Five Reasons I Love the African-American Spiritual

In the next couple weeks, I will be directing some children’s choir camps. One will be held in Detroit (June 27-30), and the other in Coldwater, MI, with the Branch United Youth Choir (July 11-14). I always agonize over what my theme will be.

This year, my theme is Onward and Upward: Songs of Freedom and Hope. We will be looking at spirituals and their uses, along with studying people who have had an impact on racial freedom in this country. My goal is to be positive and uplifting.

I have seen too much negativity in our country over the past several years. It seems like the tension is at an all-time high in my (admittedly brief) life. We can do better as a country.

Which brings me to my theme. What business does a non-African-American have teaching a whole week on spirituals? What part do children of other ethnicities have in that narrative? Here are several reasons why I love spirituals, and why I think we should all sing them.

Reason #1: It was the only syncopated music I was allowed to sing while growing up.

I grew up in a very conservative Christian community and attended a very conservative Christian school. While I appreciate many of the things I received from this upbringing (The gospel! A good education! An emphasis on excellence!), I missed the opportunity to sing many different kinds of music–specifically, music with some rhythmic energy.┬áThe only syncopated music we could sing was spirituals. I always looked forward to singing them.

Reason #2: They are a unique part of our American heritage.

In general, I love music from the American folk tradition. It connects me to my roots. There are very few things more distinctly American than the spiritual. No other country has them. It is the perfect blend of African music and Anglo-American folk traditions. And, because spirituals are folk music, there has already been a certain amount of natural selection of the songs. We get the best, highest quality spirituals.

Reason #3: They explore the whole range of human emotion.

Spirituals run the gamut between happy and sad, joyful and sorrowful, hopeful and forlorn. Spirituals can be sung at pretty much any occasion. Have a death in the family? Try singing “Deep River.” Need to be comforted? “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” or “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Is it Christmas? Sing “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” or “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” This song tradition owns such great variety!


Reason #4: The words are simple, but the meaning is profound.

I love songs that can take deep truths and boil them down to simple, easily grasped text. Spirituals excel at this. Like much folk music, you will not find many five syllable words. Yet, the words mean so much. The word pictures are vivid and deep and dark. The truths are timeless.

Reason #5: They come from a sad part of America’s history, yet are profoundly hopeful.

Slavery was, and continues to be, a terrible evil in this world. America fought its own struggle to overcome that wicked practice. The spiritual is a musical record of that time. Far from being accusatory or negative, spirituals communicate a sense of joy. There is an underlying current of hope. Sorrow doesn’t last always. You will be freed, either in this life or the one to come (and there’s this little group called the underground railroad that just might get you to freedom if you keep your eyes and ears open. Be ready). Spirituals record all of this.

While its easy to focus on all that still needs to change in our country to fix race-relations, I think we should take a long look at the positives in our history. There has been much improvement since 1776.  That gives me hope for the future, and hope is what I want to give to the children in my choir camps this summer.

I’m going to close with one of my favorite passages from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

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