Thursday, November 27, 2014

From the Spirit: African-American Sacred Music

I live near a historically black Brown Memorial AME Church in Washington D.C.  The M in AME stands for Methodist.  Every Sunday I am woken up by clapping and stomping which accompany the congregation's joyous singing in praise of Jesus. I can picture bodies swaying to the rhythm of the sacred music. I once attended the service as a friendly neighbor and so I know how it goes.
Pastor Henry White leads choir members as they march to the altar singing "Holy, holy, holy" to begin the service. "It's a part of our tradition," he says.

"That's what we as African-Americans do. It's just a part of our worship experience to sing the songs of the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with singing and thanks. We are 'singing people.' In fact, Methodist people were the first people to start singing in church," Reverend White told me in an interview.

Methodist Church indeed had an important role in the development of African-American sacred music. English evangelists Charles and John Wesley, who came to America during the early 18th century, encouraged Methodists to be a 'singing people' and provided them with a multitude of hymns.

Bernice Johnson Reagon 

Bernice Johnson Reagon, music scholar and founder of the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock told me in an interview that blacks in the United States started to sing these Protestant hymns and adapt them to their own style. Amazing Grace is one of the best known.

Reagon said that African-Americans living in slavery before the 1860s U.S. Civil War, also created their own brand of songs to help them get through the hard times.

"We call them spirituals because they come from the spirit," she said. "And so this body of material comes up from the inside of the people especially when they are joined together. So you are getting individuals coming together and creating a music. We don't know the composers."

I've Been 'Buked And I've Been Scorned is one of the oldest and best-known African-American spirituals. The early spirituals were often performed without rehearsal and both the text and music were improvised. The same phrases appeared in different songs and the same words were sung to different tunes. Another genre that developed among African-Americans is shape note music, said Reagon.

"This is a method of writing music down on a score for an audience that is not musically literate. It began in Scotland among illiterate Presbyterians.  They were doing psalms, but because they were not musically literate there was a great difficulty in controlling what would happen to the song after you lined out the text," said Reagon.  

"So the leaders of the church thought - we've got to teach these people to read music and they developed a method of assigning a particular shape to a particular note - circle, square, triangle - and they taught people to learn pitch by those shapes and it's called shape-note singing. That was imported into the U.S. and taken South with missionaries. And they actually had song-singing schools where they trained black and white converts to learn to sing music by shape notes and you will still find a few people who participate in that tradition."
Jubilee Singers,  a late 19th-century a cappella group at Fisk University, Tenessee, brought African-American spirituals to a broader audience
In the 20th century, a new music form emerged that reflected African-American spirituality.  "When black people moved from rural to urban areas, they created gospel
music," said Reagon.

"When we get to the city in the early part of the 20th century, we actually create churches that often have elements of the churches we have left," she said. "But our lives have changed. We have to work by the clock. We are working in factories, there is a pace that is different from working on a farm and you get a new music that is a blend of both the hymn and the spirituals in structure and in energy - in terms of performance, in terms of intensity."

Reagon said the new sacred music composers brought back the use of traditional African-American instruments such as the guitar, the banjo and drums. She said the Protestants had taught the blacks that these instruments had no place in sacred music. But the 20th century gospel composers disagreed. They referred to a psalm that says: "Praise the lord all that have breath. Praise the lord with the harp, the cymbal, with the dance, with the trumpet." And so the African-American religious leaders encouraged the use of traditional instruments, shouts, clapping and body movements during worship services.

"And there were people who felt the reason they came together to worship was to invite in the fire - the spirit," she explained. "So the function of the service was to hope that you would be moved and that you would shout, that you would express yourself emotionally. And as one group of black people began to be educated, and said: you can actually feel the spirit and you don't need to be jumping up and dancing all over the place, you don't need to be carrying on so, another group claimed that as the central function."

While the composers of early African-American sacred music are not known, 20th century musicians such as Charles Albert Tenley, Thomas Dorsey, Lucy Campbell and many others became famous. Their sacred music also became popular outside the church. In the 1950s, Mahalia Jackson's recording of the song Move On a Little Higher, sold millions of copies.

During the
1960s, African-American sacred music played a major role in the civil rights movement in the South. Reagon said protest meetings always started with a song.
The best known protest song from the US 1960s rights movement
"The music was more than an identifying sound. It really was a way to form a group. In the black traditional churches I grew up in, in southwest Georgia, whenever people came together, the first thing they did was sing. It forms a community out of the people who walked in the door. You came in and you joined this community, but what is this community during the civil rights movement? This is the community that has decided it is going to take Albany, Georgia apart and make it over."

After the civil rights movement, spirituals and gospel music gained worldwide popularity. Today, there is hardly a music organization anywhere in the world that does not recognize African-American sacred music as a significant form of music.

Reagon taught that while black sacred music can serve as part of a religious service, it is also an analytical commentary on African-American life.

"It is a body of the historical data created by African Americans and should always be considered as documentary evidence for anybody studying, especially 19th century American history." Reagon is the author of books on African-American music "If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me" and "We'll Understand It Better By and By."

You can hear this radio report with music at:

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