There seems to be an endless stream of melodies that sprang from the black tradition in the United States. It was occasioned certainly by the intolerable pressure put on a people who had little recourse but song to relieve their suffering. But it could not have blossomed into a world force without the superb native musics of Africa meeting the sounds of the rural South: the language, folk songs and hymns sung by the English settlers. The singers elaborated on the rhythms of slow dirges and fast dances, improvising rich harmonies with voices that could ‘bend’ pitches and blend into a unique chorus. The dominant force here, in the religious songs we call Spirituals, is the combination of text and tune into heartfelt responses to the Biblical stories.
Three Spirituals (1988)
When Jesus Comes and Tell ‘em I’m Gone were discovered in one of my favorite sources for Spiritual melodies, a collection entitled The Negro Sings A New Heaven, compiled by Mary Allen Grissom (1930, University of North Carolina Press). I like it because the tunes are presented in manuscript form, obviously just as the writer heard them sung, with no attempt to ‘clean up’ odd intervals or rhythms. The texts are on a facing page, and again there is no apology for the fact that many of the lines can’t be sung to the same tune as the first verse: they are all presented in their own glorious individuality.
In her foreword, Ms. Grissom writes:
These songs constitute a part of a collection of original melodies whose value lies in their presentation and preservation exactly as they are found and sung. . . . Their chief value lies in their simplicity and realism, recording a true emancipation of spirit. . . . The harmony used by them is the simplest, but made unforgettable by counter-melodies hummed while the leader creates his mood. The response comes as the positive, dignified and beautiful approval of the religious thought expressed. . . . When [the Negro] creates with his wonderful native impulse, the world is given . . . melody that ranks high in any standard of creative work.
The powerful conviction of When Jesus Comes is delivered through strong syncopated rhythms, a triumphantly rising melody on the repeated first phrase, and a mysterious turn to the heavens in the descending final line.
When Jesus comes, he’ll outshine the sun; Look away beyond the moon.
When Jesus comes, we’ll sing Hosyannah . . .
When Jesus comes, we’ll shout Hallelujah! . . .
If you want to see King Jesus, keep prayin’ on . . .
Tell ‘em I’m Gone is a kind of song seldom found in white-folk’s hymnals: a frank acknowledgement of approaching death, and a command to the living to remember the departing narrator. The setting begins with a graveside wail, after which the soloist begins her lament: “When you miss me from round the fireside, Tell ‘em I’m gone.” After an emphatic repetition, she reaches the height with “Tell ‘em Death has sevvud [severed] me, Way over in the Rock of Ages, Clef’ for me, Clef’ for me.”
When you miss me from weepin’ an’ moanin’ . . .
When you miss me from singin’ an’ prayin’ . . .
Long ago, a friend sang me a version of You Can Tell the World that I could not erase from my memory. Years of searching brought me finally to St. Helena Island Spirituals, collected by Nicholas George Julius Ballanta-Taylor and published in 1925 by Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School, SC. This is another wonderful sourcebook, with over a hundred unfamiliar songs—some just fragments, others new versions of old favorites. This song turned up under the title Jedus Done Jes’ What He Said, and had a refrain similar to the one in my memory. The sung version here is a combination of several variants. The tune is an irresistible toe-tapper, with a lilting melody and a beguiling repetition of ‘joy’ in the last line. The beat felt to me like 1930’s “swing,” and the setting evokes that style.
You can tell the world about this,
You can tell the world about that,
Tell ‘em that the Comforter has come,
Tell ‘em what the Lord has done,
That he brought joy, joy, joy to my soul!
My Lord done jes’ what he said,
He healed the sick an’ he raised the dead.
He took my feet out’ de miry clay;
He placed them on the Rock to stay.
I remember the hour, I remember the day
When Jesus washed my sins away.
Listen, Lord (1991)
This cantata for solo contralto, chorus, and jazz combo sets the text of the opening prayer in James Weldon Johnson’s imaginative recreation of sermons remembered from his youth, God’s Trombones. These “trombones” are the voices of black preachers who sing their speech with extraordinary range and power, bodies filled with passion, vessels pouring forth the Word. They are possessed with tongues that often turned time-honored Biblical phrases into true folk poetry.
Johnson was a teacher, poet, writer, and spokesman for black dignity who lived in New York and was one of the most influential leaders of his time and place. In the forty-page introduction to The Books of American Negro Spirituals, compiled in collaboration with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson (since 1925 a primary source of tunes and texts), he wrote:
“O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?”
He knew the cadences of black speech, the rhetorical heights to which a sermon could rise, and the ease of singing amongst his people. His poetry is based on remembered rhythms and word-pictures, and captures the heart-felt sincerity of those old-time preachers as they recounted the Biblical stories.
