Southern Religion is known for many things—big churches, summer camps, mission trips, and 24-7 religious radio. We pray everywhere: at civic clubs, over intercoms, in sports huddles, and of course, at bedsides. We claim Will Willimon, Beth Moore, and Andy Stanley, and more country/gospel/pop singers than anybody can name.
But out of Southern Religion has come one very good thing, perhaps the most important contribution to American culture—no, world culture: the black spiritual.
It has it roots in Africa and came across the ocean on the slave ships that brought to us thousands of people whose heritage was some mixture of Christian, Muslim, and Native spirituality. Their notes and hopes got stirred up with rhythms and rhymes to produce the most authentic and influential music of the new world.
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” they sang, “nobody knows but Jesus.”
Slave masters let them sing, thinking it both harmless and helpful, especially to productivity. Some solo, some call and response, some field hand chorus—but all of it expressing the hopes and fears of a people oppressed, a people longing for a better day.
“Walk together children, don’t you get weary; there’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.” So goes one song, and so it is sung every time the American Spiritual Ensemble performs for those gathered to listen.
I first heard it in 2013, when founder and director Everett McCorvey brought his 20-voice troupe to Atlanta for the National Festival of Young Preachers. They led our procession of people as we entered the banquet hall for the annual PREACHAPALOOZA. Now, I can’t get it out of my head.
They sang it last week when a small ensemble traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, to sing for the annual meeting of the Church Benefits Association. My son and I crashed that professional party to greet our friends and listen once again to their matchless music.
McCorvey is a trained opera singer and directs the opera program at the University of Kentucky. All of his singers are in the same profession, and last week three came from New York and one from Washington DC: Kevin Thompson, Errin Brooks, Matthew Truss, and Brittany Robinson.
Spirituals we call them, and we grew up singing them: like, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” Only we did not know what we were singing. And neither did the slave masters long ago; and that was the point: conceal the real meaning of the music in texts and tones that sound harmless but carry a powerful message.
That message was escape! From slavery to freedom, from South to North, on the Underground Railroad.
Take that song with the lyrics: “Follow the drinking gourd.” It is a mournful tune that instructs the listener: “the river bank makes a mighty good road. Dead trees will show you the way. Left foot, peg foot traveling on, follow the drinking gourd.”
The “drinking gourd” is, of course, a reference to the constellations known as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, the latter of which includes the North Star. Both pointed the fleeing slaves to the land of freedom, north of the Mason Dixon line.
The current movie “Harriet” features the story of the famous “Railroad” conductor who, first, escaped from Maryland into Pennsylvania and, then, returned multiple times to lead others to freedom. Always, prayer, music, and the Christian gospel accompanied their running and hiding, their longing for freedom and their willingness to risk life and limb to secure it.
These slave songs were the musical mud out of which emerged so much of America’s music: jazz and blues, and soul and gospel, and rock and roll—all of it is tinged with things first heard on the plantations of the South.
Ironic, isn’t it? That the sound and spirit of the most repressed residents of the American South have become the hallmark of our music, North and South, East and West, and unto the four corners of the world. It is their gift to us, their gift to the world.
And every time I hear that music, I give glory to God. I want to join right in, not only singing, but also rejoicing, and living, and celebrating what God has done. In the words of that old negro spiritual, “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.”
So be it, Lord.
December 14, 2019