I’m Gonna Tell You An American Story

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The spirituals have been part of my life as far back as I can remember. I always loved the way the spirituals made me feel. They gave me hope and comfort, they still do today. I remember when I was very little about 3 or 4 years old, going into the cotton fields with my family and riding on the back of their cotton bags as my family and the other workers picked the cotton. I would nestle my body into the fluffiest part of the cotton bag as they dragged their bags behind them up and down the rows. I laid on my back on that soft bag and looked up at the white clouds in the sky without a care in the world. Many times the warmth of the sun and gentle movement of the bag would cause me to fall asleep as I listened to their beautiful and rhythmic voices singing a spiritual as they pulled their fluffy bags of cotton row by row. Then other times I would notice as they pulled me down the row, they had missed a stalk that still needed to be picked. I always liked to be helpful, so I would jump off the bag and pick the cotton they had missed putting it into their bag smiling from ear to ear as they affectionately thanked me for my help. Then I’d hop back on the bag and happily ride down the row snuggled comfortably on my warm bag. It had never occurred to me that the reason they missed the stock of cotton was to rest a while from the weight of my body riding on their bag. Not even once did anyone show their discomfort from my weight or the weight of their bag. They only showed “baby calvin”, that’s what they called me, that I was loved and appreciated.

Which reminds me of the old work-day spiritual they use to sing in the fields: “Keep Your Hands On the Plow, Hold On” This song was considered a “workday” song because many slaves sang it in the fields as a way to keep a rhythmic pace to ease the pain of the backbreaking work of picking cotton, priming tobacco, and planting crops. It helped them get through their work day in the sweltering Southern summer heat.

In this song the lyrics have a dual meaning and secret code. “Keep your hands on the plow” the word plow meant freedom. For the slaves this song gave them hope that one day they would be free. All they needed to do was have faith and focus. They also really related to and understood the Biblical stories of Moses leading the slaves to freedom. Moses lead the slaves out of bondage by having faith in God. So for the slaves, they believed if they had faith in God, that God would deliver them from bondage too.

Keep Your Hands On The Plow, Hold On – became known as a freedom song during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The name of the song became “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize”, and the lyrics changed to reflect the times but the melody of the song remained similar to the original spiritual sound. The principle purpose of the song stayed the same as well, only instead of the slaves fighting for freedom and the end slavery, the song now reflected that the freed slaves and their decedents were now fighting to end segregation, and the removal of the discriminating unjust and oppressive Jim Crow laws that became the law of the land during and after Reconstruction. It was now a time to fight for Civil Rights and establish voting rights for every citizen. This spiritual song truly represents the spirit of our diverse American cultural and our unstoppable determination to get it right for all of us. This song also reminds us we still have work to do.

We need to add the American spirituals to the list of what truly describes Americana: Baseball, Chevrolet, Apple Pie and the Spirituals!

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