Tag Archives: Emancipation

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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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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Singing After Charleston

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Canton, Mass.

When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.

Where to start, where to start?

If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.

The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the choir, likes to point out: that none of the slave songs speak of hatred or vengeance. Resistance and escape, yes, but not vengeance.

After crossing Vineyard Sound on the 7 a.m. ferry from Vineyard Haven, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.

We arrive in Canton.

We arrive in Canton.

By 9:15 we were in Canton.

We were welcomed by Martha Mezger, long a member of the choir, now a member of the Canton UU congregation.

The service focused on the slave songs, and the experience of those who sang them. The opening hymn was “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” which is in this year’s repertoire.

Singing these songs, it’s impossible not to think about what the original singers were thinking when they sang them.

The Rev. Beverly “Buffy” Boke read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Please, click the link above and read the whole thing.

Getting ready to sing. Jim's at the lower right.

Getting ready to sing. Jim’s at the lower right.

We sang.

“Wasn’t That a Wide River” — about the crossing of the Atlantic.

“We Shall Walk Through the Valley” — possibly the first peace song sung on this continent.

“I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” — about being so far behind on the long cotton rows that one couldn’t hear one’s fellows, or maybe about despair in general.

“As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray” — the slaves practiced their own religion, often with imagery from the Christian Bible, but they went out of the white folk’s sight to do it.

“Fare You Well” — in which slaves sold away from the plantation take leave of their fellows.

choir 2“Done Made My Vow to the Lord” — the vow of slaves preparing to leave on the Underground Railroad, that they will never turn back or betray their fellows.

“Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming” — in which the slaves prepare for emancipation.

“There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” — the Promised Land in the slave songs is freedom.

“Great Day” — one of the last spirituals, about emancipation.

After the service we joined the congregation for a truly impressive potluck lunch in the parish hall. We had to leave all too early to catch our ferry home.

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will give a free presentation at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m. Or come to our full-length performance next Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15 at the door and benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project. Children under 12 get in free.

A window at the church

A window at the church

 

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Drapetomania

This season the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir is singing several spirituals about Emancipation, like “Oh Freedom” and “Free at Last,” and others about the Underground Railroad, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Hear the Angels Singing.”

Yearning for freedom and a better life comes through so clearly in many spirituals. Did you know that in the antebellum U.S. South the slaves’ yearning for freedom was considered a disease?

At rehearsal tonight, director Jim Thomas told us about “drapetomania.”

Drapetomania, as described by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), was the “mental illness” that supposedly caused black slaves to try to escape. The word comes from the Greek drapetes (a runaway slave) and mania (madness). Drapetomania, wrote Dr. Cartwright, was “much more curable” than other forms of “mental alienation.” Slaves, he advised, should be treated like children and forced to submit to adult (white) authority. Treating them as equals only encouraged the disease. Slaves should be treated kindly, but if symptoms of drapetomania surfaced nevertheless “whipping the devil out of them” was advised.

Free at last, free at last
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last

 

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