Calvin Earl
As A Singer / Songwriter / Guitarist / Storyteller / Activist - I Share The Stories And Music Of Our Americana Musical Heritage & History.

Like A Tree Planted By The Water, I Shall Not Be Moved

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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 African slaves first arriving in the Colonies in 1619 introducing slavery to America until 1865 when slavery ended and became illegal in this country. The true essence of any spiritual is the secret inner most desire of a slave trying to tell his or her story. The spirituals became the vessel in which the slave could express their feelings yet remain invisible from detection during a that time the slaves were not allowed to have a voice.

W.E. B. DeBois 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.”

My mission in life is to change that part in his description that describes the spirituals as neglected, half despised and above all mistaken and misunderstood. For me, in order to fully understand their original multidimensional music I needed to know more about my ancestors who created this inspiring music. What I found was fascinating and inspirational.

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. They are 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 famed 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.

What ever you choose to call their music, it was created to not only keep a record of their history as slaves in America, but also to heal their pain, and teach their young about: the new culture they were creating using new methods and new ideals.They also embedded a deep personal commitment to obtaining freedom for themselves and their children within this newly created music. And amazingly this music served to keep their life stories hidden in plain view for centuries, obviously, their lives depended on it. In fact the black spirituals are not only the beginning of our African American cultural heritage, they are its core foundation.

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 was 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. They are adaptations of the song the slaves sang— the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. 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.” … “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Conner in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we are standing on the blood spilt by our ancestors, not with gratitude but complacency. For me personally, I can no longer tolerate my ancestors amazing story not being told. 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 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 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. It is sad commentary to have to mention that neither the national or the black media thought this historic legislation was important enough to cover even in Black History Month. The truth is we can’t change history, but it is our choice to include our accomplishments rather than allow pity, shame and blame to distort the facts of history. We have to be responsible enough to take action for those who did not have a voice. In the name of freedom and truth we must include the contributions and the perspective of the slaves in our history books. We all need to know about the African American heroes within our history, beginning with, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman whose own stories helped shape the course of a nation in spite of their enslavement.

Perhaps you might watch and share this video with your friends. It’s history in the making. One person can make a difference with a little help from their friends! Pass it on……

We Can’t Change History, But Here’s What We Can Do

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I am really excited to share with you my passion for preserving a vital part of American history and cultural heritage that isn’t talked about very much – the slaves and the spirituals. The slaves, my beloved ancestors, are my ancestral heritage. It is a part of our history that is heavily laden with sigmas, guilt, pain, and the biggest of them all is FEAR that keeps us from knowing ourselves as what we truly are. Our diversity as a nation should be something we are proud of, not afraid of. Because we do not openly talk about and learn about our history from the perspective of all cultures in our diverse nation, we are being complacent, and irresponsible for what we are paying forward to generations not yet born. I just want to do my part, and share my culture with you, in hopes we will start sharing all our cultural diversities with love and gratitude with each other.

Today in part one of this two part blog post, we will look at a part of the slaves journey in America that details how and why the slaves created an original music and my own efforts to make their perspective of history more widely known. And why 142 years after slavery ended, in February 2007 the United States Congress, with their deepest gratitude and respect, honored the slaves for their enormous contribution to our nation, and recognized the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure.

As an adult, I began to research the music, to see if what I had been taught orally as a child could be found in books, I began to see a very discouraging pattern. The music and stories were scattered here and there and not kept as a historical collection. Unfortunately, most of the music & oral history created by the slaves has already been lost forever. That is why I created Saving Our Spiritual Roots, concert and blog.

I will never forget what Dr. Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women told me the day after the Senate Resolution was submitted in the Senate hopper. After reading the legislation for the first time she looked me square in the eyes and said “ Calvin, I am so proud of you and that you are preserving the Negro spirituals, because if we don’t preserve them, it will be like we were never here.”

Her words haunted me, and were a daily reminder that I needed to work harder and smarter to push the legislation through the US Congress, and when we got that unanimous vote in both the House and Senate, her words even today continue to encourage me to tell the story of the slaves and their music in a time when spirituals and our cultural diversity are deemed unimportant to most Americans. I believe knowledge is power and will continue to honor my ancestors by sharing information about their lives and their secret and sacred music we call spirituals.

The spirituals are in fact an original musical art form. They were created by the slaves in America. What is the saying the greatest inventions are born out of necessity? The African people brought here to America were stripped of their language, their music and their sacred drums. Musicologists and scholars will all tell you there aren’t enough standard musical notes to accommodate the distinct sound of the spirituals. Nor does the original rhythm of the spirituals fit any standard pattern. It was all original. As an example there aren’t enough notes to account for the “slide” in a slaves voice which determined the intent and conviction of the song.

