Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

There is a balm in Gilead

Today in church we sang this well known Negro spiritual that is based on the text in Jeremiah 8:22. Gilead was famed for its physicians and the balm made from a tree found in the area (see Genesis 37:25). But there is more to the story of the Negro spiritual than the brief descriptions reveal.

According to Arthur Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, 3rd ed. (2005), “The important spiritual ‘Balm in Gilead’ expresses the predominant experience of hope and healing that has been at the center of the African American experience since the beginning of slavery and has always received expression in the spirituals. This song, with its gently soothing melody and lyrics, offers the final word on matters of suffering, struggle and resistance.”

Howard Thurman, perhaps the most knowledgeable interpreters of the spirituals, in his analysis in Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (1975) said the Negro slave songwriter “straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is a note of creative triumph.”

Again quoting Jones, “As Howard Thurman indicates, ‘Balm in Gilead’ is an especially important song in the spirituals tradition expressing the ability of enslaved Africans to transform sorrow into joy to make a way where no way seemed possible.”

I plan to read more about Howard Thurman.

Copyrighted 2009


Post a Comment

<< Home