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Negro Spirituals in "White" Churches

Today the reverend at my church sent me the following message.  I was, and still am, quite bothered by it, but I realize that this is a great teachable moment for the leadership and congregation at my church.  In order to respond to the reverend's communication without coming from an emotional place, I am allowing myself 24 hours before I begin to formulate my response.  However, I would like your (the choralnet community's) opinion on the matter: 


    Good afternoon. I hope you are enjoying this brief sunny respite from the rain.

    I want to run a thought by you and get some feedback. It is stimulated by recent conversations I have had with choir members.

    On your schedule of Anthems to sing, there is one called, "I Got a Home In-a Dat Rock". I am not familiar with the anthem, so I am not making any judgment about the quality of the song. My concern is about how it might be received.

    I think we talked about this once before. I get very concerned when I hear white choirs sing the old Negro Spirituals. Some of them are beautiful tunes with wonderful sentiments, but it doesn't come off as authentic when performed by a white choir, and often is not well done because they don't get the cadence right.

    And the world has changed. When Al Jolson made "the Jazz Singer" (1927), it was edgy. By today's standards, a white man putting on the "blackface" is considered racist. At ____________ [other church the rev had been assosicate pastor for] we had a wonderful baritone in the choir who loved to sing selections from "Porgy & Bess". But it just never came off as authentic because he was white; again, it wasn't his heritage he was singing.

    And from my brief time living in ________[the city in which we reside], I haven't heard the African-American community crying out for "dem good ol' days" of plantation living, where happy slaves sang the songs of Zion while working for "de massa".

    But perhaps you have different thoughts, different experiences. I would like to hear your thoughts on music and race, and why you think it is appropriate for ________'s [our church name here]  predominantly-white choir to sing "I Got a Home In-a Dat Rock". Is this your plan for transitioning the music at ________ [church name] from a mostly-white style to a more African-American style? Is there a special Sunday that it seems to fit? Does it go along with a chosen scripture text for the morning? How would a young black family from our neighborhood receive such an offering?

    Don't misunderstand. This email is not to tell you what to do. I truly want to hear your thoughts. Who knows. Maybe I have been thinking wrong about this all this time.

    I hope you'll respond. Thanks.


(insert rev's name here)