I want to make that distinction here, because many people think that the African American spiritual, which is also the foundation for the art forms of Blues, Jazz, and Gospel have an African rhythm. This is not true. A perfect example is if you listen to music created by the African slaves sent to the Islands or South America you will still hear the African drum beat present in their music. The reason for that is that in South America as well as the Islands, the African slaves were allowed to keep their drums and parts of their culture.

For the American slave the drums were not an option. Not only were the slaves in America stripped of the drums, as their masters recognized that they were able to communicate with the drums, therefore the drums were forbidden, the slaves were also stripped of their language, and culture. So how did they create a new original music?

Stay tuned for part 2 coming Wednesday April 15th, 2015…

Until We See Ourselves In Others The Lessons Of History Will Be Lost

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I have asked myself the question a million times: What can I do or what can I say that will loose the chains of bondage we are still in today that keeps us from knowing the awe inspiring African people who were enslaved in this country?

What can I do or what can I say that will in the strongest terms possible condemn the evilness of slavery and yet in the same breath allow us to enthusiastically embrace, and appreciate the life stories and contributions of the beautiful human beings who happened to be labeled slaves, with our deepest gratitude and respect.

What can I do or what can I say that will encourage you to see what I see, that the slaves are heroes too, just like the pioneers and our founding fathers. It took all of them together as brothers and sisters, Black and White, at the price of their own blood to ensure the birth of this great nation. We are the beneficiaries of their back breaking work and the continuing call to conscience of the Civil Rights Movement years after slavery ended.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are our birth rights as Americans. It is our choice what we do with this gift and it is also our choice where we go from here. History matters. Black lives have always mattered.

Spring Is The Time For Rebirth and Renewal,

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For my culture, my ancestors were slaves in America and the spirituals the slaves created hold within them our African-American oral history and our cultural heritage. What makes the spirituals different from all the other musical art forms, is in truth, the spirituals were never intended to be music in the first place. It is indeed the humanness of the spirituals that reminds humanity, it doesn’t matter where or what privilege you are born into, we are all human beings and we are all connected and a spiritual is a declaration of that fact. The slaves created these spirituals, work day songs, and plantation songs not as a musical art form to be performed or displayed in public as most art forms are, but a spiritual was a glimpse into the soul of a humble slave seeking love and comfort by having a conversation with God out loud in the form of a hum, moan or groan or simple repetitive phrases, talking straight from their heart to God. And because the slave had such a strong faith you could feel the reflection of God’s answer in their call and response. What we hear, and what we feel every time a spiritual is sung is that humble human being having the courage to have a conversation with God. It reminds us we are not alone in this world, and that we are loved even if our human condition may seem a harsh and cruel reality. A spiritual is beyond art, it is the beauty of our humanity stoping for a moment to come together soul to soul to see God’s reflection in the eyes of man in a world of chaos and separation. We all seek to find love and we find it in the humble spiritual. They made a way out of no way in spite of their enslavement, it gives us pause, to feel pride and gratitude for what our ancestors had the fortitude to accomplish for those of us not yet born. What will we pay forward?

As part of our cultural diversity we have a great opportunity to share our music and cultural art with our nation and the global community. It gives us the opportunity to meet other cultures other than our own, learn new languages even if it is only a few words, and what we discover is how much more alike we are than we are different. Sharing our differences through music and art, allows other cultures to see in depth who we are and what makes us unique.

African American cultural heritage is a rich, dynamic, and vital piece of our American multi-cultural population and diverse cultural heritage as a nation. For far too long we have only been seen or recognized as the stigma’s and labels that have been thrust upon us. For years we have fallen into the trap of believing the labels and have forgotten who we really are and the extensive contributions and sacrifices all of our forefathers made to build this nation. We have been stuck on words in headlines that evoke fear and are demeaning, divisive and segregate people into categories based on money, greed and oligarch behaviors not compatible with democracy. Instead of tearing down our multi-cultural nation in the name of fear, we can change our thoughts, words and deeds to be more empowering that would embrace and describe who we really are as a people. Let us choose to be inclusive, embracing, and grateful for our diversity. We are a beautiful multi-cultural nation, you don’t have to travel very far to see it, just take a look at the beauty in the faces around you. Cultural diversity is a beautiful thing! One love.

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