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Sing it again: beloved old African American spirituals find a new following.

Old Negro spirituals, the raw, fervent plantation songs that helped African Americans through slavery, Emancipation and Jim Crow are finding a rebirth in the era of hip-hop. The same spirituals learned in Sunday school--"Let Us Break Bread Together," "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand," were born when slaves, newly converted to Christianity, took words from the Bible, and turned them into religious songs and church rituals that many black churches still use today.

These same spirituals were often carefully coded instructions to help escapees find their way to freedom. Spirituals like "Wade in the Water" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" were really about escape on the Underground Railroad.

In recent years, two books, especially The Trouble I've Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals by the late Bruno Chenu (Judson Press, June 2003, $20., ISBN 0-817-01448-9) and Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought by Paul Allen Anderson (Duke University Press, June 2001, $79.95, ISBN 0-822-32577-2), are adding to the public discourse on the historical importance of elevating spirituals. Chenu, a French priest, was so smitten the first time he heard spirituals performed while visiting in the United States during the 1970s that he determined then that he would write a book on the subject.

Chenu, who died in 2003, not only examines the roots of American slavery, but also the African roots of the black church, music and the impact of the Bible on enslaved Africans. The exhaustive, well-researched book chronicles the origin of Negro spirituals from the slave trade during the 17th to 19th centuries, the biblical passages that slave owners used to justify slavery, the conversion of slaves to Christianity and their co-opting of Christianity to suit their spiritual needs. Chenu includes personal testimonies from slaves and former slaves. He contrasts the communal aspect of African music in which words are improvised to suit the situation, with the hymn sung from written words and scores. The book includes the words to 210 Negro spirituals out of the nearly 6,000 compiled by the Library of Congress. A CD of 18 of the most well-known spirituals, performed by The Moses Hogan Chorale, is padoged with the book. (The Library of Congress collection includes field recordings from as early at 1920 in its American Folk Life Center. Details are available on the library's Web site,

Anderson's book examines the role of African American folk music--spirituals, blues, jazz in the Harlem Renaissance debate about black authenticity and the music's impact on American culture. Post-slavery, black music was beginning to influence American forms of music. Debates arose between supporters of the newly assimilated Negro and a rural folk Negro aesthetic.

Both Chenu's and Anderson's books come at a time when African Americans are interested more than ever in reexamining their history, particularly the history of their slave ancestors. Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Moses Hogan (who died last year), have been successful in performing repertoires of spirituals. Even on the Internet, Web sites devoted to spirituals are thriving. (See "The Spiritual Cybersource," page 23.)

"Spirituals are hitting something really important as fire world gets more complicated, especially for black folks" says Arthur C. Jones, president and chairman of the board of The Spirituals Project in Denver (

"People are searching for roots, for an anchor. Other people are going to church all along looking fur some kind of anchor--not just church people. People outside the black church are seeking to latch onto something black when they are searching," says Jones. He is author of Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals (Orbis Books, September 1993), winner of the Catholic Press Association of America's first-time author book award, and coeditor of The Triumph of the Soul: Cultural and Psychological Aspects of African American Music (Praeger Publishers, November 2000). Jones says The Spirituals Project was started at the University of Denver in 1998 when he and others realized that a young generation knew nothing about the legacy of the music.

"What I am finding when I do presentations for black audiences is an ignorance of the history of spirituals," Jones says. "Yes, they are songs of pain and hurt, but they also speak to the tremendous resilience of the black community. Give me more of that."

Dallas choir director Charles Mitchell, who teaches groups to sing spirituals, says, "I see a request and demand from older congregations to hear Negro spirituals. Older members say, 'Please don't forget to include them.' The older generation still wants to hear songs that were very much part of church in the '40s, '50 and '60s. Singing Negro spirituals was a hallmark of the repertoire of church choirs."

But traditional spirituals nearly died just after slavery, as freed men and women moved to put their slave past behind them. Performers began to adopt the songs and musical arrangements of the European middle class, avoiding the "primitive" and "unsophisticated" spirituals. In fact, as noted in The Trouble I've Seen, it was a revolutionary decision that inspired the Fisk Jubilee Singers (so named for the date of freedom, called Jubilee) to begin incorporating spirituals with European arrangements. "We know from history that it was the Jubilee Singers who introduced the world to Negro spirituals," says Paul T. Kwami, director of the current Fisk Jubilee Singers and coauthor of Best-Loved Negro Spirituals: Complete Lyrics to 178 Songs of Faith, along with Nicole Beaulieu Herder and Ronald Herder (Dover Publications, June 2001). The 1867 Fisk Jubilee Singers began traveling throughout the United States and abroad, singing before audiences in a desperate attempt to raise money for their failing school. The choir was remarkably unsuccessful until they turned to singing spirituals before sympathetic white audiences.

The simple slave songs, the songs of their parents, were first performed as an afterthought on the Jubilee Singers' classical repertoire. They eventually found these songs elicited the most audience reaction. The group began to add songs and was suddenly invited everywhere to sing, thus securing the future of their school and the legacy of spirituals. In Fact, the building created from their efforts, Jubilee Hall, is nicknamed "frozen music" to represent the music's success in helping secure each brick in the building's construction.

