By Walter Rutledge
On Sunday February 5, a concert entitled The African American Spiritual was presented at Merkin Concert Hall. The ninety-minute concert featured three talented performers, Sherry Boone, Harriett D. Fay and Brandie Sutton, with musical accompaniment by pianist Darius Frowner. The trio not only sang, but also recited historical text by playwright Marcus Gardley. The afternoon was a moving musical journey into the African- American diaspora, exploring the history of the music, people and events that created the spiritual.
The spiritual is an American art form, created by the descendants of the enslaved Africans who were brought to North America. Like jazz the spiritual incorporated western/European elements, but the main influence was that of the slaves. The program was tastefully divided into four sections, which created a musical chronology.
The Middle Passage- opened the program. The horrific story was told through some of the most moving spirituals, such as Motherless Child, Watch and Pray and Lord, How Come Me Here? These were songs tinged with sorrow and loss, and were a befitting beginning.
Escape and The Underground Railroad followed the tone was decidedly more defiant and hopeful. We can hear the influence of the Judeo-Christian religion in the music and the referencing of biblical stories to echo the plight of the enslaved blacks. Songs such as Steal Away, Go Down Moses, and No More Auction Block expressed courage and determination, and were the rallying cries for the abolishment of slavery.
The third section, Freedom in the North, was set shortly after the 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Here the spirituals replaced the profundity of Steal Away with the joyousness of Gospel Train. The anthem O Freedom reverberated the idea of freedom, but ironic not necessarily the declaration of equality.
The final section Heaven and Transcendence, spoke about the loftier goals of peace and prosperity in the afterlife. To the Negro of the 1800’s overcoming earthly strife was only truly promised after death. The music in this section was more ethereal, concerned less with external happiness and peace. Songs such as Ain’t a That Good News, Ride On King Jesus, and Oh What a Beautiful City exemplify this concept and were powerful and spiritually uplifting.
The African American Spirituals was a performance for the young and old alike. The spiritual is an art form that needs to be shared with our youth, and appreciated by adults. In fact I overheard a few patron remarking how they should have brought their parents. Hopefully this type of program will not be confined to the month of February, the spiritual is a part of American history- a story that should be proudly presented 365 days of the year.