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(or, Making Spirituals Work for the Rest of Us)

by Cliff Ganus, Editor "Accent," Arkansas' ACDA newsletter and director of choral music at Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas, used by permission

Iganusn our travels with the Harding Chorus, we encounter a peculiarly American genre of music in unexpected places.  At an international choral competition in Poland three repertoire categories are specified:  sacred; folk music; and gospel songs and spirituals.  Spirituals?  in Poland?

On a trip to Hildesheim, Germany, we give a joint concert with a German choir that goes by the name “Gospel Voices” and specializes in gospel music and spirituals.

In China, the Chorus shares the stage with the award-winning female choir of Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan, whose closing selection is the Caldwell/Ivory arrangement of “Children, go where I send thee.”

It’s apparent that the singers of spirituals are no longer just African-Americans, or Americans, or those who are world weary.  Spirituals are now sung by people of all races, creeds, ages, and levels of maturity and experience.

In fact, many of us are involved regularly with the task of encouraging young students, whose most intense periods of suffering may have come when their cell phones weHawaii-adre confiscated by their parents, to find an authentic voice with which to sing spirituals. 

How can we help them find that voice?

As a foundational statement, we need to help our singers understand that, by and large, spirituals are not the happy music of a contented people.  They have their origin in a population that was accused of being less than human and was held as slaves, who were subjected to arbitrary punishment, to the separation of families, to cruelty, to intolerable working conditions.  The music of these people accompanied their work, their celebrations, their family life, their sufferings.
And it accompanied their worship.  Another important foundational statement is that, at least to some extent, spirituals serve as a monument to a faith that carried its owners through some of the most difficult experiences in human history.

It should be understood, then, that spirituals are not trivial music.  Though there may be elements of play in some of the songs, the underlying spirit involves survival.  Spirituals are not to be taken lightly.

Nor were these songs originally intended as entertainment.  They were for personal comfort, encouragement, celebration, expression—not for the enjoyment of others.

It may be difficult, even disappointing, to find that there is no “authentic” version of most spirituals.  The songs come to us in fragments, many of them consisting of refrains—“Keep your hands on de plow, hold on”; “Elijah rock, shout, shout”; “My God is a rock in a weary land”; “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home”; “Rock-ah my soul in the bosom of Abraham”—and paired couplets—“If I could I surely would/stand on the rock where Moses stood”; “Ol’ Satan’s got a club-foot shoe/if you don’t mind he’ll slip it on you”; “If you want to find your way to God/the gospel highway must be trod”; “Noah, Noah, let me come in/de doors are shut and the windows pinned”; “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?/A band of angels comin’ after me.” 

These elements were used as work or play calls and were adapted and altered at will.  Some spirituals, such as “Swing low, sweet chariot,” may have had an identifiable form by the time of the Civil War.  Most, however, seem to have been assembled during the last 150 years from their basic components. 

Spirituals began to make their way into the public awareness and repertoire through the performances of the Fisk College Singers, who went on tour in 1871, hoping to build awareness of and financial support for their struggling school.  Their repertoire originally consisted of Stephen Foster songs and other parlor music, but their director, George White, soon became enthusiastic about the spirituals which the young students sang in their unguarded times together.  These he adapted, set into “proper” musical style, and added to their performances.  It was this repertoire which the public found enchanting and which led to their great successes under the patronage of Henry Ward Beecher and their audience with Queen Victoria, and it was this repertoire which led to the group’s being renamed the “Jubilee Singers.”

Since the time of White and the Jubilee Singers, a number of composers and arrangers have played important roles in assembling, popularizing, composing, and defining spirituals.  One of the first was Harry Burleigh (1866-1949), the grandson of a slave, who became a student at the National Conservatory of music in 1893, when Antonin Dvorak was the school’s director.  It is reported that Burleigh introduced Dvorak to the literature; he later arranged a number of spirituals for voice and piano as well as for chorus.

Other significant early composers and arrangers of spirituals include Hall Johnson (1888-1970), William Dawson (1899-1990), John Wesley Work  III (1901-67, who shared musical interests as well as names with his father and grandfather), and Jester Hairston (1901-2000).  It would be inappropriate to try to offer a comprehensive list of their successors, though special mention can be made of Moses Hogan (1957-2003), whose arrangements continue to occupy the programs of many American choirs.

