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February 22, 2005

Slavery's Unchained Melodies

Washington Post (DC):

Tucked inside a rectangular folder, hidden in the deep recesses of the Library of Congress, rest a few crumbling pages of paper. Librarian Samuel Perryman sets the sheets on a table. "This is a first edition and I don't know if it was reprinted," he says. "When this one evaporates, that may be it." The yellowed rectangles of paper are one of the few remaining editions of 1872's "Jubilee Songs," one of the nation's first printings of slave songs, also known as Negro spirituals -- what folklorists call one of the most unique and enduring bodies of work in American music.

The weathered songbook was published by Nashville's Fisk University for its Jubilee Singers, most of whom were freed slaves. Today, it has little or no binding left. Many of the few dozen pages are not attached to the rest, hence the folder. But if the original publications of spirituals have become 19th-century artifacts, songs such as "Wade in the Water" and "Elijah Rock" have left the plantations of the Deep South and emerged as modern cultural and religious gems that are now everything from operatic art to daily church music. Dismissed by many blacks in the early 20th century as unwanted relics of slavery, the "sorrow songs" have since rebounded to inspire artists as diverse as William Faulkner, Romare Bearden, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and opera divas Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price. When Martin Luther King Jr. summed up his "I Have a Dream" speech, he reached back to a spiritual for the electrifying "free at last, free at last" summation.

"They're as much a part of me as my fingers and toes," says Rufus Daniels, a retired D.C. labor economist who grew up in rural Alabama, the grandson of a slave. "They were created, in part, by my very family. I can remember my grandmother telling me about the conditions they lived in, and singing these songs in church as a child. . . . They express what might be called the soul of a people."

This afternoon, Daniels will sing baritone as the 75-voice Heritage Signature Chorale and the 87-voice Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir present a concert of the spirituals in the complex modern arrangements of Moses Hogan. The chorale is one of many predominantly black choruses across the country that devote a large part of their classical repertoire to the spirituals, keeping them alive in ways their creators never imagined. While the original spirituals were sung in unison in church meetings or as call-and-response work songs, they have evolved into Hogan's spectacular productions, with sopranos hitting notes a full octave above the fabled high "C" and with sections of the chorus coming in as rapidly as every one-sixteenth note.

"It's hard now to match the inflections of the original songs," says Stanley Thurston, the D.C.-based composer and conductor who directs the Signature Chorale. " 'Join' becomes 'jine,' 'the' becomes 'de,' 'I' becomes 'Ah.' You want to do it as a tribute to how it originally sounded, but with people from all over the country, many of whom have classically trained voices working in highly stylized compositions, it's work. These are mostly a cappella, and there's no music to hide behind." The concert is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington, a familiar setting for religious music, but no one is pretending the songs were just Christian hymns.

They sprang up in the oral tradition of an enslaved people kept illiterate by the force of law, and there are no known authors, composers or arrangers of any of the thousands of spirituals that came about during slavery. Instead, the slaves found redemption in the Old Testament stories of the enslaved Hebrews in Biblical Egypt. Seeing themselves as a similar people, they packed double meanings of escape from slavery and religious salvation into many of the songs -- messages lost on white overseers.

"A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven," wrote Frederick Douglass in his narratives of being enslaved in Maryland. "We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan." Classic songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Steal Away to Jesus" were not-so-veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and "Wade in the Water" is a textbook example of the style:

Who's that young girl dressed in red
Wade in the water
Must be the children that Moses led
God's gonna trouble the water

For any slave from Mississippi to Maryland, "wade in the water" was a reference to escaping slaves using shallow streams to throw off pursuing bloodhounds, "children" meant the slaves themselves, and "Moses" was Harriet Tubman, the famed leader of the Underground Railroad. "White folks would hear them sing that and not think anything other than the Old Testament about it, because they just didn't think black folks had the sense," says Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University history professor who often lectures on slavery in America and wrote the Grammy-nominated liner notes for the Hank Jones/Charlie Haden compact disc, "Steal Away."

Frances Brooks, a soprano in the Chorale who frequently solos on her own, is perhaps best known in local churches for her knockout rendition of the hymn "I Need Thee Every Hour." But, she said Friday night, as the group was going through final rehearsals, even that song does not touch her in the way spirituals do. "There's a deeper connection with the spirituals, as a black woman, because of the slave passages that birthed them," she said. "It's different than hymns because of the gratitude I feel to those people who went before."

That said, the songs' secular references to freedom on Earth does not diminish their spiritual power -- at least not for Bernard Richardson, dean of Howard University's Rankin Memorial Chapel. Singing the songs since childhood, he now sees the power of sustained faith in the lives of slaves who found, despite overwhelming obstacles, one way to leave a message to the rest of the world. "The songs give a sense of the relationship that the slaves had with God, that God was close and personal to them, that God cared for their sorrows and their joys," he said. "Regardless of what humanity said about them, they received their identity from a higher source. The only way we know what was in their hearts is through these songs. That's what makes them endure, what touches us still."

Posted by acapnews at February 22, 2005 12:27 AM