It may seem an unusual pairing – Evensong, that most hallowed of Anglican traditions in combination with a program of African-American spirituals – but if you’re anywhere near St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota this Sunday, please join us at 4:00 and find out for yourself.
These are two time-honored traditions which have enriched music and worship in vital, enduring ways. Singing our prayers, whether in the words of ancient prophets, 17th century poets, or 19th century slaves, can only serve to add our voices to those same questions and struggles we all have. It is a human cry of pain when the psalmist mourned that tears had been his food night and day as others taunted “where now is your God?” (Psalm 42) as much as when African-Americans sang of feeling like a motherless child, a long way from home.
For years now I’ve heard people in the churches where I’ve served wonder about whether or not they should sing spirituals, and I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors in which a minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow this music doesn’t belong to everyone, as much as Mozart belongs to non-Austrians and Broadway musicals to every high school drama department. Authenticity, whatever that means, can be found in the effort. If you have ever lived with sorrow, felt as a stranger in a distant land, been treated unjustly, suffered painful loss, or been humiliated, then spirituals – and opera, and plainsong and Beethoven – belong to you.
A stumbling block for some can be the dialect used in spirituals, but the words of African-American spirituals serve the music’s rhythms so beautifully that I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe hearing and singing in dialect gives us all a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring and, I hope, a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.
The word dialect, rooted in the Greek word for conversation, possibly conveys something negative in many minds – a mangling of language and a barrier to conversation with those who ostensibly speak the same language. Perhaps over the years, however, I have chosen to see this topic with more curiosity than judgment because I grew up hearing a lot of accented English. My brother and I only had to get my Hindu father to say “Vine Street” as “Wine Street” to fall on the floor laughing. Native English speakers were usually the minority at any gathering my parents had, and I learned from an early age to listen very carefully to conversations around me and to hear language, if not in a dialect, than certainly in enriched variations.
As I think about singing spirituals in the African-American dialect of slaves, I find the sheer musicality of the texts’ rhythms to be most appealing, but the simplicity of these texts, so seemingly unsophisticated, make some very truthful and profound comments on being a Christian, and more important, on being human: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…In Christ there is no east or west…I’m goin’ to eat at the welcome table… Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things. (W.E.B. DuBois) Suffering and hope and joy know no boundaries of skin color or culture, and in that spirit I’m sending you a link to a Swedish choir (albeit with an American conductor) singing Ain’t got time to die.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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