Negro spirituals still resonate

By Helen T. Gray

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MST


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"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.

"Steal away, steal away home.

"I ain't got long to stay here."

To the slave owner, the melody was just keeping his slaves happy as they worked.

He paid little attention to the words.

But the slaves, they were getting ready to steal away all right — steal away from the plantation.

They were to start on a dangerous journey on the Underground Railroad, a loose organization of sympathizers who provided hideouts and other help to runaway slaves.

The songs the slaves sang have come to be known as Negro spirituals.

"They come out of the slave experience, songs of perseverance and hope," said Andrew Granade, associate professor of musicology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's conservatory.

It was mainly call-and-response music. One person would sing a line and others would respond with a chorus. Sometimes one person would sing a line and others would add lines.

The songs had no authors, said Pamela Baskin-Watson, a local writer, arranger and pianist.

The music was an outlet for the slaves, Granade said.

"The owners didn't pay much attention to what the slaves were singing about but saw it helped them work better in the fields," he said. "But the words expressed the present feeling of oppression and suffering but also reassurance, future redemption, couched in biblical language.

"There was a lot of connection to the people of Israel whom God delivered from bondage."

Although reading was forbidden for slaves, listening was not, writes Tom Faigin on jsfmusic.com.

"Slaves caught snatches of hymns outside the slave owners' churches," he said. "Out of little scraps of biblical texts and bits and pieces of psalms and hymns, hundreds of new and beautifully repetitious songs were fashioned and reworked until they became beautiful folk poetry."

From 1800 to 1825, slaves were exposed to the religious music of poor whites at camp meetings on the ever-expanding frontier, Faigin said. Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist evangelist preachers delivered sermons of hope and salvation that coincided with the slaves' longing for freedom on Earth.

Randye Jones, in an article, "The Gospel Truth About the Negro Spiritual," wrote: "Over the years, these slaves and their descendants adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters. They reshaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement."

They knew the stories of Moses, the Israelites' deliverance from bondage, Joshua, Mary, Jesus and the devil, he said. They couldn't read the Bible, but they memorized the biblical stories they heard and translated them into songs. Granade said slave owners, especially in the early years, encouraged the slaves to adopt Christianity to remove them from their African religious roots.

"But it was a specific kind of Christianity, where those with black skin were lesser than those with white skin," he said.

Also in Africa, drumming was a means of communication, so owners took drumming away from slaves.

But the slaves soon learned that they could sing and pass along messages the way they had done with drumming.

Some spirituals were work songs, used when a group of slaves had to work together to haul a heavy load.

"Slaves used spirituals to affirm their humanity and to give them hope, faith and courage to go on living when life seemed to be nothing but endless physical toil, punishment and deprivation," Faigin said.

One such song is "A Balm in Gilead":

There is a balm in Gilead to make

The wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to heal

The sin-sick soul.

"A lot came out of humming. It would start as a hum, and then someone would put words to it," said Ah'Lee Robinson, a local composer and vocal coach.

Some songs were just fun songs, said Robinson, who also directs the Kansas City Boys Choir and the Kansas City Girls Choir.

"These songs brought joy," he said. "Music has always been important to African-Americans. Music soothed them and gave them hope and assurance.

"Even today, we do music at family reunions and home-going (funeral) services. Before Dr. (Martin Luther) King spoke there would always be music, as it is in most churches today.

"A lot of people want to hear the music. That's part of our worship."

Many of the Negro spirituals were connected to the Underground Railroad.

"A fugitive could use several ways," according to the website negrospirituals.com. "First, they had to walk at night, using hand lights and moonlight. When needed, they walked (waded) in the water so that dogs could not smell their tracks.

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