"We don't glorify slavery, but use it as a model for all human suffering. Slave songs show us how to overcome it."
- Joe Carter
Joe Carter died two years ago. But before leukemia took the talented black singer from us much too soon, he traveled the country educating audiences about the music genre we call "spirituals."
Fortunately, one of those presentations took place on a local National Public Radio station a few years ago, and I took copious notes. Before Black History month slides completely from view, I'd like to share what Carter and others have taught us about this universally loved music.
The 25 spirituals in my own church hymnal are minuscule compared to the 5,000 such songs in existence today, and there's a story behind every one. Whether originating in their native Africa, born or altered to express their American experience, unlike the later black music known as "the blues," these essentially "sorrow songs" ended in hope. As Carter explained, "There's always a 'glory hallelujah' some place." The slaves had their tears, but hope and healing came through their music.
In contrast to most music, the spirituals had no known composers and were not written down until Joe Carter, Moses Hogan, John W. Work of Fisk University and others began compiling their collections well into the 20th century. Even if the slaves had been educated, form and recognition weren't important to them. Spontaneous response to whatever troubled or excited them was all that mattered.
While attending their masters' churches, slaves not only learned Bible stories; they identified with them. They didn't just hear about the wandering Israelites walking through the Red Sea or crossing the Jordan River, they created, "Wade in the Water, Children," to cement their belief in a promised land someday for themselves. (Later, this popular spiritual would be used by Harriet Tubman as a guide for escapees. By "wading in the water" they would keep the chasing dogs off their scent.)
We can imagine similar identification with, "Go down, Moses ... Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go"; "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"; "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder;" the Christmas carol, "Rise Up Shepherds and Follow;" and the request by the thief on the cross at the crucifixion, "Do Lord, oh do remember me." And when they sang, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" they knew Jesus understood what they were going through. He had suffered, too.
Overwhelmingly, the spirituals expressed the slaves' longing to be free. Sometimes, songs like "Steal Away to Jesus" were codes signaling their intent to escape. With "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" or "This Train is Bound for Glory," they also sang of the symbolic "vehicles" they would use in the process. ("I'll Fly Away," however, is a 20th-century gospel hymn, or perhaps a "white spiritual," and not to be confused with these early titles.)
Although each spiritual has its own, easily recognized melody, musicians - pianists especially - will be interested to learn they usually follow a five-tone scale, meaning they can be played entirely (or nearly so) on just the black keys of the keyboard.
If Joe Carter was right, that there are 5,000 black spirituals still in existence, we could go on for days relating the stories they tell, but I'll close with one of the most poignant:
During the final weeks of the Civil War, thousands of emancipated Georgia slaves fell in line behind Union Gen. William Sherman's "march to the sea." With the blessing of the War Department, and to solve this problem for both the distracted general and the needy entourage, Sherman issued his "Special Field Order 15," commonly known to this day as "Forty Acres and a Mule." In January 1865, each former slave family was assigned a plot of confiscated land along the Georgia-South Carolina coast, and told to live in the abandoned buildings and till the land as their own.
But before the end of the year President Andrew Johnson rescinded the field order and returned the land to its original owners. As 2,000 "freedmen" gathered on Edisto Island to hear the sad news, one woman quieted the disillusioned crowd when she stood to sing, "Nobody knows the trouble I see ... Nobody knows but Jesus."
Their sadness wouldn't be healed by the end of her song or for decades to come, but seeds of hope accompanied these displaced people until they reached a land they someday could call "home."
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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