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The Negro’s greater rhythmic swing and melodic freedom

 produced music with a more widespread appeal

                                                                                                                              Dr. Alain Locke (Right)



Books on the Spirituals    

The Negro and His Music (Locke) / The Spiritual and the Blues: An Interpretation (Cone) / Best Loved Spirituals  (Mahalia)

The Book of the American negro Spirituals (Johnson) / American Negro Songs: Folk Songs and Spirituals (Work)

Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Thurman)

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Negro Spirituals and American Culture

By Regina Dolan


In the St. Augustine Seminary in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, future priests are encouraged to study and interpret spirituals as part of the basic culture of their people. The appeal, pathos, and harmony of these songs are recognized by great musicians all over the world. They constitute the chief treasury of folk-songs that are peculiarly American in origin and character by reason of the Negro’s historical place in our comparative brief existence as a nation.

Some consider the spirituals' melody vastly superior to its verse. They reason that these songs were composed when the Negro’s lack of education forced him to concentrate on rhythm and harmony, the inherent parts of his native genius that needed no formal schooling for expression. Slaves of the Southern plantation relied on Bible text for verse themes. In the story of the children of Israel in bondage in Egypt, they found a striking symbol of their own status. The famous “Go Down, Moses” is an excellent example of this analogy. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has a touch of the whimsy in the invitation to the chariot of Elias to swing low, so that the soul may enjoy its ride to heaven.

The supercilious may dub spirituals naïve and sentimental, overlooking the fact that they took birth from the heart-break of a race, helpless before self-appointed masters. Such songs as “Is Massa Goin’ to Sell Us Tomorrow?” and “Farewell To My Only Child” sprang from the slave’s dread of family separation. It is interesting to note that in the Southern South, e. g. Virginia, where there was more sense of permanence on a family plantation, the spirituals were more buoyant and joyful. On the other hand, in other sections where slaves were more often abused, the spirituals were fraught with sorrow and foreboding. “I Feel Like A Motherless Child” is not only a reflection of this insecurity, but it embodies the emotion of down-trodden people everywhere.

Although the Indian possessed a goodly store of folk songs, he failed to become the fount of America’s folk music, because the Negro’s greater rhythmic swing and melodic freedom produced music with a more widespread appeal. Then, too, the more varied emotional life of the Negro slave ranging from light-hearted irresponsibility to gaunt tragedy motivated a richer more diverse folk song.

Spirituals are a spontaneous outpouring in music of the Negro slave’s deep religious faith. This devotedness did not blind him to his wrongs, and many slave uprisings occurred in the two decades preceding the Civil War. But the slave’s faith clarified for him the paradox of “man’s inhumanity to man” without lessening his confidence in God and ultimate justice. Therefore, the Negro sang of a celestial home where at last he would have his rightful place as a free being. He studded the spirituals with poetical allusions whose simplicity and imagery have made them classic gems. In the Psalms of Israel, you will find the only counterpart of the spirituals, for the former were also creations of a people with exalted belief in their possession of great religious truth.

In 1856, Dwight’s Journal of Music printed the first article in the United States of Negro spirituals. For the first time in our history, the song-loving Negro was contrasted favorably with the white citizens who performed his chores sans melody and who sang self-consciously on prescribed occasions. A Philadelphia woman, Lucy McKim, was the pioneer of spiritual recording, when she took down “Poor Rosy” from the singing of an old Negress in 1862. She found it impossible to get every nuance of the melody into her composition. Five years later, she collaborated with William Allen and Charles Ware in editing a volume of spirituals. An enthusiastic assistant of the trio was Colonel T. Higginson, an ex-Union Army Officer who had been so thrilled during the Civil War when he first heard these songs that he eagerly spread the news of his discovery among music-loving friends. Another boost for spirituals came from Henry Krehbiel, a music critic of note, when he gave them a serious criticism in his “Afro-American Folk Songs”.

Until this time most of the slave owners had held spirituals in contempt as a result of their white supremacy fixation.

