Music connects us in a way that reveals our common humanity. This American music series is designed to bring awareness and understanding to the relationship between America’s first original music, America’s diverse cultural heritage and American history. In this music video blog, you will experience the legendary story of how the enslaved Africans in America created an original music known today as African American spirituals that enabled them to secretly communicate routes on the UGRR. Wade In The Water is a perfect example. Also these songs helped them daily to endure the labor intensive tasks they were given, teach their young, record their history and heal their pain. Their original music became the inspiration and the foundation of many popular American music genre’s including Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Folk, Country, Pop, R & B, Rock & Roll and others.Through performing arts programing we will explore America’s cultural diversity in our music in the context of history, and history in the making.
The African American spirituals story is deeply embedded within the American story. It is important to realize that the spirituals created by the enslaved Africans in America, have been and are embraced by all of us. Their unique and original sound is the foundation and inspiration for most American music in our short history. Boldly the spirituals have been crossing racial and cultural lines to give us all the courage to keep believing in our ideals, in spite of legal laws trying to segregate us as citizens. America in all her imperfections, is worth believing in and fighting for.
America, “The Great American Experiment” began as a fledgling country in search of its soul by ruling itself as a democracy. For the first time in world history, a country would choose a governing leadership that would be comprised of individuals coming together as equals to form a government for, of and by the people to collectively be responsible for defining and governing our destiny as a country. Some of these ideals have yet to be fulfilled, and in order to accomplish this we must be the change. We must not settle for stagnation or apathy as the acceptable norm, instead we must choose hope and a willingness to create solutions to end poverty, racism and injustice for the good of our children and our nation.
“We The People” should pride ourselves in our diversity and recognize that our strength as a nation stems from choosing to come together on our moral values as a nation for the common good of all of us. We must finally acknowledge the role and many contributions of the enslaved Africans as equal fellow builders of this country in order to live up to the true meaning of equality as a human right that belongs to all of us not just a few.
The African American spirituals played a vital role in our history and our music’s history. It is the source from which America’s multiple music genres were created from. Besides being the source of our Americana music the spirituals have always been a compass that reflects our humanity in real time. Americana music is a big part of how we overcame major moral hurdles in American history. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our beloved enslaved brothers and sisters who from 1619 -1865 not only for their labor and inventions to build our nation but they gave us an original music out of which inspired our multiple genres of Americana music.
It is my greatest honor to teach and share what I have learned in my studies about our music history and the vital role of the African American spirituals. I also share the oral history I learned from my Elders as a young boy in the cotton fields, and the back wood country churches in my home state of North Carolina where my family and many in our community worked and lived as sharecroppers. I shed light on the secret coding hidden within the songs to help runaway slaves find safe routes on the Underground Railroad. I talk about how the Abolitionists pressured elected officials and worked to sway the public to abolish slavery on moral grounds. I talk about how the Abolitionists risked their own lives in helping ensure runaway slaves on the UGRR made it safely to their destination of freedom. We will also explore how the spirituals are the foundation and inspiration for most Americana music genres including blues, jazz, gospel, folk, country, R & B, and rock and roll, and others. The African American spirituals have stood the test of time and transformation and will forever continue to be safekeeping a message of hope.
‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ reveals the heart and soul of the African American Spirituals. As human beings one of the most powerful emotions we have is our deep-rooted yearning to have our voice heard and acknowledged. It was no different for the enslaved Africans first arriving in the Colonies in 1619 which introduced slavery to the New World. Slavery soon thereafter became legally accepted in the Colonies until 1865 when slavery was ended.
First and foremost, a spiritual created and sung by a slave was his or her secret inner most thoughts and desires in a hidden in plain view conversation with God. The spirituals were their vessel in which they could express their feelings yet remain invisible from detection during a time the enslaved Africans were not allowed to have a voice. And a spiritual was the enslaved African’s way of having a private, yet communal conversation with God all at the same time. I say communal, because as the slaves worked and sang together in the fields, each individual was telling their story out loud, they were ‘touching and agreeing’ as church folk would say. Or as musicologists refer to it as the ‘call and response’ method of singing. The spirituals also kept a record of their quest & strategies on the UGRR to obtain freedom for those who understood.
W. E. B. Du Bois description of the spirituals, I believe is really the most accurate. He stated in his book The Souls of Black Folk, “And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—-the rhythmic cry of the slave–stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
In my view, the spirituals both describe and transcend the American experience and are widely recognized as part of our American culture. As America became a new nation, these songs represented the human spirit. These songs represent portraits of courage, reflected in blood, sweat and tears in all that was intended for a fledgling nation whose motto was “the land of the free”. The spirituals document the joyful moments of our success. The awful loneliness of our failure. The gaping distance between the American dream and the American reality. These songs encompass the gut wrenching universal cry for freedom all humanity seeks. Pure. Raw. Unfiltered.
