Or, "White Men Can't Jump", But Can They Sing Spirituals?
The River Jordan, the Ohio, the river to freedom; the rhythmic pull and pulsing power of the Spiritual forms the bedrock of our spring program. “The Road Home”, “Bound for the Promised Land”, “Deep River”, “Homeward Bound”, “Music Down in My Soul”, all spirituals. “Adiemus” summons a deeply guttural, if sharp-toned spiritual energy with the call and response of the two choruses. “There Will Be Rest”, with beautiful lyrics tracing a journey toward the peace and stillness of some symbolic home, heavenly or otherwise, even this choral classic has the yearning full feel of a spiritual.
So how do 70 or 80-odd white folks truly sing spirituals? My college choir director put at least one spiritual in every program. He was big old whitey-white Lutheran from St. Olaf’s and he would tell us, “It’s not who you are when you sing it, it’s how you feel when you sing it.” We did two long tours well below the Mason Dixon line which gave the spirituals we sang an added dimension that they didn’t seem to have when we sang them, say in Boston. We felt them alright, but maybe as privileged white college students we hadn’t lived enough to truly feel them.
Almost all the songs we are singing in this program have multiple layers of meaning. Spirituals, by definition, are loaded with messages, both direct and indirect. The “work songs” and “quiet songs” of the American South often metaphorically mirrored the longed for journey to freedom. That “Deep River” could be the Ohio that marked the passage from slave state to free state on the underground railroad. That “campground” might be both the safe gathering place for slaves after church and the dreamed of heaven of freedom.
So to “feel” these Spirituals we must internalize those shifts in the rhythm that pull the emphasis off the beat, glory in those “blue” notes on the thirds, fifths and sevenths that give these songs such rich tonal textures, let our imaginations plunge into the deeper layers of meaning in the lyrics, and feel in the very depths of our souls the life-force power of hope in a dark time.
And maybe, just maybe, if we do all that, we might launch these songs onto a higher ground and maybe have our audience join us for a fine old-timey picnic on the grassy lawns of that heavenly campground where freedom is found.