- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Watching J. Weldon Norris coach the internationally acclaimed Howard University Choir through a set of spirituals is something of a revelation for both the listener and the singer.

That’s because despite the choir’s easy command of the works of Bach and Beethoven, this time the choirmaster is pushing them to go against the inclination of music majors everywhere.

“Don’t look at the music and don’t read the notes,” says Mr. Norris. He has been the choir’s music director and conductor since 1973 and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology as well as advanced degrees in music from Howard and Indiana universities. “You have to feel it.”

Walk into just about any Baptist church in the District this weekend, and you’re likely to hear at least one spiritual, forged in slavery and carried throughout the world by one or another of the great black university choirs of the late 19th and early 20th century (such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in 1867, and groups modeled on it).

Sit in on one of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington’s Sacred Harp sings, and you’ll hear hymns and spirituals that hark back to Colonial New England and the rural South.

Browse through the racks at your local music store, and you’ll find recordings of spirituals carried to the operatic stratosphere.

No matter where you go this Easter in the Washington area, it’s likely that you’ll hear some variant of the spiritual, a uniquely American art form that encompasses black and white American traditions, European hymns, and African sensibilities.

• • •

Whatever the style of spiritual singing, music directors agree on one thing. A stream of lovely notes, no matter how well voiced, is not enough. Nor is a familiarity with the words. Just about everyone is familiar with at least a couple of spirituals, thanks to their use in elementary school classrooms and recordings by singers whose approaches range from the jazzy styling of Ella Fitzgerald to the soaring soprano of Barbara Hendricks. Many spirituals, like “My Lord, What A Morning,” “Steal Away,” and “I’ve Got A Robe,” have long been standards in the lexicon of American folk song.

“You have to understand where the music is coming from,” Mr. Norris tells his choir. “Go ask your grandmother — she’ll tell you what I’m talking about.”

The connection between music, experience, and emotion in the spiritual goes back into the days well before the Civil War, when black and white workers alike used work songs to get them through their tasks. Black spirituals, says Shiloh Baptist Church’s Thomas Dixon Tyler, became a kind of religious work song, informing daily life with messages of inspiration, redemption, and hope.

“Black religious experience is a spirited experience in itself, a message that grew out of the everyday experiences of black people,” says Mr. Tyler, special assistant to the senior minister for worship and music at the Northwest church.

Spirituals were also sung at the various revival meetings that swept through the country in the first half of the 19th century as part of the Second Great Awakening.

During the first few decades of the 19th century, blacks and whites, while often separated within the meetings themselves, came together in song. The camp meetings and revivals of the day were nondenominational, drawing Methodists, Baptists, and others together for a personal and intense experience of the holy. So were the spirituals.

Depending less on the authority of an established leader than on personal inspiration, spirituals of the time owed much to improvisation in either music or text or both. At the same time, though, the structure had to be familiar enough that others could join in without too much coaching.

• • •

That’s one reason spirituals can be deceptive in their simplicity, says the Rev. Nolan Williams, 35, minister of music at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest and author of “The African American Hymnal,” a collection of hymns, anthems, and spirituals drawn from the black tradition.

Before the Civil War particularly, spirituals could be used to convey hidden messages and meanings.

“The words might seem to be one thing on the surface but mean something else,” says Rev. Williams.

Singing “Steal Away” might alert listeners to an imminent escape.

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain’t got long to stay here.

“Bound for Jordan” might point the way to the Ohio River and freedom.

Jordan River, I’m bound to go,

Bound to go, bound to go —

Jordan River, I’m bound to go,

And bid ‘em fare ye well.

And “Go Down, Moses” is almost transparent.

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s Land,

Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go!

So understanding the experience behind the spiritual is very important for today’s interpreters.

“People were brought up through that element,” says Mr. Norris, the Howard choir’s music director. “It’s not something you can teach in a class or two. You have to grow up with it.”

