Black music is Black history: Our spirituals

Black music is Black history: Our spirituals
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

Fisk Jubilee Singers

Every February when we celebrate Black History Month in the United States, and when we teach it in the classroom or to our youngsters at home, the perfect accompaniment to books and stories is Black music. Black music here was born out of trouble and strife, out of uplift and joy, out of resistance and survival. It has existed since the beginning of our time here in the United States and the diaspora. Black music is rooted in the continent of Africa, and it will carry us into the future.

Though Black music has taken many forms over time, changed with each generation, and been performed in many different cultures by ethnic and racially diverse artists, many of whom are not Black, there is a fundamental thread that ties it all together: Black spirituality. When I speak of "spirituality," I do not mean religiosity, though many Black musicians and their music have come out of the Black church. I speak of a force that combines both the will to endure and survive with the joy of life.

So let us begin this #BlackMusicSunday with Black spirituals.

Though social scientists and anthropologists have made it clear that race is a social construct invented to justify and perpetuate inequality and white supremacy, we are equally clear that the history of systemic racism in the Americas has created Black cultures (yes, plural). It is through the musical products of those cultures that we can learn and grasp not just material history, but the spiritual and emotional byproducts of 500 years of oppression and fierce opposition to same. To understand the souls of Black folks, we must all learn to listen, and listen to learn.

That listening should begin with the music that was sung, stamped out with feet, hand-clapped, called out, and responded to by the Africans brought to America in chains, whose "Negro Spirituals" became the base for gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, rap, and the anthems of the civil rights struggle.

The first time I heard cultural historian, activist, and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon sing "Old Ship of Zion," the hair stood up on my arms and I didn't know why.

In the liner notes of her 1975 album Give Your Hands to the Struggle (reissued in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways), Dr. Reagon writes about the song.

"'The Old Ship of Zion,' a spiritual and gospel hymn, is also associated with the culture of the 19th century Underground Railroad. A congregational singing of this song goes on for many verses as the singers build it together. You can add as many verses as you like about this image of a ship bringing hope and life, set against the memory of that other ship of slavery and death. The song has probably remained so important because of its connection to those of us who are living evidence of having survived the experience."

These are lyrics that have survived centuries.

I was lost to sin and sorrow
Tossed about on life's raging sea
Then I saw so far in a distance
'Twas a ship, seem to be
Then I saw the Captain beckon
Savior- like, His hand to me
'Tis the old ship of Zion
Get on board, follow me
'Tis the old ship of Zion (3X)
Get on board, get on board
Other choruses:
It will carry you through danger…
It has landed many a thousand …

Now I understand: The ship of death and the ship of hope are two sides of the coin Black people have received in the America they've built with their blood, sweat, and tears. I could feel it.

Choral conductor Dr. Rebecca Lynn Raber's 2018 doctoral dissertation investigates the coded messages in spirituals. She devotes an entire chapter to "The Old Ship of Zion."

"I'm no ways weary, I'm no ways tired. Oh, glory, hallelujah! Just let me in the Kingdom when the world catch on fire! Oh, glory, hallelujah! Oh, get your ticket ready, the ship will soon be leaving! Oh, get your ticket ready to go!"
These lyrics from the spiritual, "The Old Ship of Zion" (arranged by Richard Harrison Smith), are thrilling to sing. They become even more compelling after discovering that they served as a coded message for enslaved Africans in the United States, designed to provide hope, comfort, and even secret information leading to escape and freedom.

A 2008 episode of the PBS series History Detectives, narrated by anthropologist Wes Cowan, explored the discovery of a "slave songbook."

The president of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City,California has discovered an unusual book in his late mother's extraordinary collection of African American artifacts.
The small, cloth-bound book, titled Slave Songs of the United States, has a publication date of 1867 and contains a collection of 136 plantation songs.
Could this be the first book of African American spirituals ever published?
History Detectives explores the coded messages and the melodies that laid the foundation of modern blues, gospel and protest songs of future generations.

You can watch the full segment here; it's just 17 minutes long.

You can read the full transcript here.

Cowan learns that the collection of Black spirituals was the first of its kind, collected by three white abolitionists from the north: Charles Pickard Ware, William Francis Allen, and Lucy McKim Garrison. He heads to Howard University to speak to Dr. James Norris, who's a professor of music there.

WES COWAN: To the enslaved African, what did these songs mean?
DR. JAMES NORRIS: These songs were everything. He had to sing about his condition. Being sold … his family being separated. He had to sing to just keep his plain mental bearing.
COWAN: He tells me that plantation owners often forced enslaved Africans to attend church to hear the message of Christianity ... a message that missionaries carefully tailored to justify slavery. But the enslaved men and women took this new language and created their own spirituals ... songs that often contained coded meanings, bringing messages of hope and, sometimes, visions of escape.
DR. NORRIS: "Roll, Jordan, Roll." Jordan was what? A river you had to cross. Okay, that could have been what? The Mississippi or the Tennessee River. Crossing into a better place. Old Satan was the slave master. Hell was being what? Sold further South.
COWAN: So … in spite of the fact that the words were actually biblical, their meanings were very personal.
DR. NORRIS: Personal.
COWAN: Dr. Norris explains that even though the words were from Christianity, these songs have their roots in Africa, where music was infused into every aspect of life. In the Americas, the enslaved Africans were forced to adapt.
DR. NORRIS: They weren't allowed to use instruments they brought with them. They took them from them. So what, they improvise with what … [clapping hands] … hand clapping. On the side of the … [slapping leg] ... what? Improvise. I look at them and I marvel, over how we got through all of this. But how we got through it all by what? Singing.

