What Makes a Spiritual?

In combing through the archives to find documents that would be valid proof for my blog post, the problem of preservation and what counts as music that should be highlighted as an authentic expression of what it means to be a black American in the late 1800s kept bothering me and continues to do so.

Epstein notes the fact that the songs that were created by black Americans in the lat 1800s were not recorded for posterity, like corn songs.1
We know that there are a number of songs that failed to be preserved and passed down that told the experience of slaves, perhaps in a way that we will never know as present day audiences, far removed from that experience ourselves. However, in thinking about all of this and in looking through the archive, a question arose: how would a song like the one below fit in?

Clime up de Ladder to de Clouds. Composed by Gussie Davis. 1891. 2

This so-called ‘Ethiopian Song’ was written as a minstrel song but it retains the same elements of a spiritual. Furthermore, it was written by a black composer Gussie Davis. It arguably is at the very least inspired by the spirituals that were an established form of music by this time. Does this mean that it can be seen as a part of that tradition?

The lyrics themselves are the puzzle. As one can probably deduce, the song is about someone climbing up to heaven. There are multiple references to biblical objects like New Jerusalem and Satan which were also common in spirituals. Would it then fit the criteria of a spiritual?

If the answer to the question of whether or not it is a spiritual is that no, because it is a constructed form of music that is not an authentic experience, then why do the songs performed by slaves for their white owners for entertainment, documented by Southern, not fall into the same category? It has the same aspects of being a learned form, of falling into the “black entertainer with a white audience” category and placed the entertainer in a hazy sphere of identity.3
Does this change the perspective we have about “Clime up de ladder to de clouds”?

What about when we learn that Gussie Davis (who composed the song) grew up in Ohio and never experienced slavery?4 No I could not find a source for this, but would things be viewed differently if we found out that his parents had been former slaves? Or that he could directly point to a spiritual that had inspired this song?

Even though we may not agree that despite all of this, this song still does not have a place in the the spiritual tradition, it is still important to think about the questions this example raises. How do we understand what makes a black spiritual? Who gets to make it up? Does direct influence of spirituals or experience have to be explicitly affirmed or can we find other ways to hint at it? What would it mean if we included minstrel songs into the spiritual repertoire?

I don’t know if there are answers to those questions but they are worth thinking about.

Works Cited

1.Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals : Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

2. Davis, Gussie L., 1863-1899. Clime up de ladder to de clouds : Ethiopean song. New York: Hitchcock and McCargo Publishing Co., L’td.1891. http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-spnc/id/129736

3. Southern, E. (1971). “Entertainment for the Masters” inThe music of black Americans : A history. (1st ed.), 173-175. New York: W. W. Norton.

4. Saffle, Michael. “Davis, Gussie Lord.” International Dictionary of Black Composers, Vol. 1: Abrams-Jenkins. 374-78. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Creference_article%7C1000081424. 

Let My People Go: Moses in African American Spirituals

The traditional lyrics and melody. Burleigh, H.T. “Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go!),” in Negro Spirituals (New York: G. Ricordi, 1917),https://library.duke.edu/dig italcollections/hasm_n0708/.

After relentless, long and hard days working in the fields, enslaved black people had little in forms of comfort. Singing spirituals was one way for enslaved people to come together, to sing about their hardships, to praise God, and to lift their spirits. Although some scholars, such as George Pullen Jackson,1 have argued that spirituals stem directly from white Protestant music, spiritual songs centered on Moses and the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery, such as “Go Down, Moses”, highlight how the slave experience distinctly shaped African American spirituals.

In the numerous songs featuring the biblical character of Moses, “Go Down, Moses” is the most popular. This as well as other Moses songs directly reflects enslaved people’s longing for freedom. For many enslaved people, Moses was representative of the brave “conductors” of the Underground Railroad, such as Harriet Tubman, that guided enslaved people to freedom.2 The lyrics of “Go Down Moses” indicating that Moses, someone who did not have as much power as the Pharaoh, could defy him and demand “to let [his] people go!” was incredibly powerful for enslaved people who dreamed of defying their master. In many ways it became a way of defying their master even if they did not run away.3

Although this version of “Go Down Moses” remains the most popular, other versions also highlight connections between the African-American slaves and the Israelites. In John Davis’s version of “Go Down, Moses”, he reveals that the chariot symbolizes the Underground Railroad and the “rivers rolling” as the rivers that runaway slaves would cross though to lose their scent.4 Although the lyrics are different, the message remains the same: a dream and a reflection on the fight for freedom.

Krehbiel’s assertion that “Nowhere save on the plantations of the south could the emotional life which is essential to the development of true folksong be developed”5 rings true in “Go Down, Moses”. Although whites may have shared Christianity with enslaved blacks, they could not emote the same connection with the enslaved Israelites. The emotion present in the slow, melancholy song in the video and sheet music above reveals the deep sadness of living in slavery and a longing for freedom that only enslaved people could understand.

1 Jackson, George Pullen. “Negro-Borrowed Tunes are Traced Back to Britain: Did the Black Man Compose Religious Songs?,” in White and Negro Spirituals, Their Life Span and Kinship: Tracing 200 Years of Untrammeled Song Making and Singing Among Our Country Folk, (New York: J.J. Augustin, 1943): 264-289.

2 “Georgia islands: Biblical Songs and Spirituals,” Southern Journey 12 (1998): 14.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves,” in Afro-American Foksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music, (1914): 22.