It’s why Mr. Norris, 69, frequently laces his rehearsals with references to his youth in South Carolina.

“Sunday morning was a happening,” he tells the choir. “People would be dressed in their finest, and when the door opened everyone would turn around to see who it was. It was an all-day thing, and singing spirituals was a big part of the day.”

• • •

For choir members who come to spirituals from different places themselves, the stories play a valuable role in bringing them to full comprehension of the meaning of the music.

“He not only teaches techniques, he’s practical in his teaching,” says Joseph Smith, a Howard sophomore from Natchez, Miss., speaking of Mr. Norris. “He’s seen a lot of things and that helps in interpretation.”

Others students talk of how the spirituals allow them to explore their own roots.

“I grew up with gospel,” says Jeffrey Corry, a senior from Alexandria. “I didn’t know that the root was the spiritual.”

That a choir member would not be familiar with gospel’s roots in the old-time spiritual is no surprise: Gospel music is fundamentally an urban phenomenon, says Rev. Williams, and the spiritual is rural at its core. As people moved into urban centers, they sought to put aside reminders of their life “down the country.” Spirituals were one casualty of this, put aside by some churches as old fashioned, countrified, and a reminder of slavery days and bad times.

In addition, music itself was changing. Gospel music tended to be faster paced and more accessible, more reflective of what was going on in the secular world.

But even as the spiritual is going through a renaissance today, many fear that its tradition is in danger of being lost, thanks to changes in lifestyle and the encroachment of popular culture.

“So much of city life and the ideals of popular culture is about quick and easy access,” says Rev. Williams. “Everything is convenient and expedient.”

Spirituals don’t work that way. They are meant to be sung deliberately, in the fullness of time and experience. It’s a lesson not all accept any more.

“The emerging generation has to buy into the ideals of what is being passed on,” says Rev. Williams. “It’s important to embrace new ideals, but certain values and aspects of the past should be kept.”

Still, there are some heartening indications. Today, spirituals can be heard in many churches of many denominations both black and white.

“Now everybody is borrowing from everybody,” says Rev. Williams. “You hear Catholic choirs singing gospel and Episcopal choirs singing praise songs from Africa. Through the integration of worship we see the spirit of God unifying the body.”

• • •

Sometimes you can almost hear it. When the great and mighty sound of the Howard University Choir is brought to bear on “My Lord, What A Morning” or “Wade in the Water,” it sometimes seems as if the earth itself could move.

Usually, though, it’s the choir that’s moving at Shiloh Baptist, where Mr. Tyler is busy coaxing, cajoling, and literally pushing the members to move with the music.

By this he time, he feels, they’ve practiced enough that they shouldn’t have to look at the notes, or the words, any more.

“There’s a certain momentum to the spiritual that goes back and forth through time,” he tells the choir, whose tenors and sopranos are trying to sing back and forth to each other in “You Can Tell the World about This.”

“It’s a conversation. Get out of the music — you’ve seen it enough.”

Music has always been a key element of worship at Shiloh, a congregation founded by a group of former slaves from Virginia who had attached themselves to the occupying Union Army at Fredericksburg in 1862.

In 1863 a small group moved to Washington, and a year later, joined by other former slaves who had made their way to the city and freedom, they established Shiloh. In the years after the Civil War, the church moved to prominence in the District, with a succession of charismatic ministers and music directors.

A similar tale could be told at Metropolitan Baptist Church, which began in 1864 and can boast an equally distinguished succession of ministers.

“We’ve had great preaching and great music,” says Rev. Williams. “In our tradition preaching and music go hand in hand.”

• • •

Spirituals in the white community also emerged from revival meetings and expressions of faith. Most of the early singers of these spirituals had no musical training, and many were also illiterate. So they often used “shape notes” to help them remember the pitch and length of a note.

Shape notes were one product of the wave of experimentation with musical notation that swept late 18th and early 19th century America. These included the “letteral system” of John Tufts (1721), in which letters of the syllable replaced the actual notes. The Shakers favored another kind of letteral system.

