Nov 19, 2007 in THE SPIRITUALS Articles
by Christopher Blank
The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
When famed sopranos such as Denyce Graves or Kathleen Battle perform recitals, there comes the eagerly anticipated part of their programs in which they offer what playbills still call “Negro spirituals,” to which primarily older white audiences respond with the usual burst of rapture and applause.
Why women renowned for their portrayals of grand opera’s greatest heroines would lend their voices to the songs of cotton-field slaves is still an evolving issue, not just for the black professional singers who regularly sing them on demand, but for the spirituals themselves, which are becoming more and more the property of the old musical establishment.
The issues can partly be seen in the PBS short film “The Spirituals,” airing at 9 p.m. Thursday on WKNO-TV Channel 10.
Many of the early Negro spirituals were created during American slavery by people who couldn’t read or write down the lyrics. Many songs contained secret messages that slave owners would mistake for purely religious ones.
“Follow the Drinking Gourd,” for example, told escaped slaves traveling at night to move in the direction of the constellation the Big Dipper, or northward.
A tune ostensibly about death, such as “Steal Away to Jesus” - “My Lord, He calls me/He calls me by the thunder/The trumpet sounds within-a my soul/ I ain’t got long to stay here” - might indicate to fellow slaves that someone was escaping that night.
Spirituals are often considered the first original American music. The complex harmonies brought from Africa, used in glorious songs, helped lift the spirits of the truly downtrodden.
The music gave birth to jazz, blues and gospel, and later became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Spirituals were often quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
Today, however, there are children who have never heard spirituals (not to be confused with gospel music sung in church), and the songs now live almost exclusively in concert halls, kept alive by professionals paying homage to their history.
Makers of “The Spirituals” followed the American Spiritual Ensemble as it toured churches and concert venues in America and Spain. Even in America, the audience for spirituals is primarily white. Arrangers have turned these spontaneous group songs into lush, intricate choral works.
The American Spiritual Ensemble’s repertoire is amazingly complex and meticulously rehearsed.
Kenneth Overton, a regular performer with Opera Memphis whose recent shows include “Porgy and Bess,” “Don Giovanni,” and “La Boheme,” is a member of the ensemble and makes a brief appearance in the film. He said professional opera singers often have conflicting views about spirituals. “I always include them on my recital programs,” he said. “They have served me well. ‘Deep River’ was the first one I ever learned, and I used it to get into conservatories. At the same time, you don’t want to be stereotyped. That’s especially the case with (Gershwin’s blues-based opera) ‘Porgy and Bess.’ You can end up doing that your whole career.”
Overton said he had an eye-opening experience in Spain, where the concerts were routinely sold out and people sat on the floor.
Overton said: “The first thing I was asked after a concert was, ‘Do we as Europeans appreciate the spiritual as much as they do in your own country?’ In America, we would have to have been Michael Jackson to get that kind of turnout. Americans have gotten away from the education of the spiritual. A lot of young people don’t even know where these songs came from.”
This article is (c) 2007- Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)
Commercial Appeal, The (Memphis, TN)
Contact performing arts writer Christopher Blank at 529-2305 or
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