Replies (69): Threaded | Chronological
on May 13, 2011 11:30am
I echo the previous suggestions to have a private, personal, face-to-face discussion with your reverend.  Any other medium is fraught with too much potential for misunderstanding.  His concerns, shared by certain members of his "flock," are quite relevant to American culture today and deserve to be addressed by the two of you acting as a team, and he certainly deserves kudos for starting a dialogue with you rather than making a decision unilaterally, so you should really view his email as a compliment and a sign of his respect for you.  Rest assured that the solution worked out by both of you collaborating together is sure to be better than what either of you could form on your own.
A fundamental attitude comes to mind that you may find helpful, though perhaps tangential.  A church I know of, which was going through generation-based, music style "wars" a few years ago, survived the disagreements and even grew from the experience by learning and embracing the motto, "We sing each other's songs."  They even put up a big banner in the meeting house with those words.  There is great Scriptural basis for the phrase, and it naturally pre-empted the selfish promotion of personal musical tastes.  Young people began enjoying singing older music for their elders, and the elder members did likewise for the sake of the younger.  It ceased to be about "What do I want?" and became more about "What will lift up my brother/sister?" (And this attitude spilled over into other areas as well.)
I experienced this personally when I introduced two or three Spanish songs (really Spanish translations of simple English choruses) into the repertoire of a predominantly Anglo congregation.  One lady in particular had complained to the church leaders about it --"Why do we need to sing in Spanish? Isn't English good enough for God?"-- but when she eventually saw with her own eyes the deep impact that our singing of those few songs had on our Hispanic members, her good heart naturally corrected her attitude, and she immediately came and apologized to me profusely, admitting her wrong.  (Note that I am not drawing an exact parallel between performance of songs in other languages with the specific case of spirituals--just illustrating the principle of "singing each other's songs.")
As for performance of spirituals specifically, I sing with a predominantly Anglo community chorus in the cradle of the civil rights movement, and we include spirituals in nearly all of our concerts.  Granted, a concert does not have the same purpose as a worship assembly, but our performance of spirituals is always well received, and we have even been paid the high compliment of standing ovations from African-American audiences.  I believe the key is that we never attempt to *duplicate* the way a black choir might interpret the songs, though we do, however, try to present a *faithful rendition* of the music.  Actually, we take this same approach with all musical traditions or styles, whether it be Russian orthodox, jazz, Gospel, or any other.  We recognize and do not try to hide the obvious fact that we are not a jazz choir, a Russian orthodox choir, or a Gospel choir, but we can still perform their music as faithfully as we can and hope that audiences will hear a hint of the authentic.  This may at first seem to be a rather thin line of distinction, but the difference really comes down to respecting both the musical style/tradition and the composer's intent.  We never try to be "authentic" at things that we are not (which is nearly everything because we write and perform very little original music).  And this respect starts with our Director--whenever a piece originates outside our musical tradition, he educates us about the culture so that we can get as close as we can to the heart of the music.
Hope this helps,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 14, 2011 3:29am
Spence - Bravo!  THIS is the answer to the question.  Your folks must love you with that kind of a wonderful attitude.  We can all learn from this and, indeed learn to "sing each other's songs."  Authenticity has two components:  authentic STYLE and authentic SPIRIT.  If one is not a member of a specific culture, the STYLE may be out of reach; but the SPIRIT need not be.
on May 22, 2011 1:28am
Jonathan -- Lots of good food for thought here; thanks for getting the conversation started!  Let me add, living now in Europe, that many choirs and congregations I have experienced here are eager for choral music from all over.  Most religious leaders seem to welcome it, including in church services.  And that includes American Negro spirituals when appropriate.  Do they always get it "right?"  No.  But at home, do we always do our Tallis, Bach, Gretchianoff or Poulenc authentically?  Probably not, but it still brings inspiration to worship services.  Most worship leaders here (and in the U.S.) seem to find a spiritual value in drawing on multiple traditions to reflect the beautiful diversity and common humanity of all God's children.
The Secretary General of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe gave me a hymn book; its preface is instructive.  "It is an invitation to become familiar with the liturgical life of member churches, to stimulate one another and to learn from one another.  That led to a desire also to document translations and migrations of hymns beyond confessional, cultural and linguistic boundaries...  [the hymnal] reflects the beauty of the multicoloured rainbow which God has spread of the earth as a sign of peace."  
My belief is that God gladly receives praise in all forms when offered with a humble heart and a genuine effort to sing with the spirit and understanding, as the Apostle Paul wrote.  E.g. "I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding."  "... But be filled with the spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord."  "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs., singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."  An anthem fitting the teachings of the day and performed in that spirit would be appropriate, I'd say.  But in your own services, you, the pastor, your choir and the congregation will have to figure out the extent this factor plays, and it's probably not the same for every person in that room.
Dialect (like other performance practice issues) is complicated and I'm sure there are no "right" answers.  There's wisdom in the comment above that every congregation is unique, so you and the pastor have to determine what's best in your situation.  I recall writing a spiritual setting for a Washington, D.C. church that had just merged -- between a historically Anglo-Catholic high church congregation and a historically African-American one.  We chose "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" for the first Christmas together.  I learned it was not an "authentic" spiritual but had been written in the spiritual style by African-American composer Robert McGimsey in the 1930s.  So I figured I should clean up his diction, which seemed outmoded and vaudeville to me, condescending and disrespectful in the 21st century.  At the first rehearsal, the Vestry Chair (and soprano soloist, and hymnal consultant) from the historically black church was mad at me.  She felt strongly that the dialect was part of the history and tradition -- she didn't want us to prettify the African-American experience, but rather have people understand the sociological ills and not-so-pretty history behind a phrase like "De worl' treat you mean, Lawd; treat me mean, too..."  That was a learning moment for me; I'm grateful and we changed it back.  (The published score includes both original dialect and modern standard English.)  
Sorry to go on, but one additional suggestion.  Consider your upcoming meeting with your boss a "crucial conversation."  There's a book by Kerry Patterson and body of advice about being intentional, respectful, factual and (if possible) unemotional in these exchanges that matter.  Maybe it boils down to just thinking it through ahead of time, but as both a manager and a subordinate, I have found the guidance useful.  You might too.  I see one consultant put her summary up on the net, so I pass it along in case you are interested.  Link to "Critical Conversations" Made Easy from E.L. Smith Consulting.  good luck,
Christopher J. Hoh
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