In the meantime, a distinctly American sound emerged through the works of New Englander William Billings, who chose to abide by the Puritan injunction against instruments in church. Harmonies were built on voices alone, rather than on a grounding that would have been supplied by an organ. A few of Billings’ popular tunes were literally “reshaped” for shape note singers in the first shape note hymnbook, “The Easy Instructor,” published in 1801.

Shape notes could also be found in the hymnals of the German pietist traditions, like those of the Mennonites.

Singing schools established in the early years of the 19th century brought shape notes to rural communities, where the weekly or monthly meeting was an important social occasion for both black and white people. Once the schools began to appear in the South, thanks in part to the efforts of traveling singing masters, white spirituals also appeared as shape note songs. One group of shape note singers uses a version of an 1844 hymnal called the “The Sacred Harp.” Anyone who has seen the movie “Cold Mountain” has heard their sound; the song “Idumea” is heard in the battle scene.

This is music made for singers, not listeners. Look at a group of Sacred Harp singers from the outside, and you’re likely to see a lot of backs. That’s because the group is arranged in a sort of hollow square, with the different voices of the four-part harmony sitting by section. Inside the square is the caller, who announces the piece to be sung and quite literally sets the tone for he endeavor.

Unlike other choirs, it’s the tenors who carry the melody here, while the trebles (the highest voices) harmonize above. But trebles and tenors frequently double their parts, so some tenors sing the soprano line and some sopranos sing the tenor.

There’s not a harp in sight here; choirs sing a capella and full-voiced, cutting the air with their arms and hands in rhythmic motion.

The result is a sound unlike no other; almost otherworldly, with an eloquence that seems quite literally ripped from the soul.

“The whole thing seems like it’s practice for heaven,” says Mary Ann Daly, who has been Sacred Harp singing for 25 years and participates in monthly Sacred Harp sings held around the Washington area. “I think that when we get there it’s going to be just like this.”

In the end, all spirituals have to touch both listener and singer alike.

“The music of old comes from a very pure place,” says Rev. Williams. “People weren’t worrying about demographics, or the budget, or selling albums. That’s what makes it so powerful.”

Concerts, services feature spiritual music

Looking to find some spiritu- als of your own? The Washington area abounds in resources. Here’s a partial listing of concerts and other events.

This weekend

• Special Lenten music provided by the Senior Choir, with Evelyn Simpson Curenton at the organ and an instrumental ensemble. Mrs. Curenton is one of the preeminent arrangers of spirituals in the country. Among the selections are “Were You There,” and “He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word.” Noon April 9.

Easter sunrise service: Vanessa Williams and the Psalms Ministry Chorale. 6 a.m. April 11.

Easter morning service: The Combined Choirs of Shiloh plus the Liturgical Dance and Brass Ensemble. 10 a.m. April 11.

• Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1225 R St. NW. 202/238-5000 or www.metropolitanbaptist.org

Maundy Thursday service: A service held jointly with Shiloh Baptist Church at Shiloh. The program includes traditional and contemporary gospel music. 7:30 p.m. April 8.

Good Friday service — The Seven Last Words: A full range of music, including spirituals, anthems, hymns and gospel. 7:30 p.m. April 9

Resurrection Sunday service — Ceremonial Ground Breaking at God’s Land: Across from Miracle Plaza, Largo. Guest artist Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano. 10 a.m. April 11.

Other times

• Howard University Choir 30th anniversary concert:Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. 7 p.m. May 2. Free. For more information call the Corcoran at 202/639-1700.

• Sacred Harp sing:

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 4250 N. Glebe Road, Arlington. 4-8 p.m. April 25. Potluck supper 6 p.m. Sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, these singings are held every fourth Sunday afternoon (except in December) and also on New Year’s Day. All are welcome to sing or listen for as long as desired. Loaner songbooks available. Admission free. For more information call Mary Ann Daly, 301/229-8534.

