On January 28th, 1956, famous poet Langston Hughes wrote an article for the Chicago Defender titled “Concerning the Singing of Spirituals Today.”
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an American poet, writer, and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, whose texts have been set to music in over 200 songs (1). He wrote a column every week for the Chicago Defender, a popular black newspaper, where he “chose the pen to convey the suffering and dreams of his people” (2). http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=868170&searchmode=true&hit=first&pi=1&vpath=searchresults&prevPos=586091
In this article, Hughes argues that intent is imperative when singing negro spirituals, specifically for people whose ancestors were never slaves. He states:
“When the spirituals came into being one of the trials and tribulations, frustrations and bewilderments of slavery, they must have had an intense and immediate meaning for the people who made them up and who sang them out of their hearts in the dark hours of bondage…In the days when slaves had neither freedom nor doctors, song must have been a great factor in soothing the wounds of flesh and soul” (3).
Hughes believes that spirituals are integral to meaningful concerts; they have more power compared to other songs in captivating the audience and fostering a universal sense of love and healing. Even when singers do not understand the meaning behind them, spirituals still retain this inherent power.
However, as Hughes acknowledges, many listeners held issue with hearing white choirs sing spirituals. Hughes describes, “The spiritual may easily become the mark of the stereotype – the ever singing Negro” (3). Nonetheless, Hughes believes that once a song is sung, the “song is freed as it is sung..for friend or foe to enjoy impartially. Like all the common gifts of God or nature…the songs may then belong to anyone” (3). There will always be singers who demean and depreciate the music they sing, and who sing for reasons other than their personal joy, but those who invest time and effort in learning the history behind spirituals are fully capable of singing spirituals in a meaningful way.
Hughes advises singers who wish to perform spirituals to consult the works of black poets and scholars. Singers shouldn’t only learn the spirituals on their concert program; rather, they should learn many of the greatest spirituals, and choose which ones having meaning for them. White singers “may unintentionally make of their singing of these songs “stereotypes,” not by design, but simply through immaturity or lack of understanding…When they are sung purely for entertainment…then a little minor crime is committed” (3).
Question still remains nowadays as to whether all choirs should sing spirituals. The St. Olaf Choir, directed by Anton Armstrong, programs several spirituals on all of its concerts.
Here is an example of them singing “Ride On King Jesus,” arranged by Moses Hogan, on their 2017 tour:
Here is another example of a predominantly white choir singing a spiritual, titled “Keep Your Lamps”:
Anton Armstrong instructs singers in the St. Olaf Choir to sing the words to “Ride On King Jesus” in the dialect slaves would’ve used at the time the song was written. The choir uses darkened vowels, says “da” instead of “the,” and “hinda” instead of “hinder,” to give a few examples. This choir’s performance differs from the Bishop Shanahan High School performance, who sings Keep Your Lamps at an upbeat and exciting tempo and makes no change in how they pronounce the words of the song. While I cannot give a definitive opinion as the rights white people have over singing traditionally black music, I think that being sensitive to pronunciations and the history of the songs is important.
- Brown, R. (2001). Hughes, (James Mercer) Langston. Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000048287.
- The Helix, Volume V , Volume 5 – Issue 9 – 12 12 1968 , 1968 – 1969 © Bowling Green State University http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=868170&searchmode=true&hit=first&pi=1&vpath=searchresults&prevPos=586091
- Hughes, L. (1956, Jan 28). Concerning the singing of spirituals today. The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/492900224?accountid=351