Local Church Honors Black Struggle by Singing Historic Songs | New


SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI — There are plenty of music venues in the area catering to eclectic tastes, but the Unitarian Universalist South County Congregation has recently focused a unique genre outside of the mainstream found on local stages .

“Negro Spirituals”, as they were originally called, or simply “Black Spirituals”, may not be commonly sung in local venues, but these are the songs this church has recently explored during a Sunday service.

“Black spirituals are for all human spirits, regardless of race or nationality,” said Etta Zasloff, who along with others recently helped present an information and chanting forum at the church to this music.

These are songs that captured the feelings of an enslaved population in this country and developed a more universal appeal as people of many ethnicities endure hardship.

“Learning about the origin and development of these songs helps us recognize and appreciate our county’s rich history, which some actively deny,” Zasloff said.

The church recently held a full Sunday service around learning the spirituals and singing of several as part of an appreciation of their gospel flavor in modern culture.

This genre of Christian music was created by generations of Black Americans who brought together their African cultural heritage under the conditions of slavery during the first century of this country’s existence.

Imprisoned and sold into the slave trade, these Africans had to leave their lifelong possessions behind, but they held on to this vibrant, rhythmic, communal music in their hearts and minds.

In this context, Penny Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County explained both the history of spirituals and the circumstances referenced on relevance in today’s world.

“Some Spirituals are songs of grief, which have a slow tempo and express longing and suffering, such as ‘Nobody knows the trouble I saw’ and ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child'”, she said.

Hall noted, “These songs show despair, both of being personally in a state of sin, and also of being oppressed and exploited.”

“Other songs are jubilees, which are fast and affirmative, like ‘Gonna Shout all Over God’s Heaven’ and ‘This Little Light Of Mine,'” she said.

They express the joy of both personal salvation and freedom from bondage.

Notably, spirituals such as “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd,” “Wade in the Water” and “Steal Away to Jesus” contain “code” referring to escape to the Free States of the North, Hall told the audience. .

“From the bitter times of slavery, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and up to today, Negro Spirituals have remained relevant, expressing the desire and hope for a better world,” she said.

Perhaps most famously, slaves communicated secret messages through spirituals.

It was a way to circumvent the slave masters who listened in on their conversations, according to Sandra Jean Graham, author of “Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry.”

The associate professor of ethnomusicology at Babson College told writer Tara Yarlagadda in 2020 that they sang through coded songs to provide instructions that would allow them to escape to the North and to freedom, especially on the Underground Railroad.

“Harriet Tubman used the famous ‘Go Down, Moses’ to signal she was nearby and ready to lead people north, and she used ‘Wade in the Water’ to direct her ‘passengers’ to a river if any bloodhounds were on their trail,” Graham said.

Black Music Scholar, a website dedicated to research and music history important to members of the African-American community, highlights the relevance of Negro Spirituals today.

“It allows them to connect with the history of bondage that their ancestors lived through. Spirituals are the basis of some of the most well-known genres we use today, such as jazz, blues and R&B “, did he declare.

He also pointed out that influence on gospel songs.

“When traditional and solo gospel became prominent in the 20th century, many artists started recording and popularizing these negro spirituals,” he said.

“Prominent black gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, and Etta James have all recorded various negro spirituals,” the researchers point out.

Penny Hall of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, however, pointed to the enduring underlying reason why these songs remain relevant over the centuries.

“What I love most about spirituals is that they are a spiritual connection,” she said.

“They are a living expression of the feelings and ideas of the people who created them. And the spirits of these people go through the years and touch our spirits as we sing their songs,” Hall told the band.


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