Heads up on a wonderful documentary coming to NPT on Thursday, July 12 at 9:30 p.m. (and PBS stations nationwide throughout the month). The documentary features Middle Tennessee’s Hope Koehler, a Lipscomb University graduate and frequent performer and soloist with the American Spiritual Ensemble (among many, many more accomplishments) and includes footage shot at Fisk University.
Here’s some info on the show:
THE SPIRITUALS Traces the Birth and Development of “Sorrow Songs” among African American Slaves. The Program Goes on the Road with “American Spiritual Ensemble,” a Group with a Mission to Preserve this American Art Form for Audiences around the World.
“Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope — a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?”
W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903
Listening to spirituals is to recall a time when Africans were crowded on slave ships, bound in chains, and forced to live and work in a foreign land. The spiritual became an indigenous American art form, created in the fields and slave shacks of the American south. Slaves were able to secretly communicate with each other while singing, giving them the power to console, heal and resist. THE SPIRITUALS eloquently recounts the bitter history from which the spiritual art form arose and goes on the road with The American Spiritual Ensemble as they gallantly try to preserve the vanishing folk songs of the slaves.
“One could loose his or her life for communicating the coded messages these songs had,” says activist Ann Grundy.
“The spirituals come from deep inside, its moans, its groans, its feelings, its passion,” adds beloved Metropolitan Opera Diva Angela Brown. “I don’t think we’ll ever know where it came from, but we know it came out of pain.”
Dr. Paul Kwami, the Musical Director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Dr. Uzee Brown, Chairman of the Department of Music at Morehouse College, provide the historical context. “Quite often masters on plantations tolerated the music because it did have this calming and soothing and peaceful nature about it,” says Dr. Brown. “It was beautiful stuff. And it did not seem at least on the surface to be anything that was in any way dangerous.”
Distinguished composer-arranger and conductor, Dr. Roland Carter, conducts a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and exclaims, “The slaves were singing about freedom, but the singing in itself was a freedom.”
Impresario Dr. Everett McCorvey, in tribute to his fellow composers states, “If our culture did not have hope, we would not have survived.”
During the civil rights movement, spirituals were an important tool of resistance during marches and demonstrations. “The only way people could sustain themselves was through song,” recounts Grundy. “As the civil rights movement kicked off, the spirituals were front and center, and absolutely perfect for the moment.”
Spirituals continue to be an important tool for galvanizing throughout the world. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Go Down Moses,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” are the enduring spiritual melodies of the Deep South.
On tour, The American Spiritual Ensemble illustrate their dedication to preserving the Spiritual and keeping the music vibrant and alive through performance. Their operatic training provides the ensemble with an extraordinary sound that differentiates them from other spiritual groups. Their performances create a wall of sound and power bringing joy and tears to their audiences.
THE SPIRITUALS transports viewers to a place and time they have never experienced while capturing the ensemble and their messages of hope and forgiveness in an inspiring and joyous documentary. Travel through the history of Africans in America, from the days of slavery, through the civil rights movement, to rousing modern day performances in the finest concert halls in Spain.
“It was born out of a very dark period in our American history,” adds Professor Dr. Alfonse Anderson. “But it is American, and no matter how it was born, is still American, and it is part of our roots, of all people’s roots”.
THE SPIRITUALS offers a fresh approach to African American history, while clearly reiterating the unmistakable contribution of African born slaves and their descendants to our musical history.
The program is a co-production of Dos Vatos Productions, Kentucky Educational Television (KET), and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It is directed by Ari Luis Palos and produced by Eren Isabel McGinnis.