Tag Archives: performance

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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Upcoming Presentations

The Spirituals Choir will be giving two presentations in the first week of August. On Thursday, August 4, at 12 noon, we’ll be at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. The program is expected to last about 45 minutes. (Note that this gig was originally announced for August 3.)

2016 aaclfWe’re proud to be part of the Oak Bluffs library’s first African American Literature and Culture Festival. The festival begins with an art opening reception on Thursday, August 4, from 6 to 8 pm, then continues from 10 am to 5 pm on Friday and Saturday, August 5 and 6. The choir is in the closing slot on Saturday, 4 pm.

For a complete schedule, check out the festival’s webpage.

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From Edgartown to Chilmark

July is off to a great start!

Last Saturday afternoon, the Spirituals Choir gave a presentation in the brand-new program room of the brand-new Edgartown library. Fourth of July weekend is overload time on Martha’s Vineyard — too many cars, too many people, too many things to do — so we weren’t sure what kind of audience we would get. We needn’t have worried!

For one woman, it was serendipity: her grandkids really wanted to go to the library, and when they got there she saw our banner hanging outside the front door. She came and was thrilled to learn the background to some of the songs she’d known all her life.

Setting up the keyboard

Setting up the keyboard

Yesterday afternoon we headed up-island for our third annual presentation at the Chilmark library. Traffic was worse and parking harder than it had been in Edgartown on Fourth of July weekend, thanks to an event at the Community Center next door. Since there was no room in the library’s small parking lot, Reverend Phil’s keyboard had to be walked up the road from (I think) the parking lot at the bank. It arrived in the nick of time.

Once again the presentation went well. Not only was the audience attentive and appreciative, they asked good questions at the end.

At both libraries we sang the songs we presented at the Anchors in mid-June. This is about half of our 2016 repertoire. We’ll be doing the whole thing at Union Chapel on Saturday, July 16, 7:30 p.m. More about that later.

When Jim mentions a song that isn’t in the current repertoire, like “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” often the choir will start singing in the background. Sometimes the audience joins in.

Director Jim Thomas gets ready to start the program.

Director Jim Thomas gets ready to start the program.

 

choir

Sopranos, altos, and a couple of tenors at the Chilmark library. The lower voices didn’t fit in the frame!

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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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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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