Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Liberation Music: Negro Spirituals

I don’t know much (nothing, actually) about any of the artists on tonight’s record which is an Australian pressing from the early 1960s.  But it is a pleasure to share nonetheless.

Growing up our family music collection included several records of massive choirs singing Negro Spirituals.  I’ve searched high and low for one in particular: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (or was it the Normal Luboff Choir?) singing my favorite spiritual, There is a Balm in Gilead.   Alas even ebay comes up blank.

This record doesn’t include that particular song but is full of wonderful renditions of some of the most famous Negro Spirituals. Some are done as choral arrangements, others (and my favorites) are the solos.  A solitary voice singing direct to God somehow seems to encapsulate what Negro Spirituals are all about. A conversation with the Almighty.

The very first Negro Spirituals were inspired by African music even if the tunes were not far from those of hymns. Some of them, which were called “shouts” were accompanied with typical dancing including hand clapping and foot tapping.

After regular a worship service, congregations used to stay for a “ring shout”. It was a survival of primitive African dance. So, educated ministers and members placed a ban on it. The men and women arranged themselves in a ring. The music started, perhaps with a Spiritual, and the ring began to move, at first slowly, then with quickening pace. The same musical phrase was repeated over and over for hours. This produced an ecstatic state. Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring.
Doing a ring shout in Georgia. Ca 1930

Some African American religious singing at this time was referred as a “moan” (or a “groan”). Moaning (or groaning) does not imply pain. It is a kind of blissful rendition of a song, often mixed with humming and spontaneous melodic variation.

In the early nineteenth century, African Americans were involved in the “Second Awakening”. They met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbook. Spontaneous songs were composed on the spot. They were called “spiritual songs” and the term “sperichil” (spiritual) appeared for the first time in the book “Slave Songs of The United States” (by Allen, Ware, Garrison, 1867).
As Negro Spirituals are Christian songs, most of them concern what the Bible says and how to live with the Spirit of God. For example, the “dark days of bondage” were enlightened by the hope and faith that God will not leave slaves alone.
By the way, African Americans used to sing outside of churches. During slavery and afterwards, slaves and workers who were working at fields or elsewhere outdoors, were allowed to sing “work songs”. This was the case, when they had to coordinate their efforts for hauling a fallen tree or any heavy load. Even prisoners used to sing “chain gang” songs when they worked on the road or on some construction project.
But some “drivers” also allowed slaves to sing “quiet” songs, if they were not apparently against slaveholders. Such songs could be sung either by only one soloist or by several slaves. They were used for expressing personal feeling and for cheering one another. So, even at work, slaves could sing “secret messages”. This was the case of Negro Spirituals, which were sung at church, in meetings, at work and at home.
The meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected personal relationship between the slave singer and God.
The codes of the first Negro Spirituals are often related with an escape to a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can live free. So, a “home” can mean Heaven, but it covertly means a sweet and free country, a haven for slaves.
The ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot” or a “train”.
The Negro Spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing low, sweet chariot” which directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee.
The words of  “The Gospel train” are “She is coming… Get onboard… There’s room for many more”.  This is a direct call to go way, by riding a “train” which stops at “stations”.
Then, “Swing low, sweet chariot” refers to Ripley, a “station” of the Underground Railroad, where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill, by Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to reach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spirituals say, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me”.

Spirituals were sung at churches with an active participation of the congregation (as it is usual in a Pentecostal church).  Their lyrics mainly remain similar to those of the first negro spirituals.
They were often embellished and they were also called either “church songs” or jubilees” or “holy roller songs”. But some hymns were changed by African American and became “Dr Watts”.

The particular feature of this kind of singing was its surging, melismatic melody, punctuated after each praise by the leader’s intoning of the next line of the hymn. The male voices doubled the female voices an octave below and with the thirds and the fifths occurring when individuals left the melody to sing in a more comfortable range. The quality of the singing was distinctive for its hard, full-throated and/or nasal tones with frequent exploitation of falsetto, growling, and moaning.
The beats of Dr Watt’s songs were slow, while there are other types of spirituals. These beats are usually classed in three groups:
- the “call and response chant”,
- the slow, sustained, long-phrase melody,
- and the syncopated, segmented melody,
- “Call and response”
For a “call and response chant”, the preacher (leader) sings one verse and the congregation (chorus) answers him with another verse.
An example of such songs is “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

       Track Listing:
       01 Jericho (The Linden Singers)
02 Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (Geoffrey Taylor)
03 Little David (Martin Lawrence)
04 Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (Isabelle Lucas)
05 Lily of the Valley (George Brown)
06 Gospel Train (George Brown)
07 He's Got the Whole World in His Hands (The Linden Singers)
08 Sadrak (The Linden Singers)
09 Go Down Moses (Martin Lawrence)
10 Deep River (Geoffrey Taylor)
11 Sweet Little Jesus Boy (Isabelle Lucas)
12 Heaven (George Brown)
13 Swing Low Sweet Chariot (George Brown)
14 Standing in the Need of Prayer (The Linden Singers)
Listen here.

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