The History and Reception of “Roll Jordan, Roll”

After a discussion on the origins of black spirituals I was left questioning the origins of specific spirituals like “Roll Jordan, Roll”. I found, although not very surprising, that “Roll Jordan, Roll” was created by an european man by the name of Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. He was a methodist preacher and after reading the articles by Jackson and Krehbiel, which have the goal of tackling this question of origin, I was not at all surprised that the origins of the song came from a white, protestant background. What I am left wondering is how “Roll Jordan, Roll” made it’s way to the slave south of the mid to late nineteenth century.
What I have found through my search in pursuit of answering my wonder is that the song may have been used as an effort to christianize the slaves. What I mean is the song wasn’t the sole proprietor in christianizing but was apart of a curriculum in doing so. It seems that the song had gone through an evolution and rather than being a christianizing song to the slaves, it was turned into a song of sorrow or conduit for abolitionism.
The religious allegories of the song had become a story of escaping slavery. There are many adaptations of the song, but the idea of the song being one of being delivered from slavery remains. The photo below is a documentation of one adaptation of the song. It was recorded into the Slave Songs of the United States (1867). 

Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen

“Roll Jordan, Roll” was eventually widely accepted as a former slave song rather than methodist spiritual. Below is a excerpt from a newspaper article from 1880. Whomever wrote it acknowledges that the songs sung by the Jubilee Singers, included “Roll Jordan, Roll” originated from “slavery times”, not the old English Methodists.
I suppose for me “Roll Jordan, Roll” can not be owned by any race. It is a black spiritual as well as a Methodist hymn.
Works Cited and Consulted:
“The National Capital. Wether–Society–The Jubilee Singers.” Weekly Louisianian (New Orleans), March 20, 1880. Accessed March 20, 2018. African American Newspapers.
“Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound.” The Black Atlantic. March 18, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/2014/03/18/roll-jordan-roll-a-community-in-song-and-sound/.
“The River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals by Daniel L. Smith-Christopher.” River Jordan in Early African American Spirituals. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/river-jordan-in-early-african-american-spirituals.
“Slave Songs of the United South.” William Francis Allen, 1830-1889, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921, and Lucy McKim Garrison, 1842-1877. Slave Songs of the United States. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/allen/allen.html#slsong1.

Harry Burleigh–A Nice Post for Once

We have been tackling some difficult ethical issues in this class regarding how we should feel and respond to the shameful reality of minstrelsy and its related veins. One conclusion we have come to is to acknowledge the past, recognize (white) America’s shortcomings, and point ourselves and others in the direction of something better. In my research for this post, I feel I have found that something better.

Sheet music for “Steal Away” arr. by H.T. Burleigh.
Complete sheet music here.

I came across the spiritual, “Steal Away,”1 the name of which I recognized as a song Viking Chorus sang during my freshman year. I found that the spiritual was arranged by Harry T. Burleigh, and reading about him was a little shining star in this (at times) depressing class. A rendition of the spiritual can be found on Youtube, among several others.

Harry Thacker Burleigh (b. 1866) is recognized as the first and among the most influential African American composers in post-Civil War America. He studied at the New York National Conservatory of Music where he became friends with Antonín Dvorák, who was the school’s director. They spent ample time together, Burleigh sharing with Dvorák the black spirituals and plantation songs that he had heard from his grandfather. Dvorák encouraged Burleigh to save these songs, to arrange them as his work.2 Thankfully, he did. “Steal Away” is one of the hundreds of pieces he arranged and composed. His most successful song is likely his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), a song many people today recognize.3

Photograph of Harry T. Burleigh by Carl Van Vechten

In the booklet of “Negro Spirituals” from which I found “Steal Away,” one of the first pages is a single page note from Burleigh on spirituals. Similar to the descriptions of spirituals Eileen Southern provides in Antebellum Rural Life,4 Burleigh outlines them as “spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in camp meetings, revivals and other religious exercises”. He goes on to condemn the portrayals of blacks and their music in minstrel shows, declaring that the attempted humorous mimicry of “the manner of the Negro in singing them” is a “serious misconception of their meaning and value”.5

It is my belief that, with the knowledge of the shortcomings of American culture in our hearts, we should look to and celebrate those who do not fall into the questionable traditions we have encountered. I think Harry T. Burleigh is a splendid example. Thus, I would like to end this post with the ending words of Burleigh’s note in the booklet. He speaks of that value mentioned above, the true value of spirituals.

Their worth is weakened unless they are done impressively, for through all these songs breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice and brotherhood of man. The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man–every man–will be free.

–H.T.B.