22 August, 2010

Negro Spirituals

I've spent a week distractedly listening to "Let My People Go: Negro Spirituals." And I thought I'd never listen to Jazz. (That's how iTunes classifies the album.)


The songs use the word, "I," an awful lot, and that sounds pretty immature. They don't sing much about God. Instead, they sing about themselves. Most of the songs could be mistaken for children's songs, or are even childish. And they appear to be the original fountainhead of dozens of musical conventions about which I've complained over the years. They repeat themselves. They seldom seem to engage the mind, but always the emotions. They scream.

Or ...

What if it's me that's wrong.

These are the songs of people who rose from strength to strength and hope to hope and faith to faith while suffering inhumanities I can describe but not possibly imagine. Slavery in the American South was a mixed bag, with some owners dealing honorably with their property as people and others dealing out unimaginable cruelties. The faith of these Africans stood equally strong under both tests.

What's more, when the long awaited blessing of freedom came to these people, they could hardly rise up and call it blessed. Lincoln ended ended some cruelties but Jim Crow Laws ensured the blessings of liberty were yet denied to them and their posterity. In a time before welfare, a time of deep, true poverty I've only seen in foreign lands, these African-Americans continued to declare and live within the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

If it's me that's wrong. If, by some chance it's the fat and happy product of the richest generation that has something to learn about the kinds of songs that strengthen the spirit to face a world where Satan wears a size 11 boot, then I've got much to learn indeed.

I wonder.


Missy said...

I think they sound a lot like the laments of David.

MzEllen said...

Missy, I got the original post in google reader and that's just what I thought.

Read Psalm 23 and count the "I" and "my" and "me" (s).

Kevin Knox said...

I don't know, Missy, in what way you mean the spirituals sound like Psalms. The Psalms are intensely intellectual in a way Swing Low Sweet Chariot never dreams of being.

And MzEllen, you come from an intensely Reformed background, right? In what way have the spirituals changed your daily connection with God? I don't see where the reformed denominations have done anything with them, beyond throwing them some praise.

I'm not asking whether the songs are nice or true. Everyone agrees they are. I'm looking at the kind of spirituality that writes those songs. Reformation spirituality writes an intellectual song, and the more powerfully it describes God the more highly it's valued. "Jesus is my boyfriend songs" are routinely trashed as part of an emotional surrender to the culture. And yet, these highly emotional spirituals are set on a pedestal by the very people who insult all their genre's children, grandchildren and cousins. (I know I'm not alone in having heard this.) Spirituals are highly praised, but anything that sounds like them is trashed.

I'm asking whence their power.

Lynne said...

Of course, over here they're not nearly as familiar as they are in America, so I've probably only been exposed to a fraction of the repertoire, but the thing that's always impressed me is that they are songs of a people who knew that their hope was not in this world.

I'm not sure if some of the other features prove anything one way or the other. Simple? they were mainly sung by a people who were kept uneducated. Repetitive? how much i9s that simply cultural, or even the fact that these songs were probably products of a largely oral culture? (I'm guessing here)

As for the "me" emphasis, perhaps it depends on what's being said about "me" ? After all, the faith that keeps us going isn't ultimately about how sophisticated our thoughts about God are, but how much we trust Him to hold us, preserve us and bring us home

Kevin Knox said...

Yes, Lynne. I agree. I think the world in general and the Christian world along with it grabbed hold of the rhythms and jazz/blues of the spirituals, but wholly failed to grasp the world in which they founded their hope.

Kansas Bob said...

Here is the story behind one of the songs:

""Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" was first written by Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory, sometime before 1862. He was inspired by the Red River which reminded him of the Jordan River and of the Prophet Elijah being taken to heaven by a chariot."

Here are the lyrics:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down,
(Coming for to carry me home)
But still my soul feels heavenly bound.
(Coming for to carry me home)
The brightest day that I can say,
(Coming for to carry me home)
When Jesus washed my sins away.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If I get there before you do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
I'll cut a hole and pull you through.
(Coming for to carry me home)
If you get there before I do,
(Coming for to carry me home)
Tell all my friends I'm coming too.
(Coming for to carry me home)

Some good stuff in this song:

1) Jesus and forgiveness
2) Heaven bound
3) God carries us through hardship

Granted it is not as intellectual as some of those boring hymns that the rest of the church was singing back in those days. It does remind me of "Blessed Be Your Name".. a song that has carried me in hard times.

I wonder if context is important when we consider these songs? Sometimes the simplest things speak to the deepest parts of us.

Margaret said...

Another interpretation of the spirituals is that they used the Biblical language of suffering and salvation as secret code for slavery and freedom, their power accounted for by the solidarity they created when sung together in a group wracked with pain and aspiration. Sue Monk Kidd alludes to this in "The Secret Life of Bees."

My guess is the spirituals spoke a double language, speaking of Biblical faith to the true believers among them, and speaking of the shared pain and struggle for freedom to the unbelievers.

Absent a solid theological understanding of redemption and a group context of shared excruciating pain, the spirituals seem no more powerful to me than contemporary Christian music.

It may be the case that the more powerfully Reformed hymns describe God the more highly they are valued, but in actuality, the more powerfully they spell out the meaning of justification and our union with Christ the more beneficially they affect us. Our souls are transformed as those truths get a grip on us.

Kevin Knox said...

Thank you, Bob and Margaret.

Yes, I agree. Context is king with these songs. It's the life behind them that speaks, more than the songs alone.

As you both say, many of the older spirituals were definitely double-purposed. Frederick Douglass says so explicitly. I've even heard it pointed out that chariot and Harriet (Tubman) rhyme very closely. It's reported many slaves substituted Harriet's name in the chorus of the song. Harriet certainly used spirituals as a secret code for communicating with slaves hiding nearby when there might be danger.

I don't know how to work the lessons of their hardship, endurance and hope into my life of comfort, anxiety, and questions but I see their riches and my poverty. May the Lord open my heart.

Anonymous said...

For one jazz and the blues are a great way to express a mood.

I was surprised to read a post like this because Kevin you usually do more research. Those songs are an expression and code for what was going on during those times. As a Southern raised gal I pay attention to this music. It was a part of my heritage and is something to be valued.