DOVER, Del. (AP) — They speak of sorrow, oppression and strength. They cry for freedom and faith, many of the words familiar even to the littlest ones: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” But beyond the simple melodies and easy-to-remember lyrics that helped make them staples of American popular music, Negro spirituals are an enduring legacy of the slaves who relied on them for both solace and hope. More than a century later, the message is no less powerful or inspiring.
“People all around the world can relate to it … that’s one of the reasons the songs are still alive,” said Art Jones, founder of The Spirituals Project, a Denver-based nonprofit group whose mission is to preserve and promote spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water.” Daniel Ridout, 79, a retired music educator from New Castle, Del., traces his own love of spirituals back to his childhood as the son of a minister.
“He taught me a lot about the Negro spirituals,” said Ridout, who often would accompany his father on visits to elderly church members and ask them to sing for him.
“Some of them stuck with me,” he said, recalling a 104-year-old woman’s rendition of “Talk About a Child Who Do Love Jesus.”
“There’s so much depth in the Negro spiritual; I began to feel it as I got older,” Ridout said. “It’s in my blood and my bones.”
W.E.B. Du Bois called spirituals “the articulate message of the slave to the world.”
“They were singing in those days because they really had that beautiful picture of where heaven was, but they were here, being taken advantage of by the slave masters,” said Walter Moss of Philadelphia, former vice president of the National Association of Negro Musicians.
Jones, a classically trained singer, knew little about spirituals until he was invited to give a concert at the Museum of Natural History in Denver in 1991. He responded by suggesting a program on the hidden meanings in Negro spirituals — which sometimes included coded messages about the Underground Railroad.
“I had no idea at the time why I volunteered to do that,” said Jones, who had sung spirituals occasionally but had no great interest in them. “I was panicked.”
He prepared by reading books, listening to recordings he borrowed from the library and talking to relatives in North Carolina.
“When I did the program, I was just totally taken over emotionally by the experience,” said Jones, who subsequently wrote a book entitled “Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals” and has devoted a large part of his life to spreading the message.
Negro spirituals link the suffering and hope of salvation of the slaves with the suffering and salvation of the Gospel — universal elements that transcend race and culture, Ridout and others say.
Many credit the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the United States and Europe in the late 19th century, with helping bring the Negro spiritual to a broader audience. Ridout recalls being serenaded by a group of Italian youngsters with an English-language version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” while he was serving in the military in Europe in 1945.
Over the years, the spiritual, which experienced a reawakening during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, has become more entwined with gospel music, a more formal style that arose in the urban North in the late 19th century and is characterized by arrangements and instrumentation. Originally accompanied only by handclapping and foot-stomping, spirituals now often are composed and arranged, and sung in a concert environment.
“There are those who are concerned about the watering down of spirituals by setting them into a European, classical format,” said Randye Jones, a singer from Temple Hills, Md., who created a lecture and recital series called “The Gospel Truth about the Negro Spiritual.”
Similarly, a debate continues over the use of dialect, or traditional phrasing, in which words like heaven and children become “heb’n” and “chillun.”
“That brings authenticity to it, but it makes some people uncomfortable. One finds what he wants to in any music,” said Mable Morrison, a professor at Delaware State University.
Randye Jones said the style in which a spiritual is sung is less important than the respect a performer gives it.
“I’ve talked to people who say they are uncomfortable singing spirituals because they aren’t Black,” said Jones, who recalls being brought to tears hearing a spiritual sung by a white man who “couldn’t be more whiter if he tried.”
Art Jones has found that whites often are more receptive to his organization’s interracial choir than Blacks.
“We’ve had to work harder for the Black audience than the white audience,” he said. “That’s a really strange irony.”
Jones and others say the reluctance by some Blacks to embrace spirituals may be attributable to the painful thoughts they can conjure.
Blacks don’t like to remember slavery, and there’s a danger of appreciating spirituals simply for their entertainment value, said James Cone, who teaches Black theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
“I don’t think the spirituals can be understood properly unless there is a powerful empathy with what it’s like to be a slave,” he said. “You have to have the capacity to identify in order to understand.”
At the same time, Cone and others believe spirituals can serve as a modern source of inspiration.
“If our ancestors could get through two and a half centuries of chattel slavery, present-day Black people ought to be able to cope with whatever they’re going through in the inner city,” said Cone, author of “The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation,” a book that links both musical styles as coping mechanisms for Black Americans.
Sam Edwards, president and co-founder of the San Francisco-based Friends of Negro Spirituals, sees membership in his group growing each year, but he says reaching out to young people is critical.
Some already are heeding the call.
Caneisha Fosters, a senior studying classical voice at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently won $300 and a $3,000 college scholarship in the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation competition in Orlando for her renditions of “Deep River” and “Down by the River.”
“Singing the spiritual is kind of a winding down for me,” she said. “It helps me be me.”
On the Net:
The Spirituals Project,
National Association of Negro Musicians,
Friends of Negro Spirituals,