Tag Archives: US Slave Song Project

Songs from the Fields @ Union Chapel

For the Spirituals Choir, summers are always busy, but the main event is always our annual presentation at Union Chapel. It’s happening tomorrow, July 21, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $15, to benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. Children under 12 get in free. Tickets are available at the door and from choir members.

Once again, organist Lavert Stuart is our special guest.

Please join us!

If you can’t make it, or even if you can, our upcoming presentations include Thursday, July 26, at the Oak Bluffs library at 4:30 pm, and Tuesday, August 7, at the West Tisbury library, also at 4:30 p.m. We’re working on arranging a return to the East Chop Lighthouse, a perennially popular venue. Watch this space and the local papers for info on that.


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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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Union Chapel, July 19

July is only half gone, but the Spirituals Choir has had a full month already, with even more to come.

On July’s first two Sundays, the 6th and the 13th, we sang for the brunch patrons at Lola’s restaurant, off the Beach Road in Oak Bluffs. Then we got to help ourselves to the brunch buffet — what a treat! Check out Lola’s for great food and frequent live music.

In between our two appearances at Lola’s, on July 10, we made our Chilmark library debut to a standing-room-only audience.

Coming up soon — next Saturday, July 19, at 7 p.m. — is our annual benefit performance at Union Chapel. We’ll be joined by organist Lavert Stuart and percussionist Chris Seidel, who plays the snare drum for our dramatic finale, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Come on out!


2014 UC card


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In the News

The U.S. Slave Song Project and its Spirituals Choir were featured in the May 29 issue of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Check it out!

On Friday, May 30, the choir made its first presentation of its 10th anniversary season at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Our mostly young audience was very attentive, and they asked great questions.

Our next public appearance will be as part of the regular service at the Chilmark Community Church on Sunday, June 15, 9 a.m. On Tuesday, June 17, at 1 p.m. we’ll be singing at the Anchors, the home of the Edgartown Council on Aging.

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MV Times Features Slave Song Project

The new Martha’s Vineyard Times (July 17, 2013) has a lovely story about Jim Thomas, the U.S. Slave Song Project, and the Spirituals Choir. Check it out!

July 2013 poster smThank you, Gwyn McAllister, for doing such a good job.

It’s been a distressing week for all of us. The slaves sang these songs to get them through days worse than most of us can imagine. Come hear some of these songs at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, this Saturday, July 20, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Kids 12 and under get in free.

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

— From “Balm in Gilead”

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Filed under Jim Thomas, MV Spirituals Choir, spirituals