Sources can fill your life with spiritual music

The sounds and the shape of spirituals are a few steps away, at your local book and record store or online. Here’s a sampling of what to look for:

Books and online resources

• The African American Heritage Hymnal: Edited by Nolan Williams and Delores Carpenter, this is available for purchase from www.africa namericanheritagehymnal.com ($15) as well as amazon.com and other book sources.

• The Sacred Harp Musical Heritage Association: The SHMHA is a non-profit organization that seeks to preserve and perpetuate Sacred Harp singing and its traditions. Its Web site at https://fasola.org is a trove of information on traditional American shape note singing.

• The Sacred Harp Publishing Company: Publishers of “The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition,” this non-profit corporation hopes to promote the spread of Sacred Harp singing. Its Web site is www.originalsacredharp.com.

• David Warren Steel: This teacher of music and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi maintains a Web page with a simple introduction to Sacred Harp or shape-note singing and copious links. See www.mcsr.olemiss .edu/~mudws/harp.html.

Recordings: Spirituals

• Angels Watching Over Me: Soprano Denyce Graves, with Warren Jones and Marvin Mills at the piano, featuring the Clark Atlanta University Choir. Spirituals include “Git on Board,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Live a-Humble.” Carmen 0006.

• Angola Prison Spirituals: Recorded by folklorist Harry Oster in the late 1950s at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. Spirituals include “I’m On My Way,” “Let My People Go,” and “When I Lay My Burden Down.” Arhoolie 9036.

• Give Me Jesus: Spirituals performed by Barbara Hendricks with the Moses Hogan Singers. The second all-spirituals album by the noted American soprano, the disc includes “My Lord, What A Morning,” and “I Got A Robe.” EMI Classics CDC 56788.

• Sung by mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad and the Convent Avenue Concert Choir, recorded live at the Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem. Spirituals include “Steal Away,” “Take My Mother Home,” and “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Naxos Classics 8.553036.

• Spirituals in Concert: Sopranos Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman with chorus and orchestra conducted by James Levine, featuring instrumentalists Nancy Allen on harp, Hubert Laws on flute and Evelyn Simpson-Curenton on organ, among others. Spirituals include “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” “Scandalize My Name,” and “Oh Glory.” Polygram Records 429790. Also on VHS.

• Spirituals, Hymns, and Sacred Songs:A two-disc compilation that features soprano Leontyne Price singing with the Rust College Choir and others in a far-ranging collection of spirituals, including “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass,” and “On My Journey.” RCA 68157.

• Wade in The Water: Four volumes of the African American religious tradition, compiled by Bernice Johnson Reagon. Volume 1, “African American Spirituals: The Concert Tradition,” includes performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Howard University Chamber Choir. Volume 2, “African American Congregational Singing: Nineteenth Century Roots” features performances of spirituals by the McIntosh County Shouters; the United Southern Prayer Band of Baltimore, Washington, and Virginia; and the Richard Allen Singers. Smithsonian Folkways 40076.

Recordings: Sacred Harp and Shaker singing

• American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption, and Glory: The disc by the all-female a cappella group Anonymous 4 includes shape note songs, songs from the Sacred Harp tradition, and old time gospel pieces like “Shall We Gather at the River.” Harmonia Mundi HMU 907326.

• Fasola: 53 Shape Note Folk Hymns: All Day Sacred Harp Singing at Stewart’s Chapel in Houston, Mississippi (1970): 2-cassette set or 2-CD set. Smithsonian Folkways F-4151.

• Sacred Harp Singing: From the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Culture 1942, features performances of Sacred Harp songs recorded by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers. CD 1503.

• Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals:

Performed by the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake, Maine; the Schola Cantorum of Boston; and the Boston Camerata under the direction of Joel Cohen. Elektra/Asylum 98491.


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