Although in his ballads Stephen Foster sentimentalized the spiritual, his work appealed distinctly to the average American of his day and still appeals to a wide audience. Like James Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” Foster’s “My Ole Kentucky Home” has become part of the American musical tradition. The pseudo-spirituals which sprang up in the 1870 to 1900 period were also a definite contribution to American music, although they were not true songs of the people as sung by them. These concerts and glee club renditions could not possibly capture the unique character of a spiritual. For had it not been composed by a congregation inspired by overpowering religious emotion with choral improvisions on the theme, which were familiar to all participants? Only a phonograph can faithfully record the unique breaks and tricks of the true spiritual.

Dr. Alain Locke of Howard University defines spiritual as “one of the great classic expressions of all time of religious emotions and Christian moods and attitudes.” Fisk University was fated to give America and Europe a wide and popular introduction to these songs. In the fall of 1871, eleven students left Fisk’s campus to help raise a twenty-thousand dollar fund by singing the songs of their own race. Under the name, “Jubilee Singers”, they traveled through Ohio, New York, and New England until May, captivating audiences everywhere. This was the first time that a large number of Americans heard these moving songs. The following year, Theodore Seward of New Jersey, made the spirituals accessible in harmonized form when he published his volume of “Jubilee Songs”.

Henry Ward Beecher urged the Jubilee Singers to come to Brooklyn, and the engagement led to an invitation to participate in the World’s Peace Jubilee. The second tour of the Fisk’s students transported them to the British Isles, and from there they extended their “singing Campaign” to Germany and Holland. Spurred on by their success, the Hampton Institute Singers trained by Thomas Fenner gave concerts in New England in 1874 for their building fund. Thus the American public made the acquaintance of another group of spirituals. The publication of “Cabin and Plantation Songs,” appeared at this time to foster and maintain popular interest.

Many musical historians affirm that the most effective aid to the international recognition of the spirituals came from a Bohemian visitor to our shores. The keen ear of the composer, Anton Drovak, caught a fresh tone and peculiarly American flavor in the melodies. In his rapt appreciation, he pronounced them “the most striking and appealing melodies that have ever been found on this side of the Atlantic.” Why, he wondered in astonishment, did Americans strive so hard to intimate European music while they ignored this rich vein of song that was distinctly their own?

Transforming an idea into an achievement, Anton Drovak blended deftly into the theme of his symphony, “From the New World”, the Negro spiritual “Goin’ Home Lord, Ah’m Goin’ Home” as the American background. In 1894, a spellbound audience listened to his creation at Carnegie Hall and many reappraised their concept of the Plantation Songs’ merits. It was Harry Burleigh, while a student at the National Conservatory, who revealed to Drovak the epic quality of the spirituals by his vocal interpretations of them. Later this young Negro was destined to bring the spirituals to the concert stage and remind his conservatory-trained colleagues that the folk song of their people deserved artistic treatment.

The next great figure to discover the spiritual was Samuel Coleridge Taylor, an Anglo-Negro of London and the most renowned musician of his race. In 1904, at the suggestion of the editor of the Musicians’ Library, he transcribed sixteen American Negro spirituals for the piano. In the work, the Negro melodies were treated in an artistic form for the first time. A member of the Jubilee Singers, Frederick Loudin, first taught Samuel to appreciate Negro folk music. Until this period, spirituals had been considered essentially for group singing. There was nothing in the published versions of them then to qualify these songs for solo singing with a piano accompaniment or to inspire singers to make use of them. In fact, spirituals were inaccurately termed Negro “gospel hymns” by most Americans.

Today, spirituals and even secular Negro folk melodies and their harmonic style are regarded as the purest and most valuable musical lore in America. The most common reaction of musical authorities is that they are not sentimental or theatrical, but epic, and full of simple dignity.

Dr. Alain Locke holds that spirituals are mainly choral in character and are not at their best in solo voice or instrument. He predicts that they will have their truest development in symphonic choir, such as the great Russian composer have brought to their folk music. He asserts at this stage, the spirituals will reachieve their folk atmosphere and epic religious quality.

Dr. Locke in his book, The Negro and His Music, deplores the preponderance of pseudo-spirituals of today, and remarks that folk compositions have often been given artificial composition and disguised with musical frills in sentimental and concert versions. He regrets that educated Negroes too often shun the spiritual because of its unhappy connotation with slavery and illiteracy. However, outstanding Negro artists and choral groups are breaking down the antipathy by faithful and understanding renditions of these beautiful melodies.

