Tag Archives: songs

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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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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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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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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