I Know I've Been Changed arr. Damon Dandrige

Walk Together, Children arr. Moses Hogan

The Spiritual was a creation of plantation life, born as a desperate cry for freedom and of laments on the loss of family, culture, history, and home. The texts, finding inspiration from the Bible, contained double and triple layers of meaning, speaking of trial and triumph, suffering and salvation. A brave and ingenious oral tradition, clues and instructions for escape are interwoven with encouragement to hold on to hope for a better future. This music comes from a righteous people who looked within and carried the light of God as they worked to overcome sin and slavery. 

 

Major themes include escape, daily work life, reaching heaven, and missing loved ones, often told through biblical references. One of the most prevalent is the Jordan River. In Hebrew scriptures, a symbol of freedom and overcoming adversity, so too the Negro slaves looked to gain vindication from their foes and escape from hardship. The Jordan’s equivalent in America is the Ohio River, the boundary between the slave states and the free north. As one imagines crossing these rivers to a new home, one can see the parallels in the idea of crossing the seas, back to the campgrounds of home, and ultimately, the desire to reach the great campground, that promised land of heaven. Another common theme being field work and serving, we hear of the tribulations of slave labor and the struggle to escape, be it literally or spiritually, by ship, train, or a chariot of angels. For many, that relief and healing came in the form of prayer, echoed through the melodies and harmonies of songs that proclaim there is nothing to fear so long as you cast away your sins, have faith, and follow the word of God and your good brothers and sisters. These ancestors of America built the country with their hands, and, seeing beyond their weariness and strife, hoped to inhabit that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Yet another theme is the bittersweet reminder of our mortality, an inevitable truth; but for many, the real truth is that with the passing from this life comes the beginning of a greater journey of life. This music sings of that joy and sorrow and spreads the message of hope and continued effort to follow in God’s footsteps toward the ultimate freedom.

 

After emancipation, work songs, shout rings, and call and response remained in use. The Spiritual faced uncertainty shortly after the Civil War. As Spirituals were proliferated by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870’s, a shift towards discarding the customs and vestments of slavery began with the black intelligentsia. Choral conductors nationwide wrote arrangements that reflected their classical European musical training. The Spiritual continued to be sung in pockets of religious communities throughout the rural south. Even though slavery has long been over, suffering and misery continue. Today, the Spiritual is often retold through Gospel songs and performed as representatives of American folk and art song traditions, preserving important characteristics of the innate rhythmic drive, neutral and flattened thirds and seventh tones, use of soloists, improvisation, and unaccompanied singing. 

 

Spirituals also serve as an integral part of worship, sung as hymns and anthems, as a symbol of renewed faith and affirmation of God’s glory and goodness, with a broad vision that God can help us overcome all obstacles in our personal lives and is shaping the world to be a better place.   

 

– Jonathon Hampton & Andrew Brown