The university has a collection dedicated to preserving the history and accomplishments of the Fisk Jubilee Singers that includes newspaper clippings, music, autographs, and the diaries of Ella Sheppard Moore, a member of original Jubilee Singers.

In addition, the singers have inspired innumerable books on their lives and accomplishments, including The Original Fisk Jubilee Singers: Introducing the Spiritual to the European World by Toni Passmore Anderson. Other books include Slave Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers by Michael L. Cooper (Clarion Books, September 2001) and Dark Midnight When 1 Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, How Black Music Changed America and the World by Andrew Ward (Amistad/HarperCollins, July 2001).

After the Fisk experience, Negro spirituals became commonplace in American popular culture, thriving during the Harlem Renaissance but setting off a racial debate that pitted Zora Neale Hurston's and Langston Hughes's colloquial cultural vernacular against W.E.B. Du Bois's and Maine Locke's New Negro elite, according to Anderson. The music ebbed again before being used as a source of communal support during the Civil Rights Movement.

The director of today's Jubilee Singers, Kwami, a native of Ghana, says there is a definite similarity between the African American spirituals and the songs of his country. He can hear the similarities in the call-and-response form in which the song leader then the chorus sings and in the simple melodies heard in Ghanaian music and Negro spirituals.

Preserving the Traditions

Similarly, The Trouble I've Seen describes how African soloists lead the singing, improvising and embellishing a song, while the rest of the choir provides texture and layers, Kwami says he can tell there is a resurgence of interest in the music from the reaction of the audiences when they travel. "The music is still affecting people in different ways;' he says. "People tell us how influenced they are by the music."

Jones and Mitchell say vocalizing of spirituals is rarely taught today in schools, colleges and universities because of cuts in music programs, particularly in public schools, and because of issues of church-state separation. They say the history surrounding spirituals may be taught ill some schools, but not the music.

Kwami says, "I think there are number of African American men and women who are helping to sustain our interest in the Negro spirituals; these musicians are arranging Negro spirituals for choirs with different levels of difficulty. Sometimes I find arrangements for piano and voice. No choirs and no instruments--just voice. We still have an interest in music going into local schools. And many colleges that have groups that sing the spirituals we are doing our best to preserve.

"Sometimes, I have personally felt that our children would not receive this music very well, but you can tell from the expression on their faces that the music gets their attention," Kwami adds. "The Jubilee Singers is a strong drawing factor for students who come to Fisk. Each year between forty and fifty students try out. Those who cannot sing do attend our performances. I have a responsibility of helping to preserve the Negro spirituals with the Jubilee Singers."

The Spiritual Cybersource

Web sites about African American spiritual music:

Negro Spirituals, includes history, reference books, songs, singers, composers and link to for books about spirituals.

On the George Washington University's student produced African American Literature Web site is "A Tradition of Spirituals," by Dave Watermulder, J. Amber Hudlin and Ellie Kaufman. The site includes the history of spirituals, composers and performers, as well as a literary analysis of a select number of songs.

Melody Lane Illustrated Hymn Songbook A private member Web site featuring Christian Hymns, Spirituals, and Religious Songs Index with links to songs.

The Negro Spiritual is the news journal of Friends of Negro Spirituals, an organization that focuses on the history, teaching and activities related to Negro Spirituals.

The Art of the Negro Spiritual is a research prelect that examines the Negro spiritual, as written for solo vocal performance, with a discussion group component on Yahoo.

The National Endowment for the Humanities offers a lesson plan on spirituals. 318

Other Noteworthy Titles

In Spirit and in truth: The Music of African American Worship by Melva Wilson Costen Geneva Press, November 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-664-22864-X

This book examines various genres of music used in African American worship, including hymns, and emerging trends in music ministry in African American churches. Dr. Costen is professor of Music and Worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Let the Church Sing!" Music and Worship in a Black Mississippi Community by Therese smith University of Rochester Press, August 2004, $45., ISBN 1-580-46157-3

Religion, church and music play an important role in the lives of many people in the Deep South. In this book, the small community of Clear Creek shares its religious songs in context with religious worship.

Readings in African American Church Music and Worship Compiled and edited by James Abbington GIA Publications, Inc., April 2002 $49.95, ISBN 1-579-99163-7

A book of essays and articles on music and worship by leading scholars, past and present, including Dr. W.E.B du Bois and Dr. Obery Hendricks, author of the critically acclaimed novel Living Water (see BIBR May-June 2003. FAITH). Section II. "Surveys of Hymnals and Hymnody," features five essays on the role of hymns in African American Christian worship.

A Spirituals Discography

The Moses Hogan Chorale, Judson Press, which comes with The trouble I've Seen, June 2003

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, In Bright mansions, Curb Records, January 2003

Marian Anderson, Negro Spirituals 1924-1949. Fremeaux & Associes, May 2004

Bernice Johnson Reagon Wade in the Water: African American Spirituals, the Concert Tradition, Series, Vol. 1 Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings and National Public Radio, May 1994

Ingrid Sturgis is the editor-in-chief of She examines family relationships in Aunties: Thirty-Five Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, May 2004).
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Title Annotation:The Trouble I've Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals; Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought
Author:Sturgis, Ingrid
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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