Recently, to my delight I have been receiving emails from graduate students from all around the world with their questions or comments on the information found on my website regarding the African American spirituals. One in particular caught my attention. One graduate student working on her graduate studies asked such a great question, I thought I’d share it with you along with my response to her.
“What are your views on the use of Dialect in Spirituals during performance? I have always been drawn to spirituals and have performed them as solos, and conducted choirs singing them, however I have generally used the “translation” provided in the score, which often doesn’t include a slave dialect. I’m interested in your opinion on this.”
My response to her: I have never considered the language of the slaves in the American Colonies to be a “dialect” as a whole. Even today, in America, certain parts of our country have distinctive dialects. These unique dialects can be found for example in the Southern States, Brooklyn, NY, Boston, MA or even the hip hop culture in urban America just to name a few. In Louisiana, there are many people in that State who are known for their Creole dialect and culture which started with the colonial settlers, especially those of French descent, but also included the Spanish, Native American, and African descent born in Louisiana. The term “creole” signifies a culture that embraces the influences of French, Spanish, African and Native American peoples in Louisiana including their take on the English language.Their Creole dialect is still used today and is a treasured part of their culture. Besides the dialect the culture itself is celebrated in their music, arts, and their food. This is a great example of the beauty of our diverse American cultural heritage that continues to be celebrated.
I personally feel we would be gravely mistaken to refer to the broken or poorly spoken English of the slaves as a “dialect”. What we need to do is remember that the slaves came from different countries on the African continent and they spoke different languages in their homelands depending on where they lived. When they arrived here in the New World albeit a forced immigration, they needed to learn how to speak the English language as did the other immigrants coming from countries that also did not speak English in their different homelands. Immigrants from France, Italy, Spain, or other European countries also had the difficult task of learning how to speak English in the New World. However, the difference between the slaves and the other immigrants regarding the necessity to learn a new language was the slaves were strictly forbidden by their masters to learn how to read and write which in itself makes learning a new language extremely difficult.
So the slaves learned by hearing English spoken and many times for example, they confused the sound of t’s and d’s: the t in the word water sounded like and was pronounced like a d, so forth and so on. So in the mid 1830’s through 1867 when Northern abolitionists Allen, Ware, and Garrison admirably attempted to preserve and record the spirituals created by the slaves, the lyrics to the spirituals were written down as the words actually sounded phonetically. What is also important to note, most scholars and musicologists agree that any written score of any spiritual is not authentic to the original sound of a spiritual. However, the spirit in which the attempt to preserve this original music was done with an honorable and loving attempt to preserve the music so at least it wouldn’t be lost forever. And years later in much the same way, and in order to further preserve additional spirituals, Harry T Burleigh, James Weldon Johnson & J. Rosamond Johnson published more spirituals to preserve this original musical art form created by the slaves here in America.
Having said that, I personally neither use a score or dialect to perform the spirituals.
I hope I have answered your questions. Good luck with your graduate studies.
Peace and blessings,