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Understanding Spirituals Differently at Different Times

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Essay title: Understanding Spirituals Differently at Different Times

Understanding Spirituals Differently at Different Times

Given the spiritual’s origins as religious-themed folksongs of the American slave population, the repertory has, in large measure, stayed constant since the Civil War. Yet the ways we have understood and performed this repertory have changed dramatically over time. Tracing this history sheds light on larger forces at play within American culture, especially issues of race.

In the large, spirituals have changed in function along the following lines: The folk songs of the 18th and earlier 19th centuries gave way, after the Civil War, to college-based choral performances of arranged spirituals, and to the earliest publishing of notated collections. In the 20th century spirituals were also commonly performed in solo vocal recitals of “art song,” and in recent decades they have become important staples in the repertory of some of the world’s biggest opera stars, such as Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. Along with these changes in function and style has come a gradual (though not necessarily steady) move towards treating spirituals as “good” music, as music worthy of value and serious scholarship; this of course broadly parallels the country’s general progress towards ideals of equality. Each of these periods deserves brief comment.

Though the term “spiritual” was not used until the Civil War, clear references to these songs date from the early 19th century. During this time the repertory quickly became controversial. Critics who took European forms of worship for granted were aghast at the “excesses” and “growing evil” of singing “in the merry chorus-manner of the southern harvest field. . . . With every word sung, they have a sinking of one or the other leg, . . . producing an audible sound of the feet at every step. . . . If some in the mean time sit, they strike the sounds alternately on each thigh.”18 As recounted by Eileen Southern in The Music of Black Americans: A History,19 though some black preachers encouraged the use of these songs in worship, protests over these Africanized, non-orthodox practices led the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1841 to resolve “that our preachers shall strenuously oppose the singing of . . . hymns of our own composing in our public places and congregations” (p. 131). These disputes surely were not only theological, for whites feared the potential for protest and revolt that these songs might engender.

During the period immediately surrounding the Civil War spirituals were first disseminated outside the African-American community. The events themselves were indeed significant. During the war, spirituals impressed northerners newly exposed to slave culture, and in 1861 a minister sent a letter which included the text to “Go Down, Moses”; word spread, and these lyrics soon ended up published in the New York Tribune. Within two weeks a (quite poor) sheet music version was planned. “Go Down, Moses” became symbolically important to the abolitionists’ cause; it was seen as evidence that the slaves desired freedom. And the interest generated by this song soon led to the first published collection, the 1867 Slave Songs of the United States, edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (now easily available through a reprinting by Dover Publications, 1995).

But this is not simply a tale of the repertory’s success. Reviews of the collection were not exactly glowing: critics called the songs “strange” and not worthy of appreciation, and characterized them as “weird and wild,” “profane and vulgar.”20 And even the collection’s editors framed the songs in demeaning ways, at least from today’s point of view. While lauding the “rich vein of music” they had tapped, the repertory still came from a “half-barbarous people” (p. ii). And the black dialect they attempted to transcribe represented “phonetic decay” and a “corruption” of proper language (p. xxv); there is “probably no speech that has less inflection, or indeed less power of expressing grammatical relation in any way” (p. xxx).

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