trail dedicated its fourth or fifth plaque. But the research has continued, our knowledge of the Vineyard’s African-American history has broadened and deepened, and now the trail has 28 stations on it. Now in its second edition, Elaine’s book Lighting the Trail: The African-American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard, written with Carrie Tankard and with photographs by Mark Alan Lovewell, covers the first 26 stops on the trail.

Leigh Ann Yuen read from the powerful, inspiring Beatitudes from Slavery to Civil Rights, by Carole Boston Weatherford — published for children, but this adult was deeply moved by it. Singing the slave songs one can’t help but acknowledge the importance of faith and religious imagery to the enslaved and those escaping slavery. This little book makes it real.

After the program, everyone trooped outside to watch the unveiling of the plaque, presided over by Julia Burgess, Bishop Burgess’s daughter, a Vineyard resident. Then everyone trooped back in to hear the Spirituals Choir sing “Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming,” which celebrates the approach of the Union army during the Civil War; and “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” in which those preparing to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad vowed that they never would turn back but would press on to “see what the end’s gonna be.”

Allan Rohan Crite’s mural in the children’s chapel at Grace church. The banner at the top reads O ye seas and floods, O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord, praise him and magnify him forever.” Adapted from the “Benedicite omnia opera.”

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals

Come Sing with Us!

Rehearsals are under way for the Spirituals Choir’s 14th (I think) season. If you’ve ever attended one of our presentations and thought this is something you’d like to be part of — now’s the time. Lower voices — altos, tenors, and basses — are especially welcome, but if you’re a soprano, don’t let that stop you. We rehearse at 6 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon in the Windemere recreation room. It’s most easily reached from the parking area behind Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. If you want directions, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.

This year’s repertoire includes some regulars, like “Where Will I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?,” “In Bright Mansions Above,” “Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Comin’,” “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”  Others, like “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” are familiar enough, and some are new to most of us, like “It’s Me,” “I’ve Been Toiling at the Hill,” and “A Wheel in a Wheel.”

Singing these songs, and learning more about the enslaved people who created them and kept them alive, is a powerful and transformative experience. Several of these songs are helping me get through the very troubled times we’re in now. People whose situations were far worse and more hopeless sang to make their lives bearable and to imagine a better future. Their songs renew my spirit and give me hope. Come join us!

Flyer from our 2017 presentation at the West Tisbury library

1 Comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals

Fundraiser for 1854

You’ll be hearing more about this project in coming months, but for now here’s a brief introduction. When he died in 2015, the late Jack Schimmelman, a great fan of the spirituals and the Spirituals Choir, left behind 1854: A Folk Opera, a detailed concept about Vineyarders gathering to debate abolition at a hypothetical town meeting. The slave songs (spirituals) are an integral part of the piece.

The year 1854 was indeed an important one, not only on Martha’s Vineyard but across Massachusetts and the non-slaveholding states of the North. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave-catchers roamed the northern states at will, arresting those suspected of being fugitive slaves and returning them to captivity. The black men and women apprehended had no real rights, and anyone who aided them or interfered with the slave-catchers was subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. The North was fighting back by passing personal liberty laws and forming “anti-man-hunting leagues” to protect both fugitive slaves and free blacks from arrest.

In September 1854, one Randall Burton stowed away on board ship but was apprehended at Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven). Interned aboard the Franklin, he escaped in a ship’s dinghy and eventually, with the help of the Wampanoag, made his way to New Bedford and freedom.

A script has been developed from Schimmelman’s original work. While Vineyarders debate the repercussions of the Fugitive Slave Act, Randall Burton is making his way from Holmes Hole to Gay Head. While sheriff and deputy sheriff try to catch him, others cheer him on and even actively aid his escape. The cast includes both fictional characters and those based on historical figures — and of course the slave songs have a starring role. Also central is the Griot, storyteller, singer, and a powerful figure from African traditions.

The play had a successful read-through this past Wednesday. The tentative plan is to do a staged reading this fall with a full production in the summer of 2019. To help raise funds to make this happen, a Spring Gala for 1854 will be held next Thursday, April 19, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the M.V. Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the door or from the Film Center. This Red Carpet Event features —

  • Live music by César Atzic Marquez
  • A silent auction
  • A showing at 7:30 of Agents of Change, an hour-long documentary about the fight to include black history and other ethnic studies in college curriculums
  • The chance to have your photo taken with the Griot
  • Wine, sparkling water, and other refreshments

Please join us!

4 Comments

Filed under 1854, slavery, 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.

 

3 Comments

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals

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.

 

1 Comment

Filed under slavery, spirituals

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.

2 Comments

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under MV Spirituals Choir, slavery, spirituals