Listen, Lord is the prayer of the spokesperson—often a woman—who prepared the congregation for the preacher, warming them up with song and exhortation. The song begins with a humble request for God’s attention, asks for the salvation of sinners, prays for the total awakening of the preacher “this morning,” and closes with a plea for Jesus’ presence at the death-bed. Notice how in each movement the classic, formal phrases of theBible and the prayer book (which the blacks heard at mandatory services) are expanded, made colloquial, become grounded in idioms from the slaves’ daily life. Notice all the verbs, all these action words addressed to the Lord: He is a living presence, to be invoked and urged into action “this morning,” for us, here, now. Notice the powerful figures of speech: “battlements of glory,” “dingy gates of hell,” “the gunshot of the devil,” “wash him, hang him up and drain him dry of sin,” “sledgehammers of truth,” and “the telescope of eternity” trained on “the paper walls of time.” There are the continual reiterations of “O Lord” and “this morning,” but perhaps most of all, take note of that personal, anguished cry “O -- Mary’s Baby.” Surely this is the Lamb of God, who has mercy on us, become an infant again in His Mother’s arms.
In the preface to God’s Trombones, Johnson stated that he had not included in his poems the characteristic responses of the congregation to the preacher. In the cantata these are presented in the simple echoing of lines and phrases, and by the inclusion of two authentic spirituals in movements two and four.
This cantata was inspired by the poetry, these spirituals, and the extraordinary singing of Pamela Warrick-Smith, here joined by the Musicians of Melodious Accord and a rhythm section consisting of piano, bass, and drums. It was first performed on January 20, 1991, in New York City.
In studying Johnson’s poem, I became fascinated by the parallels to it found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church. In the text printed below, each movement is prefaced by a brief quotation from that source.
I. Come, let us sing to the Lord . . . I bend the knee of my heart, and make my appeal . . .
Solo: O Lord, we come this morning
Knee bowed and body-bent
Before thy throne of grace.
O Lord – this morning –
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come – this morning –
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord – open up a window of heaven,
And lean far out over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
Chorus: Listen, Lord; listen this morning.
II. Have mercy on us sinners . . . from all evil and wickedness; from sin; from the crafts and assaults of the devil; and from everlasting damnation, Good Lord, deliver us.
Lord, have mercy on proud and dying sinners –
Sinners hanging over the mouth of hell
Who seem to love their distance well.
Lord – ride by this morning –
Mount your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning –
And in your ride, ride by old hell,
Ride by the dingy gates of hell,
And stop poor sinners in their headlong plunge.
O it may be, it may be the las’ time, I dunno.
Come on, sinnuh, come on across;
Come on, sinnuh, don’ step on the Cross.
Sinnuh man, sinnuh man, you bettah pray,
It won’ be long till Judgment Day.
The Bible warns you day by day,
You got to stop yo’ wicked way.
III. Clothe your ministers with righteousness.
And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning –
Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him Lord – this morning –
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom post,
And make his words sledgehammers of truth
Beating on the iron heart of sin.
Lord God, this morning –
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.
Take him Lord, take him this mornin’.
IV That we may depart this life in your faith and fear, and not be condemned before the great judgment seat of Christ, we entreat you, O Lord.
And now, O Lord, –
When I’ve done drunk my last cup of sorrow –
When I’ve been called everything but a child of God –
When I’m done traveling up the rough side of the mountain –
O – Mary’s Baby –
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death –
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet –
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin’ up morning – Amen.
Who’s a-gonna make up my dyin’ bed?
Jesus gonna make up my dyin’ bed.
Who’s goin’ down in the grave with me?
Jesus goin’ down in the grave with me.
Who’s a-gonna take my soul to heaven?
Jesus gonna take my soul to heaven.
Two Spirituals (2001 and 2000)
I Want Jesus to Walk With Me
This melody can bear tremendous weight. It is not a quiet prayer; it’s a cry from the heart of a burdened soul. Imagine a chain gang or railway laborers, working with heavy tools for long hours under duress, and then try to capture that mood, that beat, that longing. Add the patterns of black singing: the ready response, the inexorable rhythm, and the vocal readiness to follow the melody to the top of its range. And then partake of the faith that grows out of this slavery and overcomes the chains.