One who wishes to perform spirituals effectively must pay attention to the basics of the style, which include:
•a consistent tempo. 
•a rhythmic emphasis, often leaning toward the backbeat.
•a willingness to use pronunciation to lend authenticity.  The “th” sound was not present in many
African dialects, and Africans often adapted phonemes which were in their vocabulary when pronouncing words with that sound, as might a German or a Frenchman.  It is not demeaning to sing “Ezekiel saw de wheel way up in de middle of de air.”  It’s simply a recognition of the way the words were pronounced in the community.  Note that the rules of vowel pronunciation still apply when using “de” rather than “the.”  The long “e” sound precedes a vowel, while the “uh” sound precedes a consonant:  “Ezekiel saw ‘duh’ wheel way up in ‘duh’ middle of ‘dee’ air.” 

Another issue:  though dropping final consonants may sometimes be authentic and effective, this is not a rule that can be universally followed.  Any good singer, even one who speaks colloquially, may at any time exercise the right to emphasize final consonants or any other item or speech in order to emphasize the meaning or rhythm or the formality of a text.

•bodily involvement, which may include swaying, bending, or clapping (but not finger snapping—these are spirituals, not jazz!).
•a sense of maturity, restraint, and significance at all times.  Without trying to imitate any particular voices or styles, I often ask my singers to try singing a spiritual (or a similar song) again, imagining that they are 40 years old, worn out, and struggling.  The response is often convicting.
•hidden meanings.  “Wade in the water” is about the pool of Bethesda; it’s about baptism; and it’s also about escaping by the river’s edge.  “Deep river” refers to a home on the other side of the Jordan—or is it on the other side of the Ohio?  “Little black train” and “Follow the drinking gourd” are other songs with obvious double meanings.

Finally, here are some suggestions which might be helpful in preparing a spiritual for performance.

1.  Encourage your students to internalize each element of the song.  Don’t recite; instead, respond and create!  When we sing Parker/Shaw’s arrangement of “My God is a rock,” we spend as much time discovering how to exclaim “Oh, my Jesus!” (with a proper explosion on the first syllable of “Jesus” and a significant fade on the last syllable) as we do in learning to shape the melody.  Each student must feel that he is singing every note because it HAS to be sung that way—not because he is reciting what someone told him to sing.  Each statement, each echo, each shout must come from the heart, and not from the printed page.

2.  Try different tempos.  Dawson’s “Soon-ah will be done” is marked to be sung fast and is often taken at breakneck speed.  I believe it can be at least as effective at a moderate tempo.  I first heard this song 50 years ago, sung by a choir at an orphanage.  It struck me at the time that “I want to see my mother” was a significant plaint, not to be taken lightly, and that each of its repetitions should be even more intense.  That realization has affected my interpretation of the song.

3.  Try walking or swaying while singing.  Not only does this mitigate toward consistency of tempo, but it also encourages bodily involvement in this, the most visceral of choral music.

4.  Don’t overlook the obvious resource:  use African-American students to help develop the style for a spiritual.  I use those in my choir who speak French, Spanish, or Chinese to help others to learn the pronunciation of those languages, and I call upon black students to help us discover the language of the spirituals.  While this is still a subject with sensitive overtones, I believe we have come far enough in recent years to recognize that the African-American community in our country is only a few generations away from the times of slavery and is still affected by prejudice and exclusion.  The language, the passion, the power of the spirituals still resonate in the community, and those of us who do not share in that heritage may ask for some guidance in understanding and interpreting it.

5.  Finally, listen to different interpretations of spirituals, with an intention toward learning what distinguishes authenticity from gimmickry.  Beware, because opinions differ.  But this remains true:  you’re much more likely to be convincing when you work toward a style that is compelling than one that just sounds “cool.”

In an educational climate that emphasizes ethnomusicology and multiculturalism, we are fortunate to have this spiritual repertoire at hand, offering us the opportunity for insights into how a people far removed from most of us expressed themselves in music.  And we are equally fortunate in having resources to help us develop an understanding for this music.  Yes, the spiritual is leaving its birthplace and is becoming the domain of choirs throughout the world.  But it is still best understood and interpreted in the context of its roots and its early development.  When we sing spirituals, let’s keep our eyes and ears focused on that heritage.