To put it in perspective and in the context of our history, back in 1895 the Bohemian Composer, Antonin Dvorak while working in America wrote and published an article regarding his observations of music & arts in America. He stated: “A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before.”
Throughout American history, the spirituals have captured the hearts of people around the world. The spirituals are both comforting & courage building while capturing the vibrant essence and beauty of our common humanity. What inspires me most is the slaves created this magnificent music in the midst of their own personal, unacknowledged despair. Their music was their voice. Their message was and still is a wakeup call to humanity to find the gumption, fortitude and wisdom to truly believe that all men are created equal and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belongs to all of us. Their legacy and their gifts to the world beginning with their original music became the foundation and inspiration for most all American music genres, making American music the most popular music in the world. Against all odds, they built a lasting legacy in spite of their circumstances.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement, the spirituals played another important role in our history. Dr. King said: “An important part of the mass meetings were the freedom songs. In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America…..We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “ We shall overcome, black and white together, We shall overcome someday….These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The accomplishments and contributions of our enslaved population in America needs to be acknowledged and embraced by all of us. A one sided view of history leads us to live in fear and creates stigmas that continue today in the form of racism to keep our nation divided unnecessarily. That is why I took it upon myself to create and present legislation to the United States Congress to honor the slaves for their contributions and gifts to our nation. And in fact, I was successful in securing a unanimous vote in both the House of Representatives and the US Senate to officially recognize and honor the former enslaved Africans in the United States for their contributions and gifts to our Nation with our deepest gratitude and respect and recognizing the African American spiritual as a national treasure. This historic legislation passed in February 2007.
The truth is we can’t change history. We have to be responsible enough to take action for those who did not have a voice. In the name of truth we must include the contributions and the perspective of the enslaved Africans in our history books. We all need to know about the African American experience and the heroes within our history, including Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman whose own stories helped shape the course of a nation in spite of their enslavement. For me, I see the beauty and talent of the people who created the spirituals and their amazing original sound. The spirituals don’t need to be changed, watered down to fit a musical scale, or serve the purpose of something other than what they were designed to do in the first place. I hear the voices of my ancestors, with humility and gratitude and I am grateful and honored to acknowledge their contribution for without them there would be no me.
Now the question is are we willing to set the record straight in our history books to include and reflect all our diverse cultural contributions within the founding of this nation? The truth is we all want a peaceful thriving nation. So let’s get this done! Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved. Whose with me?
“The continuing legacy of those historic songs helped bind us together, gave us courage and helped us march together during the Civil Rights Movement. I believe as you do that this is historical and cultural information which should be preserved. Since it is not, you are performing an essential public service and for this you should be commended. Your talents have brought exposure and life to America’s first true art form. It is our social responsibility to preserve the culture that our forefathers died for. Know that you are an important educational resource. Keep up the good work.”— Dr Dorothy I. Height (1912 – 2010) Chair & President Emerita National Council of Negro Women, Inc
That is what my friend Dr Dorothy I. Height wrote to me in a letter. She encouraged me when people wouldn’t listen. She would tell me things about her life, and how people thought she was out of her mind to buy a building on Pennsylvania Ave to house the National Council Of Negro Women, especially since NCNW already had a building. She pushed her idea until she got what she wanted, and because of her actions and commitment to the process, not only is the National Council of Negro Women the only privately owned building on Pennsylvania Ave between the White House and the US Capitol building, but it is also right next to the Square where slaves were sold in Washington DC. Her main purpose in acquiring the building was to ensure that every time a President left the White House to go to the US Capitol building they would have to pass the Square where the slaves were sold & the National Council of Negro Women. She wanted every one of our Presidents to be reminded, that it was our enslaved African brothers and sisters who were instrumental in helping build our country. Without the enslaved Africans contributions America would not be America. She believed like I do that the spirituals created by unacknowledged slaves were a vital part in keeping records of our history. As she said to me on numerous occasions “without the spirituals being preserved and understood, it would be like we were never here.” She made me promise her that I would never give up on my legislation and I kept my promise. Today the African American spirituals are recognized as a national treasure. And in that same legislation the slaves were honored for their contributions and gifts to our nation with our deepest gratitude and respect. Below is picture of the National Council of Negro Building and the Square where enslaved Africans were bought and sold.