Negro spirituals still resonate

By Helen T. Gray

McClatchy Newspapers

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

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 "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.

"Second, they jumped into a 'chariot' (any vehicle) where they could hide and ride away. These chariots stopped at some 'stations,'" but the word could mean any place where slaves went to be picked up.

"So Negro spirituals like 'Wade in the Water,' 'The Gospel Train' and 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' directly refer to the Underground Railroad."

Some songs were bold, like, "Oh, freedom, oh, freedom over me, and before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free."

Strong men and women like Harriet Tubman (called the black Moses) were the conductors. The story is told that Tubman threatened to kill any slave who became frightened and wanted to turn back. She reportedly never lost any of the 300 slaves she helped lead to freedom.

"The women were very determined and resolute," Robinson said. "The men often were more afraid that they were going to get whipped and that they had to protect their families."

Negro spirituals spread across the country as slaves would leave one place and go to another, said Carl G. Harris, professor of music at Hampton University in Virginia. Harris, who did his dissertation on Negro spirituals, said there are thousands of them.

Several attempts have been made to compile them, but no one knows how many there are.

The Jubilee Singers group from Fisk University in Nashville is credited in the early 1870s with being the first choir to bring Negro spirituals to the masses. Their purpose was to raise money for their struggling school. They traveled throughout the United States and in Europe. Most had been slaves, and the story of how they were accepted is amazing, Granade said. Other black colleges followed.

Today many African-American churches sing Negro spiritual only during a black history program, Robinson said. But he said, "those are our songs" and they have meaning for today. Some traditional African-American churches still sing them, especially those with older members.

"We can relate to the music in today's context," he said. "The slaves sang, 'We're going to lay down our burdens.' We have burdens today, even though they may be different."

He includes Negro spirituals as part of the repertoire of his choirs and teaches their meanings.

"I want the choirs to know the messages and then they are more effective when they sing them and we are able to transfer the meanings to our audience."

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