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Slavery's Unchained Melodies

Spirituals, or 'Sorrow Songs,' Find a Reverent New Voice

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page D01

Tucked inside a rectangular folder, hidden in the deep recesses of the Library of Congress, rest a few crumbling pages of paper. Librarian Samuel Perryman sets the sheets on a table.

"This is a first edition and I don't know if it was reprinted," he says. "When this one evaporates, that may be it."


Heritage Signature's Stanley Thurston, above, says since the works are mostly a cappella, "there's no music to hide behind"; at right, an early version of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, formed in 1868. (Marie Poirier Marzi For The Washington Post)

IF YOU GO

What: This afternoon, the Heritage Signature Chorale and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir will present a concert of spirituals.

When: 4 p.m.

Where: Metropolitan AME Church, 1518 M St. NW.

The yellowed rectangles of paper are one of the few remaining editions of 1872's "Jubilee Songs," one of the nation's first printings of slave songs, also known as Negro spirituals -- what folklorists call one of the most unique and enduring bodies of work in American music.

The weathered songbook was published by Nashville's Fisk University for its Jubilee Singers, most of whom were freed slaves. Today, it has little or no binding left. Many of the few dozen pages are not attached to the rest, hence the folder.

But if the original publications of spirituals have become 19th-century artifacts, songs such as "Wade in the Water" and "Elijah Rock" have left the plantations of the Deep South and emerged as modern cultural and religious gems that are now everything from operatic art to daily church music. Dismissed by many blacks in the early 20th century as unwanted relics of slavery, the "sorrow songs" have since rebounded to inspire artists as diverse as William Faulkner, Romare Bearden, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and opera divas Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price. When Martin Luther King Jr. summed up his "I Have a Dream" speech, he reached back to a spiritual for the electrifying "free at last, free at last" summation.

"They're as much a part of me as my fingers and toes," says Rufus Daniels, a retired D.C. labor economist who grew up in rural Alabama, the grandson of a slave. "They were created, in part, by my very family. I can remember my grandmother telling me about the conditions they lived in, and singing these songs in church as a child. . . . They express what might be called the soul of a people."

This afternoon, Daniels will sing baritone as the 75-voice Heritage Signature Chorale and the 87-voice Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir present a concert of the spirituals in the complex modern arrangements of Moses Hogan. The chorale is one of many predominantly black choruses across the country that devote a large part of their classical repertoire to the spirituals, keeping them alive in ways their creators never imagined.

While the original spirituals were sung in unison in church meetings or as call-and-response work songs, they have evolved into Hogan's spectacular productions, with sopranos hitting notes a full octave above the fabled high "C" and with sections of the chorus coming in as rapidly as every one-sixteenth note.

"It's hard now to match the inflections of the original songs," says Stanley Thurston, the D.C.-based composer and conductor who directs the Signature Chorale. " 'Join' becomes 'jine,' 'the' becomes 'de,' 'I' becomes 'Ah.' You want to do it as a tribute to how it originally sounded, but with people from all over the country, many of whom have classically trained voices working in highly stylized compositions, it's work. These are mostly a cappella, and there's no music to hide behind."

The concert is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington, a familiar setting for religious music, but no one is pretending the songs were just Christian hymns.

They sprang up in the oral tradition of an enslaved people kept illiterate by the force of law, and there are no known authors, composers or arrangers of any of the thousands of spirituals that came about during slavery.

Instead, the slaves found redemption in the Old Testament stories of the enslaved Hebrews in Biblical Egypt. Seeing themselves as a similar people, they packed double meanings of escape from slavery and religious salvation into many of the songs -- messages lost on white overseers.

"A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of 'O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,' something more than a hope of reaching heaven," wrote Frederick Douglass in his narratives of being enslaved in Maryland. "We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan."

Classic songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Steal Away to Jesus" were not-so-veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and "Wade in the Water" is a textbook example of the style:


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