Typical of such musicians are the Eva Jessye Choir and the Hall Johnson Singers, who have (in the opinion of Dr. Locke) given the most accurate reproduction of genuine Negro singing. They both have the actual mechanism of the improvised Negro choral singing with its syllabic quavers, off tones and tone glides, improvised interpolations and subtle rhythmic variations. Some musical authorities complain that in most conventional versions of spirituals, there is too much melody and harmony. They assert that if you over-emphasize the melodic elements of the spirituals, you produce a sentimental ballad of the Stephen Foster type. If you stress harmony, you get barber-shop choruses and if you concentrate on rhythmic idiom, you secularize the product, and the result is only a syncopated shout with the religious mood completely vanished. What then? Only in the subtle fusing of these elements does the genuine folk spiritual come forth.

Today the spirituals are caught between folklore and art-form. Their ever-mounting popularity has brought a very dangerous tendency to sophistication and over-elaboration. Even Negro composers have been too strongly influenced by formal European idioms and mannerisms in setting the spiritual.

It is essential to keep in mind that the folk songs has many styles. The idiom of the spiritual calls for choral arrangement according to some critics, who believe the vital, sustained background of accompanying voices is most important. Such celebrated Negro artists as Nathaniel Dett, William Dawson, Ballanta Taylor, and Lawrence Brown have written effective solo verses, but are turning with increasing interest to the choral form. If it is developed along lines of its own originality, we may expect an evolution of the Negro folk song, that may equal or perhaps surpass the choral music of old Russia.

According to Olin Downes, the flower of Negro music blooms forth in singing. Of course, de does not mean that the Negroes were to restrict themselves solely to this form of musical expression. He felt their peculiar genius was at its apex in vocal presentation. Other modern musical scholars look to the spiritual to supply great liturgical works of the future.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the Society for the Preservation of the Spirituals was organized by a group of white singers. Their ardent interest is a striking symbol of the growing realization that it is the common duty of all Americans to cherish and restore the spirituals as an intrinsic part of our country’s musical lore. For these songs, from the bitter wellspring of suffering and tribulation, represent the only music America can claim as her own-all else had its origins in the Old World.

Source: Interracial Review (April 1958)

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Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher

By Leonard Harris  and Charles Molesworth

Alain L. Locke (1886-1954), in his famous 1925 anthology The New Negro, declared that “the pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.” Often called the father of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke had his finger directly on that pulse, promoting, influencing, and sparring with such figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jacob Lawrence, Richmond Barthé, William Grant Still, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, and John Dewey. The long-awaited first biography of this extraordinarily gifted philosopher and writer, Alain L. Locke narrates the untold story of his profound impact on twentieth-century America’s cultural and intellectual life. Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth trace this story through Locke’s Philadelphia upbringing, his undergraduate years at Harvard—where William James helped spark his influential engagement with pragmatism—and his tenure as the first African American Rhodes Scholar.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.”

We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .  The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.” 

His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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Hands on the Freedom Plow

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By Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan

Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, et al.

The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement. That tradition, rooted in the courage and persistence of ordinary people, has been obscured by the characterization of the civil rights struggle as consisting primarily of protest marches. In rural Dawson, Ga., Carolyn Daniels housed SNCC workers organizing for voter registration, and whites retaliated by bombing her home. But at the end of a vivid depiction of this and other anti-black terrorist acts, she writes, in an apt summary of the grass-roots organizing that is the real explanation for civil rights victories, "We just kept going and going."

Organizing involved the kind of commitment and willingness to face risk that Penny Patch conveys in only a few short sentences describing covert nighttime meetings in plantation sharecropper shacks. Patch is white.

But that did not lessen the fear or reduce the danger of remaining seated while poll watching in a country store as whites came in and out, giving her and her black co-worker menacing stares. Full journalistic disclosure requires me to say that many of these women are friends and former comrades. But knowing the movement that we were all a part of also demands that I share my observation: While these pages look back, looking forward from them reveals that there are many useful lessons for today in the strength of these women.Charles E. Cobb Jr.

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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