This Saturday in West Tisbury

The West Tisbury library has a lovely program room, and we’ll be presenting there this Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. On State Road in the center of town, across from Alley’s General Store.

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A Surprise Guest in Edgartown

Our presentation at the Edgartown library this past Saturday went very well. Both the library and its sunny, spacious program room were new when we sang there last year. The acoustics were as wonderful as we remembered, and so was the hospitality. After the presentation choir and audience chatted over lemonade and coffee, strawberries, chocolate cake, and cookies.

At some point I noticed a mature gentleman moving about the room taking pictures.The zoom-equipped camera around his neck identified him as a photographer — not for him the smartphones or point-and-shoots of most of us. During the Q&A, he identified himself as Daniel Williams. For 30 years he has been documenting Emancipation celebrations, not only in the United States but abroad as well. A book is in the works.

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves in the rebelling Southern states — but not those in slaveholding states that had never left the Union, and not those in the parts of the Confederacy that were by then under Union control.

Emancipation came gradually: the Wikipedia article on the subject notes that “Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed on April 16, 1862,” and on June 19 Congress passed legislation abolishing slavery in current and future U.S. territories. For various reasons, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach Texas until mid-June of 1865, an occasion that is now widely celebrated as Juneteenth. Legal slavery did not officially end in the U.S. until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

So there are several emancipation milestones to celebrate. Two songs in the Spirituals Choir’s 2017 celebrate Emancipation: “Rise! Shine! For the Light Is a-Coming” and “Great Day.”

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Williams and learn of his work, and needless to say, we look forward to hearing more.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich on the left, director Jim Thomas in blue

Some of the choir

 

 

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Saturday @ Edgartown Library

Here’s the flyer: this Saturday, June 24, 3 p.m. at the Edgartown library. We sang there a year ago when the program room was brand-new — the acoustics are wonderful. Come hear us, and bring your friends. This is a program for all ages.

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Our Busy June Continues

Last Friday, the Spirituals Choir had a rare opportunity to perform for seventh-graders in the Tisbury School library. Our presentations are ideal for school groups, but unfortunately our seasonal schedule does not sync well with the school year. We start rehearsing in late April and are ready for prime time by mid-June — at which time the school year is almost at an end.

So we welcomed this chance, albeit with some good-natured grumbling about having to be in place and ready to sing by 8:30 in the morning. There are generally a few young people at each of our public presentations, but what it would be like singing for an audience comprised almost entirely of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds?

No worries there: the students were very attentive, and they asked good questions at the end. Director Jim Thomas encourages questions and comments from all our audiences. I asked a history teacher if the students had studied the Civil War. He said that he brought it up when opportunities arose but that it wasn’t a formal part of the curriculum until freshman year of high school.

One spiritual on the program was “Mama, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” a poignant song powerfully sung by choir member Dr. Thelma Johnson. The choir responds with “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray.”  In slavery times it was probably sung by children younger than those in our audience last Friday.

* * * * *

The Vineyard’s libraries provide some of our favorite venues. Yesterday afternoon we returned to the Chilmark library, where as usual all seats in the program room were occupied and the library staff had to keep bringing in more. Our next presentation is at the Edgartown library this Saturday, June 24, 3 p.m.

Jim Thomas and some of the choir at the Chilmark library

Phil Dietterich at the keyboard

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Debut at the Anchors

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir gave our first presentation of the 2017 season yesterday at the Anchors, the Edgartown senior center. Pardon me for thinking it might have been our most powerful debut ever! We have a great repertoire this year, and though we only did a portion of it at this particular event, what we did was strong.

There are no photos. My bad. As usual I was running late, and I forgot to grab my camera. The parking gods smiled on me, though: I found a parking space on Water Street and got to the Anchors on time.

This coming Friday morning we’ll be presenting for seventh and eighth graders at the Tisbury School. Students of all ages almost always respond strongly to our program, but unfortunately our performance season is getting under way just as the school year ends. We’re excited to be able to sing for these young people this year. (True, the non-morning people among us are grumbling a bit at the start time: 8:30 a.m.) I promise to remember my camera this time.

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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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Our 2017 Schedule Takes Shape

The choir at East Chop Lighthouse, Oak Bluffs

The Spirituals Choir’s 2017 presentation schedule is growing! Here’s what it looks like now. As more dates are added, you’ll be able to find them on the “2017 Choir Schedule” tab at the top of this page.

The choir’s presentations feature songs sung by African slaves in the American colonies and the United States, along with the stories behind them. They include work songs, songs that recall Africa, songs that dream of freedom, and songs that helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. We sing at libraries, houses of worship, senior centers, and elsewhere, indoors or out. If you’re interested in arranging a presentation, leave a comment here or contact director Jim Thomas by email at Jim@US-SlaveSongs.org or by phone at 703-407-1207.

Tuesday, June 13
12 noon, The Anchors (Edgartown Council on Aging)

Saturday, June 24
3 p.m., Edgartown Library

Saturday, July 1
3 p.m., West Tisbury Library

Friday, July 14
6 p.m., State Beach, Oak Bluffs (near handicapped entrance)
M.V. Hebrew Center’s Friday evening service
If weather is bad, this will take place at MVHC, Center St., Vineyard Haven

Saturday, July 22
7 p.m., Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs

Sunday, July 23
11 a.m., Unitarian-Universalist service, Vineyard Haven

Sunday, July 30
5:30 p.m., East Chop Lighthouse, Oak Bluffs

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