Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Negro Spirituals Goes Public

Negro spirituals were created over a 200-year period during the time of slavery by the spiritual leaders of the slave community. They combined elements of church services they overheard with experiences of slavery and passages from the Bible into music that illustrates biblical messages of freedom and hope for a better future. Slaves created their songs of sorrow and hope to sustain them. Negro spirituals -- songs like “Go Down, Moses," “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “He's Got the Whole World in His Hand” – tell the story of slavery and the black struggle.

One of the best-known spirituals describes the Biblical tale of Moses leading the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. The Exodus story was very powerful for the African-American slaves.

“When Israel was in Egypt's land: Let my people go,

Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land

Tell old Pharaoh,

Let my people go.”

Most Americans were unaware aware of the existence of the Spirituals until after the Civil War. In 1871, the Negro spirituals goes public when the Fisk Jubilee Singers, in an attempt to raise money for the nearly bankrupt Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, gave concerts in Europe and America and helped make American Negro spirituals become extremely popular. The first national tour raised $20,000 after a slow painful start. The original repertoire had included classical music, popular ballads and patriotic anthems. However they noticed the strong response of the audience when they sang one of their cabin songs. The group had been reluctant to sing its slave music for whites.

In November 1871 they visited Oberlin Ohio and waited in the back of the church for a break in the proceedings of a national convention of white Congregational ministers. On the afternoon of their second of day of waiting there was a break in the convention proceedings. The 9 member group slowly and quietly entered the choir loft and began singing unannounced “Steal Away to Jesus.” The group was well received singing its authentic slave music. One of the convention delegates, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, invited the group to perform at his church, Plymouth Congregational in Brooklyn NY. They collected baskets of money that evening. The next day the NY Tribune called the slave songs “the only true native school of American music.” These songs, which the 9 member group including 7 former slaves had been ashamed to sing, were designated a National Treasure by Congress in 2007.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

One of these mornings bright and fair,

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.

Gonna kick my wings and cleave the air,

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.

Copyrighted 2009


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