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Understanding Spirituals Differently at Different Times

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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).

Further, the cheerful notion that the wider culture simply enjoyed spirituals is undermined somewhat by the ways whites appropriated the repertory for their own purposes. The positive reception of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example, was wrapped up in a desire to send missionaries to Africa, with the thought that black Christians would meet with more success than white ones.21 Indeed, the wide interest in spirituals went hand-in-hand with the later 19th century's general fascination with the exotic and the related desire to spread empire.22 And other important repertories of African-American folksong, such as work songs, were marginalized in favor of the spiritual. Spirituals seemed especially attractive because they could be seen from the perspective of a shared Christianity, and thus for whites the spiritual represented blacks' capacity for civilization.23

With the shift to presenting spirituals in "cultivated" formats like choir concerts and vocal recitals came a pronounced concern with justifying the quality of the repertory. In the 1914 Afro-American Folksongs,24 for example, Henry Edward Krehbiel is concerned with making his study "scientific," and with "presenting [spirituals] as fit for artistic treatment" in a way "debased" genres like ragtime were not (p. v). And in James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson's two Books of American Negro Spirituals,25 which date from the mid-1920s, the African-based ring shout is denigrated as "backward" (first Book, p. 34) so that they can call greater attention to "Christian" features like "higher" melody and "added" harmony that "advances" the repertory beyond African music (p. 19-20). To make the music seem more "classical" in nature the brothers suggest that the songs were usually composed by "talented individuals" (and therefore were not the result of folk-like group activity), and that there are relatively few variants of the songs (for a high number would similarly keep the repertory connected to oral folk traditions) (p. 21). They even propose a number of spiritual melodies that classical composers might consider incorporating within symphonies and other forms of art music (second Book, p. 22-23).

The widespread acceptance of spirituals during this period provides the backdrop for the controversy over whether the repertory was "really" African-American in nature, or instead was merely comprised of African-American versions of white

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