A Spiritual Telling of the Underground Railroad

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Composer Don McCullough was eating breakfast and reading the newspaper when he turned to a story about newly recognized Underground Railroad sites in Washington, including a nearby Georgetown cemetery. He read the story intently. In his mind, he could see the frightened slaves as they were moving silently through the old, hilly African American cemetery, hiding by day in a brick burial vault and then slipping out at night to a waiting barge on nearby Rock Creek.

"I immediately walked to the cemetery, and it felt like I was living history," McCullough said. "Everything was totally unkempt. Memorial stones were piled up to one side. I stepped inside the vault. I had a sense of people moving, coming out of the vault and moving down the hill to the creek."

As he looked around the cemetery at 2600 Q St. NW, McCullough said he thought to himself, "Wow. This is what is wonderful and crazy about history. History isn't something you dig up and then blow the dust off. It is right here in Georgetown, in a place where I walk every day."

McCullough, the music director of the Master Chorale of Washington, was so moved by that experience that he and scriptwriter Denny Clark created a concert of spirituals and dramatic readings to reflect the desperate experience of people held as slaves and their powerful yearning to escape that life. McCullough and Clark reworked and refined the show after several free performances in Washington and other cities. They will present their completed work at 3 p.m. April 20 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Founded in 1967 by the late Paul Hill, the chorale was featured in an inaugural concert at the Kennedy Center in 1971 and has performed in the Concert Hall about eight times a year ever since. In the past 13 years, since McCullough became the director, the chorale has performed 13 world premieres, produced three nationally distributed CDs and toured internationally, including a recent visit to Germany and Poland.

"Let My People Go," a theatrical interweaving of spirituals and spoken words, will be performed by 120 Master Chorale members, 60 Morgan State University Choir members and on-stage narrators Lynnie Godfrey and Richard Bellazin. McCullough and Morgan State choir director Eric Conway will share the podium.

McCullough said Clark's script is mostly taken from original accounts, including William Sill's "The Underground Railroad," a collection of interviews Sill had with slaves he helped along the path to freedom.

The railroad was neither a train nor underground; the name came to mean established escape routes that southern slaves used as they fled to the safety of the North or Canada. They found assistance and shelter along the routes from abolitionists known as "station masters," including Sill.

The show's spirituals include "Let My People Go" and "Wade in the Water" and some more obscure titles such as "Run to Jesus," "Let Me Fly" and "Many Thousand Gone."

The newspaper story that inspired McCullough was an article that I wrote in The Washington Post on April 7, 1998, about a new National Park Service guide to national Underground Railroad sites, including 11 in Washington, seven in Virginia and four in the Maryland. At the time, I interviewed Mount Zion United Methodist Church historian Carter Bowman Jr., whose church owns the Georgetown cemetery, which dates from 1842.

Bowman said there were no written church records about the railroad other than possibly related notations that said some church members, who were slaves, had "slipped away" or had "gone back to Liberia."

Parishioners would leave food and water in the brick burial vault for the runaways, Bowman said. The vault was used to store coffins during the winter until the thawed ground could be worked in the spring.

"Rock Creek was then a dense` overgrown area with bridle paths leading through the woods," Bowman said in 1998. "At the time, barges could come way up the creek, right near the cemetery. It was easy for stowaways or [enslaved] workers to go undetected into the cemetery."

McCullough said he hopes his show will bring attention to spirituals, which are "a cultural treasure," as well as to the history of the Underground Railroad.

"We want to make it fresh and memorable, not just a history lesson," he said. "My ultimate goal is to give people an experience that . . . gives them a perspective. There is more to life than worrying about remembering to get the milk and mayo."

For more information about the Master Chorale of Washington, or the April 20 performance of "Let My People Go," call 202-471-4050 or visit http://www.masterchorale.org.

Linda Wheeler may be reached at 540-465-8934 orcwwheel@shentel.net.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company