In the South, we communicate by telling stories. We all do it, though some of us are admittedly better or more interested in the practice than others. And some of us (like yours truly) do it with far more detail than necessary or desired, bless our hearts.
One of the musical forms that is truly American is the Negro spiritual. And no, these songs are not correctly called African-American spirituals; they are properly Negro spirituals, songs of trial and tribulation that grew out of the 17th and 18th ccenturies and the first half of the 19th Century. Gratefully, I was corrected and empowered years ago by the African-American musical scholars whom I have been fortunate enough to know in my life.
I am also a fan of mysteries, things with hidden meanings and things about which I have to delve for knowledge. Call me what you will - scholarly, nosy or a book nut. Perhaps it is simply a constant desire to learn. The New York Times regular feature calls it the “Quest for Knowledge,” and the gaming world has an online game that I should probably check out: EverQuest.
From the late 17th Century until 1865, the marked end of the Civil War, slaves had little option but to communicate with each other in covert ways. The singing of spirituals was one of the ways. Slaves in urban areas were allowed to meet for their own Christian worship services, but rural slaves were often only allowed to stay after the main worship service in churches or on plantations. Needing to share their joys, pains and hopes, slaves also secretly met in camp meetings where they would listen to itinerant preachers and sing spirituals for hours.
Many Negro spirituals specifically communicated information about freedom: “Sweet Canaan,” “Jordan” and “The Promised Land” referred to the northern side of the Ohio River where freedom could be attained.
Other songs gave specific directions about getting to freedom via the Underground Railroad: “Wade in the Water,” “The Gospel Train,” Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River.”
Subject matter for such spirituals was often taken from the great stories of the Bible, one of which we will hear as the Old Testament reading this Sunday (September 17). The Great Exodus of the Israelites, led out of Egypt by Moses, was an encouraging, hope-filled story for the enslaved people of the South.
Moses even parted the Red Sea for the escaping Israelites; indeed, no one parted the Ohio River for slaves escaping to freedom. Nonetheless, I am certain that this biblical story offered much encouragement and hope.
At our 10:30 liturgy this Sunday, the Parish Choir will offer Horace Clarence Boyer’s (1935-2009) setting of the Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses” as the Choral Introit. Dr. Boyer was one of the foremost scholars of Negro spirituals and African-American gospel music in this country. Educated at Bethune-Cookman College and the Eastman School of Music, he taught at several universities, was a curator of music history at the Smithsonian Institution and directed the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University in Nashville. Dr. Boyer was also the editor of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the African-American and gospel supplement to The Hymnal 1982.
May the words of this beloved old Negro spiritual be true for us all:
Oh, let us all from bondage flee,
And let us all in Christ be free,
let my people go.