Teaching the American Negro Spiritual
Twilight Artist in Residence François Clemmons teaches a January term class called the History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization. He has found that teaching this subject to young people with little connection to the lives of America’s slaves takes special understanding and some creative techniques. Clemmons describes the class and some of the resources he uses, below.
Watch Clemmons perform “I’ve been in the storm so long.”
Writing about American Negro spirituals is my passion. I’ve been singing these glorious songs since my earliest conception in my mother’s womb. This legacy was passed down to me by my mother, my grandmother, Minnie Green, and my great-grandmother, Laura Mae Sanders. I sang these songs at home and in church when other children were singing “Mary Had Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and other typical nursery rhymes.
In putting together the collection of The Index to African American Spirituals, Kathleen Abromeit and I wanted to make available to all young singers, professionals, and teachers information as to what was available and, in some cases, where one can still purchase these arrangements. We focused on solo arrangements, but just as much is becoming available for all levels of choral groups. Much of it unfortunately is out of print. But we do know libraries, private and public, where copies can be had with a little research. Schomberg Public Library in New York City, Oberlin College, Fisk University, Spellman University, Morehouse University, Jackson State University, Morgan State University, Harvard, Howard, and Yale Universities, just to name a few.
I use this publication and several others that I am familiar with in my January term class at Middlebury College on Slavery and the American Negro Spirituals. Some excellent resources are The Book of American Negro Spirituals arr. by the Johnson Brothers, The Music of Black Americans by Irene Southern, Songs for Today, Arr. Clemmons, Songs of Zion—United Methodist Church, and Wade in the Water by Arthur Jones. In addition, there are several notable publishers who are making an effort to republish collections made famous by tenor Roland Hayes; bass, Paul Robeson; and alto, Marian Anderson. Arrangers such as Hall Johnson, H. T. Burleigh, John W. Work, Nathaniel Dett, Eva Jessye, Roland Hayes, Jester Hairston, the Johnson Brothers, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds are featured.
These publications are augmented in my class by recordings, DVDs and CDs by classical singers, pop artists, jazz musicians, vocalists, and instrumentalists, as well as live performances by me, along with members of the community and faculty. With the help of local artists, I have been able to form the core of a chorus to sing these songs and occasionally to perform a solo here and there. However, the hardest part of passing on the legacy of these songs has been developing a fuller understanding of the secrets to unlocking the unique impact of this repertoire. Spirituals appear quite simple and naïve in print. Most of the “authentic” arrangements I’ve seen can be sung by amateurs as well as young beginning singers. The simple texts and pervasive repetition are highly deceptive. Rare is the student who brings his life experiences to this work, which demands it.
So in order to really teach this work, I must discuss with the class and in small seminar groups the life of slaves and their unique struggle in their 17th- and 18th-century world. Some of the students come prepared for the intellectual stimulation and comparisons, but on the whole, most have almost no true perception into the humanity, or lack thereof, of this humiliating experience. In all fairness, much in our society produces this condition in students and encourages them to see only the ultimate outcome or the topical aspects of this repulsive situation: American Slavery.
The path toward teaching the inner life of these songs is lined with patience, encouragement, and understanding. Our society has wrapped many unpleasant experiences in pageantry and superficial holiday recognition. It often takes much determination and creativity to read the signs of the reality of peoples who have been slaves in this environment. Most of the students have no idea that many if not all of the songs have a double meaning: one applicable to the Bible and its spiritual strengths and another that plans for insurrection and flights to freedom.
The slaves were overtly taught, by the official churches and parsons and priests who visited the plantations, a submissive theology based loosely on several biblical texts referring to “slaves, obey your master” (Ephesians 6 chapter 5-9 verses; Colossians 3 chapter 22 verse; and 1Peter 2 chapter 18 verse) and “render under to Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s” (Mark 12 chapter 17 verse, and Matthew 22 chapter 20-22 verses).
Many of the students today do not know the inner voices, relationships, and intricate weavings of the theology of the Bible and don’t really relate to its profound world impact along with its acknowledged philosophy, poetry, and inspiration. I begin with Old Testament legends such as David, Saul, Solomon, Ruth, Daniel, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel. Then I add the life of the Christ, Paul, Mathew, Mark, Luke, Judas, John, and Mary and Joseph.
Because of the nearly unlimited variety of the biblical texts of the spirituals, we are only able to touch on the core stories and events that are important to the slaves. My next role is to wed together an understanding that for over 250 years this country was built on the free sweat of human beings with the students’ grasp of modern economic development (which may be in conflict with moral perspective) and the principle of personal empowerment. We would not be the nation we are today if it were not for this forced, free labor; in most cases the students’ parents would not have the expected prosperity many of them take for granted, and our standing in the rest of the world would have a very different impact.
The next step requires that I build bridges to the hearts of the students. My experience has taught me that the easiest, quickest, and most permanent way to do this is to have the students share with me who they are—the special characteristics of their families, their chores and hobbies, whether or not they have pets, why they chose to come to this college, and why they chose to take this course. None of these answers in and of themselves are that terribly important. What is important is the powerful atmosphere it builds to establish community and a visible, tangible relationship with every member of the class. We begin to form a shared, academic family. One that feels and shares with each other and does not just know things intellectually.
Almost imperceptively and immediately the tone of the classroom lessons and the singing choices change. In nearly every aspect we become an organic, fully functioning ensemble with one united goal in mind, to dislodge the secrets and inner codes of the American Negro spiritual and its creators. At this point it is obvious to me that we have collectively absorbed and moved on beyond the beauty and surface appeal of this great music. The syncopated rhythms, the traditional hymn-like melodies, and the acknowledged variety of these simple biblical stories and melodies were the facts that initially drew many of the students to the repertoire, its practice, and history. Now they operate from “within” this experience on a completely different level. This level includes all of the previously mentioned requisite aspects to understanding this experience but now also engages the much deeper sense of empathy and spirituality.
From this perspective the students and class in general begin to know themselves and the slaves as a connected people, and they value the practical experiences that they can now relate to. A joyful song is not just a joyful, ecstatic shout or a foot-stomping, clap-worthy, sometimes hypnotic self-indulgence. In like manner, a sad song is not just mournful and painful and longing for death. These songs begin to express the deeper soul longing to be free and to know the human dignity that is understood by all of humanity. The slaves who created this repertoire are no longer just over there or back there in history. Their lives and stories live today and are worthy of knowing and sharing.