Spiritual Language

Though well aware of his noted character idiosyncrasies, I was a big fan of the late political writer and language enthusiast, William F. Buckley. In fact, this very day I have a copy of Buckley’s delightfully humorous Lexicon on my night stand. The Lexicon is a small dictionary of unusual words, defined and illustrated from Buckley’s writing.

Like Buckley, I have a profound disdain, nay even disgust, for anything that smacks of political correctness. The very thought of molesting the meaning and beauty of hymns that have spoken hope and salvation to a dozen generations of the Church fills me with horror. Doing so to serve passing political trends and to bow to the extortion of the perennially aggrieved is even more reprehensible.

It is from this perspective that we address the language of the spiritual and the use of the spiritual in concert performances of serious music, and in the worship of congregations who have a serious interest in all things worthy. (Trust me, many do not.)

In the past few decades we have seen a rush of the African-American spirituals appearing in school concerts of all sorts, in the programs of choral societies, and in the music recommendation lists from church hierarchies. The theme is “The music of these populations has been ignored for centuries. It is time to make reparation and include this music in services, disproportionately if necessary.”

This is the core of Orwellian political correctness: The reality and truth of the matter must be laid aside to protect the political sensitivities of one group or another, or to assuage the feigned guilt of those in the perceived majority. I believe such a patronizing approach to be the most racist of all.

The question then presents, “Should we perform spirituals, and if so, why and how?”

Anyone who has even glanced at my career knows the answer to the first question. Yes, I believe that we should perform spirituals for the same reason that we perform the music of Bach, Byrd, or Brahms. The worthy spirituals say things that need to be said with great power and depth. They say those things in ways that no other art form can say them. They are born of a different seed, but the flower is as beautiful in its way as anything that comes to us from the great European masters.

We must, however, recognize that not every example of the spiritual laid before us is worthy in the integrity of its rendering, just as we recognize that not every piece coming to us from the European masters is worthy or appropriate to our purpose. In fact, extra care is needed with spirituals and American folk music because we do not have the privilege of knowing them in authentic form. We must rely on, and make judgements of, the renderings that are created for our use. Just as editors are responsible to balance practical and historical concerns in preparing choral arrangements, those of us who present this music in services and concerts must take equal care.

As to how to do the spiritual, I believe the music must be approached with the same level of commitment and scholarship that we would expect to invest in music of the English Renaissance, or the symphonies of Beethoven, or the chansons of Clement Janequin. Thus, we must be concerned with issues of language, phrasing, metrical architecture and rhythmic structures.

I believe, uncompromisingly, that language must form the core of our understanding of those rhythmic structures. Therefore, until we comprehend how the language of a choral piece works, especially in the context of language origins, we cannot accurately comprehend how the piece should work rhythmically.

This is a great challenge in the case of the spiritual. The West African languages from which the form descends is foreign to English-speakers because of the absence of hard consonants. The language of the slaves was further modified by exposure to Haitian French and Caribbean Spanish, before landing in the American South where the rhythms of British English were blended with the emerging tongue known today as a Southern accent.

We can prescribe basic tools of enunciation that give us the flavor of the language… absence of hard ending consonants, absence of diphthongs, modification of R-controlled vowels and bright consonant sounds. These methods enable us to approach the sound of the melodic material in ways that reveal the metrical spirit of the music. We can also apply information that we have learned from isolated communities that had very little exposure to media until about 1970. Though not completely authentic because of the passage of time, the singing of these island communities off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia still give us greater insight than had been previously available.

Which brings us back to the political ramifications of performing this music.

I have been asked -more times than I wish to recall- whether a “white choir” can legitimately perform music of the African-American tradition. My answer is, “Yes, with proper scholarship.” A choir whose artistic profile is based in the traditions of the European masters is just as worthy to sing spirituals as the Paris-based Le Concert d’Astrée is worthy to sing the music of Austrians Mozart and Haydn.

That said, race relations in the United States in the second decade of the 21st century are still so raw and overly sensitive that one runs the risk of being accused of appropriating the music or performing it in caricature. Unfortunately, to some people, hearing “…when I comes to die…” the choir appears to be speaking/singing “improper” English. The truth is, to not sing it that way is to perform the music in a historically inaccurate dialect.

It is understandable that the leaders of primarily Caucasian choirs are reluctant to step into such a political morass. There are many wags and judges whose lack of information is only matched by their quickness to point their fingers. There are many African-American conductors who shy away from authentic language in music of their own heritage because they do not want their chorus members to feel the prejudice of those who do not have accurate historical information. Moses Hogan, the great interpreter of the spiritual at the end of the 20th century, once told me, “It is just easier sometimes not to open that question.”

Hopefully, the day will come at last when the authority of the scripture, the genius of the poetic insights of the unnamed authors and the power and beauty of the music will be allowed to speak with its own voice. In the meantime, with a nod of understanding to those who choose another path, I will thumb my nose at political correctness, stand for the historical integrity of this God-given music, and take my lumps from the artsy- smartsy crowd.


When I comes to die… When I am alone… When I wants to sing… Give me Jesus!

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