I want Jesus to walk with me,
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me;
When my head is bowed in sorrow,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
In my trials, Lord, walk with me;
When my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
He’s Got the Whole World
There are innumerable versions of this well-loved song. The verses are often soloistic listings of objects that are under the Creator’s care, while the simple one-line refrain calls for all those listening to join in. (I love the fact that ‘He’ is never named: all believers are part of this affirmation.) In this version, the first verse invokes the varied universe: stars, planets, wind and weather, rocks and mountains, flowers and fruits. “All life on earth” populates the second verse: fishes, birds, insects, animals, human beings, and finally “you and me together.” Musically, the setting is founded on the warm, slow beat of many jazz standards, with the bass voices providing constant counterpoint to the melody.
He’s got the whole world in his hands.
A Suite: Dem Bells (1988)
A church in Wisconsin asked if I knew any Spirituals that could be arranged for choir and handbells for their European tour that summer. At first thought, that seemed a strange combination: old English rehearsal bells combined with Afro-American ethnic melodies? But then I remembered the delightful slave song Mary and Martha have just gone ‘long To ring dem charmin’ bells,and I agreed to try my hand at it. Three spirituals are combined to make a little concert group, the first and last being light almost-rags, with a slow, somber movement in the middle. The bells accompany lightly; in this performance, we use a piano elaboration.
Mary and Martha have just gone ‘long . . .
Free grace, undyin’ love, To ring dem charmin’ bells.
Paul and Silas have just gone ‘long . . .
Mary and Elizabeth have just gone ‘long . . .
Sinnuh, please don’ let this harvest pass,
An’ die an’ lose yo’ soul at las.’
Sinnuh, oh see that cruel tree
Where Christ has died for you an’ me.
I’m a-rollin’, I’m a-rollin’, I’m a-rollin’ through an unfriendly world.
Oh, brothers, won’t you help me,
Won’t you help me in the service of the Lord.
God loves all his many people (2001)
If a “Spiritual” is defined as a song sung by the black population living in the United States before the twentieth century, then this song is not a Spiritual. It’s an Ishiluba melody from Zaire, first introduced to a western audience at the Mennonite World Conference in Africa in 1978. Certainly “black,” it seems to add a touch of calypso in its light rhythms and sweet invitation to “Come to him, friend.”
God loves all his many people
With surpassing love;
Blesses all as his own children,
Cares for everyone.
Come to him, friend,
Come receive his joy;
Earthly things don’t last forever,
Come receive his joy.
God wants you to come to him now,
Wants you as his child. . .
In the Lord is our salvation,
In the Lord is love. . .
Welcome Table and Father’s Got a Home (1975)
These two authentic Spirituals are the anchor points in my one-act “backyard” opera The Family Reunion. The story is very simple: a multi-generational family gathers for a picnic, welcomes newcomers, remembers those no longer present, eats, plays and gives thanks together. Grandfather is the last to arrive: the whole group greets him with
“You’ve got a place at the welcome table.” And when it’s time to go, Grandfather sings a parting blessing, and the group responds with “Father’s got a home, sweet home.” In between, there are children’s songs and dance tunes, a barbershop quartet and sentimental parlor songs: all Americana from the first half of the nineteenth century. It is enlightening to realize that when real depth of emotion is called for, Spirituals can unfailingly supply great melodies which release our deepest longings. The opera is set for soloists, choruses of adults and children, and a chamber orchestra; here, the songs are presented with piano accompaniment.
You’ve got a place at the welcome table, Some of these days.
We’re goin’ to feast on milk and honey . . .
We’ll give thanks at the welcome table . . .
We’ll come home to the welcome table . . .
Father’s got a home, sweet home,
Lord, I want to join the angels’ beautiful home.
Mother . . . Brother . . . Sister . . .
All o’ God’s children got a home . . .
A Suite: Street Corner Spirituals (1965)
This light-hearted group was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church for use in brief radio broadcasts that simulated a service. Working within these parameters, I found a use for “fragment” Spirituals that I had collected from different sources that seemed too short for use in a church service or concert. Six of these combined to make a delightful “service” of catchy tunes and varied rhythms, with the informality of a street-corner band of trumpet, drums, and keyboard—and, of course, the “preaching” of the chorus.
Come, come, come and go with me,
Oh Hallelujah, Amen.
Blow yo’ gospel trumpet, Blow yo’ silver horn,
When I get to heaven, Goin’ to shout all around God’s throne.
Can’t you hear what my Lord said,
‘Come unto me and be saved.
Oh, if you are a sinner, come unto me,
Come unto me and be saved.’
Holy, Holy, you promised to answer prayer
In the mornin’ when the Lord cry ‘Holy!’
Let the Church roll on, My Lord!
You can put the devil out, My Lord,
Let the Church roll on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
When I lay my burden down.
Amen, amen, hallelujah,
When I lay my burden down.
- Alice Parker