By Christopher Hyde
In the wake of last month’s Charleston, SC, tragedy, there has been a renewed interest in what used to be called Negro Spirituals. The a cappella choir, Vox Nova, sang two of them as encores after its recent concert in Yarmouth, in elaborate arrangements that nevertheless seemed to capture some of the flavor of the originals.
After deciding to write a column on the subject, I was surprised to discover that there is just as much controversy over the songs as there is about other aspects of race relations. There seems to be no consensus about their origin or definition, although most people think that they know one when they hear one. Unfortunately, what most white Americans have heard are adaptations written for public performance, which is not what spirituals are about.
I was fortunate enough as a boy to have heard what I consider to be the real thing, in some small churches of rural Maryland while visiting a friend there. Our parents not being church goers, we would take our bicycles on Sunday morning, ride to one or another of the local African-denomination churches and listen to the singing through the windows, open wide in the Maryland summer heat. We found the music strange but exciting. We were often invited inside but were too frightened or embarrassed to accept. Perhaps that was a good thing, since the presence of strangers might have altered the songs (I didn’t think of them as hymns).
The primary controversy has to do with the origin of the Spiritual form, one major aspect of which is the call-and-response heard in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” One school maintains that it is entirely African in nature, another that it is an amalgam of African and protestant hymn forms, and a third that it is modeled entirely on Scotch-Irish hymns sung at popular religious revival events (camp meetings) in the 19th-century rural South. The latter view was backed by some purportedly anthropological studies of the 1930s, which analyzed rhythm, meter, harmony and use of the pentatonic (all black keys on the piano) scale in spirituals versus those of camp meeting songs, and found them virtually identical. The same view was advocated by earlier musicologists after Dvorak’s favorable comments on the songs led to international recognition in the early 1900s. It is almost as if the academic community, or at least some parts of it, could not accept the idea of an original Black art form.
Maintaining the exact opposite was musicologist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who, after analyzing 529 songs, wrote in “Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music” (1913) “… while their combination into songs took place in this country, the essential elements came from Africa; in other words… while some of the material is foreign, the product is native; and, if native, then American.” (Krehbiel wrote this study while living in Blue Hill.) The problem with the African origin theory is that Africa is not a single entity. The enslaved were from many different tribes or nations, each with its own musical traditions and forms. The Bantu may sing in parallel fifths, while some nomadic herders have a polyphonic tradition that would put Bach to shame. Still, there may be some universal characteristics in communal singing, and in widely played instruments, such as the banjo and the wooden xylophone, that could have contributed significantly to the form. African drumming is universal, but was forbidden by fearful slave owners because it was a form of communication that they could not understand.
A description of the Spiritual, which comes closest to what my friend and I heard long ago, is that of African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in “The Sanctified Church:” “The jagged harmony is what makes it, and it ceases to be what it was when this is absent. Neither can any group be trained to produce it. Its truth dies under training like flowers under hot water. The harmony of the true spiritual is not regular. The dissonances are important and not to be ironed out by the trained musician. The various parts break in at any old time. Falsetto often takes the place of regular voices for short periods. Keys change. Moreover, each singing of the piece is a new creation. The congregation is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song not a final thing, but as a mood. It will not be the same thing next Sunday. Negro songs to be heard truly must be sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and not on sound effects.”
Maybe Dvorak was prescient when he said: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.” We’re still waiting.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, Maine. For 20 years he was classical music reviewer and columnist (Classical Beat) for the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram.