posted in: Blog, Spirituals 2

‘Questions about the spirituals’ is the newest addition to my blog on the history of the spirituals. Here is the first question:

What did you learn about yourself from the African American Spiritual culture?

Great question. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you my love for the spirituals and their history.

Firstly, what I have learned is the gift of music created from within the human soul can enhance, change and transform the life of the listener. Music heals, creates a space for joy and fulfillment and has the ability to transform and transcend any situation in the listeners ear even in the midst of human suffering and pain. In the case of spirituals these amazing songs allowed the slaves to be heard during a time when they were not allowed to have a voice. Their secret communications within these songs not only changed the course of history, thankfully it preserved their oral history, healed their pain, and paid forward to their children the idea that fortitude, courage and resilience will ultimately give them their God given human right of freedom that belongs to all God’s children.

Secondly, what I have been given from the music of my ancestors, is an overwhelming sense of pride in all the slaves accomplishments both in music and otherwise all in spite of the fact, to this day their contributions in building a new nation or the gift of an original music they gave to the world are not acknowledged or are still under-acknowledged. Never the less I am a very fortunate man to have been born into such a rich ancestral lineage.

Thirdly, the spirituals taught me to never give up, when someone tells you, you can’t do something, I don’t accept that outcome, and instead I go within and listen to my heart. For me, music and the spirituals have been a way I go within to connect with my soul/true self.

As an example, when I was a young boy, I am the baby of 9, my family was extremely poor and many times we went without food to eat and we moved frequently because my parents couldn’t afford to pay the rent. The minute I played a spiritual on my guitar my hunger pains and the fear of not knowing if we might move in the dark of night again went away. I felt secure within myself when I could play the music or hear it. The stigma and fear of growing up poor seemed to disappear. So I played, and played and played music to comfort my fears. Each time the spirituals made me feel whole again.

As an adult, playing music keeps me grounded, it keeps me in touch with who I am and where I came from. The music teaches me to be grateful every moment of every day.

Do you have a question for me? I’d love to hear from you.

2 Responses

  1. Karen Hall
    | Reply

    I am teaching my 8th grade class about the Spirituals that were used to guide the slaves to freedom. What is the most important of these to teach? I am teaching Follow the Drinking Gourd, Go down Moses, Swing Low, Wade in the Water. Are there any others that you would suggest?
    Thank you very much.

    • Calvin Earl
      | Reply

      Hi Karen, Thank you for your question. And thank you so much for including the African American Spirituals in your educational curriculum. It is a vital missing link in the the oral history of the enslaved Africans here in North America.

      To answer your question, there are many authentic spirituals with secret codes for routes on the UGRR. Another well known spiritual and one of my favorites with the codes is:
      Steal Away – it told the enslaved Africans the best time of year to escape.

      Unlike enslaved Africans sold to South America who were allowed to keep their culture, music & drums, here in the Colonies in North America the enslaved Africans were forbidden to keep their culture, music & drums, so the original music they created in the fields of the old South had a whole new sound and way to communicate among themselves.

      The spirituals you mention Go Down Moses, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Wade In The Water are authentic spirituals that do indeed have the codes embedded with routes on the UGRR.

      However, the song Follow the Drinking Gourd is actually not an authentic spiritual it is a folk song created after slavery ended to demonstrate the concept of the Underground Railroad during slavery. It does give examples within the song on routes on the UGRR, but it is not an authentic spiritual. I personally don’t ever use that song in my shows, because there are enough authentic spirituals to tell the story of the enslaved Africans in songs we know they created.

      Many educators do use that folk song with the obvious codes, but in truth the codes aren’t that obvious, besides that the slaves didn’t tell their children they put secret codes in these songs to help you if you ever want to escape and runaway to be free.

      Two things come to mind, if the codes are that obvious, anyone including the master’s and overseers could also figure it out. The other reason, for the slaves they didn’t tell their children or even discuss it with other slaves about the codes outright was because they wanted to keep them secret. Frederick Douglass didn’t get the spirituals at first either, he thought they were stupid songs, until he figured it out. The other obvious reason is as you know, the minute you tell kids to keep a secret, they blurt it out, “my Mommy told me a secret, she told me how to escape on the UGRR”. The codes were really very subtle. How they did it was with repetition, singing the songs regularly, so that when someone did want to escape and were desperate with fear they might remember a song that had comforted them, and might realize the codes to help them on their journey.

      Our American history is really fascinating, and revealing just how much the idea of freedom meant to everyone both slave and non-slave alike. The enslaved Africans, just kept believing that they would overcome the impossible and one day be free. Free to belong to their new homeland, free to make a home for their families, they just had to work smart and work hard, and they did just that. Legal slavery ended in 1865. Freedom is a powerful idea.

      I hope this has been helpful and thank you again for your great question! Blessings, Calvin

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