LED BY RICHARD ASHMORE

January 8 - February 5 | 9:30 a.m. | Learning Center
This class explores African American spirituality from its roots in many diverse Western African societies to its many manifestations in America today. Key questions to be addressed are: Is there a “Black Church” in America? How did enslaved Africans adopt and adapt Christianity? How have Historically Black Protestant Denominations served both group cohesiveness and societal change? Music is emphasized.

Session 1: Introduction
January 8, 2023

"Nobody knows de trouble I've seen" (Spiritual)

Composer: Unknown African American slaves prior to 1861. First published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States, as “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve had” (p. 55)
Performer: Mahalia Jackson (3:45)

Notes: This is a spiritual that made it to the concert stage. W. E. B. Du Bois termed the spirituals “sorrow songs.” This song certainly expresses sorrow, but it also includes hope. It is, thus, analogous to lament Psalms which feature complaints but conclude with praise of God. Note rhythm and call and response, hallmarks of African and African American music.

"Catch that train" (Spiritual)

Composer: Unknown African American slaves prior to 1861.
Performer: Sam Ballard (Old Dad), 1934, New Iberia; (1:32).

This was a field recording of Mr. Ballard who was likely a former slave. Stylistically it is much closer to how a spiritual likely sounded when originally composed and sang. In the earliest spirituals, “chariot” was a common metaphor for transportation to safety and freedom, in this life or heaven in the next (cf. Floyd, 1993). After railroads came to the south in the 1830s, “train” also became a metaphor for deliverance both in sacred and secular music, especially the blues (cf. Floyd, 1993). This emancipation meaning was also expressed in the Underground Railroad.

"John the revelator" (Gospel blues)

Composer: Blind Willie Johnson who recorded it April 20, 1930
Performer: Blind Willie Johnson

In Africa before European colonialization, music accompanied, and was essential to, both secular and spiritual activities, and this tradition was continued by enslaved African Americans with field hollers (largely secular) and ring shouts (primarily sacred). “John the revelator” is a secular and sacred song. Blind Willie Johnson was a street performer and preacher. Note rhythm and call and response, hallmarks of African and African American music.

Session 2: In the beginning, in Africa
January 15, 2023

Medley of African drumming

Composer: Unknown African American slaves prior to 1861. First published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States, as “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve had” (p. 55)
Performer: Mahalia Jackson (3:45)

This is a spiritual that made it to the concert stage. W. E. B. Du Bois termed the spirituals “sorrow songs.” This song certainly expresses sorrow, but it also includes hope. It is, thus, analogous to lament Psalms which feature complaints but conclude with praise of God. Note rhythm and call and response, hallmarks of African and African American music.

"Papa, hold the baby." (Ring shout)

Composer: Unknown
Performers: McIntosh County Shouters

The ring shout is West African in its origins and comes to our shores with enslaved people. It was central to African spiritual practices, affirming the connection of the living with the Spirit world as well as promoting community cohesiveness. In the antebellum South, ring shouts were a primary component of slaves’ Christian ritual practice in hush harbors. In this video, the ring shout addresses a secular issue: At end of a day in the fields, a father returns home to a wife and a whining crying baby, “Papa, hold the baby.” African and African American music blurs the line between sacred and secular. Here the ring shout is a sacred song and dance addressing a secular issue. Note the tresillo rhythm (an import from Africa) kept by the man with the stick. Note also the counterclockwise movement of the dancers (remember the Kongo cosmogram on the syllabus) and the fact that their feet hardly leave the floor, hence the notion of “shuffling.”

Session 3: In the beginning, in America, 1619-1865:
Birthing African American Christianity
January 22, 2023

"Roll, Jordan roll" (Spiritual)

Performed by Topsy Chapman for the movie “12 years a slave” (1:58)
Composer: Uncertain (see Notes following)

The provenance of this spiritual is uncertain. There are at least three “histories:” (1) composed by slaves in mid-1700s and to some extent standardized likely in late 1700s (Darden, pp. 67-68). (2) “The tune known as "Roll, Jordan, Roll" may have its origins in the hymn "There is a Land of Pure Delight" written by Isaac Watts[1] in the 18th century…” (3) “The source of the spiritual was an earlier song by English Methodist preacher Charles Wesley (1707–88)… “ Whatever the origin, “Roll Jordan Roll” was made their own and sung by slaves in hush harbors before 1861 and ended up in “Slave Songs of the United States” in 1867 (p. 1).
“Crossing the Jordan” for slaves meant release from suffering either by death or by emancipation from bondage in this life.

"Swing low, sweet chariot" (Spiritual)

Performed by Fiske Jubilee singers 1909. (4:05) This is likely the first recording of a spiritual by the Fisk Jubilee singers.
Composer: Uncertain. According to Wiki, Wallace Willis, a former slave, wrote it after 1865. However, Wiki also states: “Originating in early oral and musical African-American traditions, the date it was composed is unknown… Alexander Reid, a minister at the Old Spencer Academy heard Willis singing these two songs and transcribed the words and melodies..”

In the earliest spirituals, “chariot” was a common metaphor for transportation to safety and freedom in this life or heaven in the next (cf. Floyd, 1993).
This song is In our hymn book Glory to God #825

Session 4: African American Spirituality from 1865 to 1968
January 29, 2023

"Stand by Me" (Modern Gospel)

Composer: Charles Albert Tindley in 1905
Sung by: Wyeth Duncan (3:43)

I love this video: simple and beautiful and powerful. And there is lagniappe: I contacted Mr. Duncan. He is Assistant Director of Music and Organist at 4th Presbyterian Church in Bethesda MD. In his email response he wrote: “Many years ago, my great grandmother told me this was her mother’s (my great-great grandmother’s) favorite song, and to this day this song reminds me of my ancestors and their steadfast faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

"Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" (Spiritual repurposed)

Sung by Joe and Eddie Michael (2:20)
Composers: Unknown African American slaves prior to 1861

According to Wiki: It was “first noted during the American Civil War at St. Helena Island, one of the Sea Islands of South Carolina… It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade. Charles Pickard Ware was an abolitionist and Harvard graduate who had come to supervise the plantations on St. Helena Island from 1862 to 1865, and he wrote down the song in music notation as he heard the freedmen sing it. Ware's cousin William Francis Allen reported in 1863 that the former slaves sang the song as they rowed him in a boat across Station Creek.” The same song has both sacred and secular use, a hallmark of African and African American music and dance. The song was first published in 1867 in Slave Songs of the United States.

"We shall overcome" (Hymn + modern gospel repurposed)

Performed by Louis Armstrong (5:45)

“We shall overcome” combines the old Baptist hymn “I’ll Be Alright” with the text of a modern gospel song by C. A. Tindley “I’ll Overcome Someday” (Darden p. 251). According to Wiki: “The modern version of the song was first said to have been sung by tobacco workers led by Lucille Simmons during a 1945 cigar workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1947, the song was published under the title "We Will Overcome" in an edition of the People's Songs Bulletin (a publication of People's Songs, an organization of which Pete Seeger was the director). The song became associated with the Civil Rights Movement from 1959, when Guy Carawan stepped in with his and Seeger's version as song leader at Highlander, which was then focused on nonviolent civil rights activism.