The film 12 Years a Slave used one of the most well-known coded songs, "Roll Jordan Roll." The biblical river of Jordan represented the rivers, like the Mississippi, to be crossed to flee enslavement.

The first group to popularize Negro spirituals were the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, as profiled in a 2019 episode of Black History in Two Minutes (or so).

The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Perform the Spirituals and Save Their University

Fisk University was founded in Nashville, Tenn. in 1866. As an institution for African-American students, their first years of inception were pivotal. In 1871, while facing serious financial concerns, the school's treasurer and music teacher decided to create a tour with a choir known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Bringing the sacred artistry of spirituals to the world around them, the Jubilee Singers leaned on the love, dignity, and passion the songs brought their enslaved ancestors. The tour was well-received, especially by white patrons who had only seen black people on stage in minstrel shows.

By using the highly revered art of spirituals, the choir's commitment to saving the university is one of their most notable contributions to black history.

It's amazing how much you can learn in two minutes (or so).

Also in 2019, PBS released an episode of American Experience focused on the group.

On November 16, 1871, a group of unknown singers — all but two of them former slaves and many of them still in their teens — arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of influential ministers. After a few standard ballads, the chorus began to sing spirituals — "Steal Away" and other songs" associated with slavery and the dark past, sacred to our parents," as soprano Ella Sheppard recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans had sung in fields and behind closed doors.
"Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory," produced by Llewellyn Smith, tells the story of a group of former slaves who battled prejudice and oppression to sing their way into a nation's heart. Eventually, they would perform for presidents and queens, tour the United States and Europe, and establish songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Little Light of Mine" as a cherished part of the nation's musical heritage. The program features today's Fisk Jubilee Singers performing these and many other spirituals; Dion Graham narrates.

The concert in Oberlin was the turning point in a daring fundraising experiment for impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where the singers were students. Established in January 1866, Fisk taught freed slaves how to count their wages, how to write the new names they had chosen for themselves, and read both the ballot and the Bible. Despite emancipation, the South was a dangerous place: Fisk students who dared teach in the countryside were routinely assaulted and whipped by Ku Klux Klan nightriders; one was shot at in his classroom; another had her school building burned to the ground.

It's worth your time.

Here is the Jubilee Singers' performance of "Steal Away to Jesus," performed live at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2019.

"Steal Away to Jesus," along with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Roll, Jordan, Roll," are attributed to the authorship of a Black man, Wallace Willis, who was enslaved in the Choctaw Nation by a man named Britt Willis.

Wallace Willis was born on a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wallace "Uncle" Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were slaves of Britt Willis, a wealthy half-Irish, half-Choctaw farmer. When the Choctaws were relocated by the United States government as a result of the Indian Removal Act, Britt Willis walked the Trail of Tears with his Choctaw wife to Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Among the 300 slaves that made the trip with Britt were Wallace and Minerva.
The group settled near Doaksville, Oklahoma, which is located near present-day Hugo and Fort Towson. It was here that Wallace composed "plantation songs" while working the cotton fields of Britt Willis. Britt's granddaughter, Jimmie Kirby, recalled: "Mama said it was on a hot August day in 1840. They were hoeing the long rows of cotton in the rich bottomland field. No doubt [Wallace] was very tired. They worked in the fields from sun-up to sundown. And sundown was a long way off. South of the field, he could see the Red River shimmering in the sun. Can't you just imagine that suddenly Uncle Wallace was tired of it all?" Two of those songs included "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away to Jesus."
Before the American Civil War Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were sent by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy where the superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing. In 1871 Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University and thought the songs he had heard the Willis's singing would be good for the Jubilee Singers. He furnished them to the group, which performed them in the United States and Europe. Wallace Willis' musical contributions live on far past Civil War America his songs of hope, freedom and faith continue to resonate with generations of each passing era. Although Civil War-era documentation surrounding Wallace Willis is scarce, it is often reported that Willis and Minerva lived out their lives in Old Boggy Depot after emancipation in the U.S.

Though we associate Nat King Cole with jazz vocals and piano, here he is on The Nat King Cole Show in 1957, singing a duet of "Steal Away to Jesus" with his guest, the Queen of Gospel herself, Mahalia Jackson.

And here's contemporary gospel singer Robert Robinson of Minnesota performing a moving solo of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

One of the spirituals known to be used as an aid in the escape from slavery is "Wade in the Water."

Harriet Tubman used the song "Wade in the Water" to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slavecatchers used couldn't sniff out their trail. People walking through water did not leave a scent trail that dogs could follow.

"Wade in the Water" was published for the first time by the Fisk Jubilee singers in 1901. It would cross over into jazz; the Ramsey Lewis Trio's version made it to the top of the charts on a 1966 album of the same name.

My favorite contemporary performance of "Wade in the Water" is performed by none other than Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Those of you who follow Black dance are probably familiar with the stellar performance of "Take me to the Water" as part of Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey; his company premiered it in 1960.

In September 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the company still produced the dance segment together, dancing apart.

You may not go to church or be part of an organized religion, but I hope the music and dance presented here today has deepened your understanding of the roots of Black music and lifted your spirits.

Join me in the comments section below for even more.


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