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In this day and age of Black consciousness and new-found pride in a cultural heritage which has enriched White as well as Black, it is odd that the spiritual should be disdained a as the music of house-niggers by the very people so anxious to stimulate racial pride.

Ironically, it was the spiritual – that unique blending of West African vocal styles within Anglo-American tunes – which first won the critical praise of Whites and which first suggested that the American Negro was capable of high art.  In 1867, three Bostonian Abolitionists published a still valuable, still available collection of Slave Songs of the United States.  (Ha May on this record is from that book) Even earlier, scattered articles and T.W. Higginsons Army Life in a Black Regiment contained a handful of much-praised songs; Higginson was no uncritical bleeding heart, by the way; his musical judgment may be justified by the fact that he founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then as now one of the handful of finest in the world.

And it was the spiritual which became this nations first musical export to gain the praise of European audience.  In 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers made their first tour to raise funds for the newly established university, ultimately touring the United States and Europe, singing command performances wherever they went, selling their collecting of spirituals, Jubilee Songs, around the world.

Most of the classic spirituals were first published there.  Brought to the school by the first Black college students at the Black university, the spirituals were arranged for chorus.  From there they spread in their neatly harmoned form throughout the western world.

A good deal of nonsense has been written about the spiritual, especially by those who fancied the songs were actually protests against slavery.  In the texts were supposedly code words Heaven was the North and freedom; crossing over Jordan was escape to the North and so on.  Such is the stuff of romantic scholarship.

Even more nonsense has been written in the literary was between those who claimed the spiritual is/was uniquely Negro and those who maintained it was merely debased church music of the whites.  As it happens, both parties were wrong in their rigid black-and-white judgments.

The spirituals are traditional re-creation of Protestant hymns in some cases – Balm in Gilead on this record is one such.  In others, they are new work based on a melodic phrase borrowed from here, a rhythmic pattern borrowed from there, a singing style derived from leader-chorus song forms common in West Africa, and influencing it all, a vocal freedom completely unknown to book-1 and Whites until they began to copy Black singers.

There is no correct form for any of the spirituals; though some tunes and some texts have become as commonly accepted as the way to sing Ezekial Saw the Wheelâ or Deep River that version is considered standard.  It may offend tender sensibilities to hear a new version of Were You There, to insist on one particular text and tune would be a denial of the very vitality the spiritual shares with all other folk songs.

Here is a collection of American Black spirituals, sung by the Tuskegee Institute Choir, honest bearers of a vital tradition, part of the great heritage – and contribution – of Blacks in American life.

The Tuskegee Institute Choir made its debut in 1932, at the opening of Radio City Music Hall in New York, under the direction of William L. Dawson, director of the world-renowned choral group.  A graduate of Tuskegee himself, Dawson is a well-known composer whose First Symphony based on Negro themes was premiered by Leopoid Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  His many transcriptions of Negro spirituals as well as his numerous original compositions based on folk idioms have accorded him a unique position among American composers.

The Tuskegee Choirs current repertoire is a varied one; besides spirituals, the group sings selections from a large classical range – from Lassus, Palestrina, des Pres and other early masters; through Brahms, Handel, Mozart, and works by contemporary composers.

1.  Deep River

2.  There is a Balm in Gilead

3.  Ive Been Buked

4.  Were You There

5.  I Want To Be Ready

6.  Listen To The Lambs

7.  Ain A That Good News

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” arr. William L. Dawson | Northwestern HS Advanced Ensemble

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