Heritage Keepers of Spiritual Music
Spiritual music has been a part of the African American experience for 350 years. The tradition began when slaves from Africa began creating and singing folk spirituals by using their oral traditions, musical gifts and customs of singing about life events in songs, some brought from Africa. Spirituals were expressions of sorrow and joy, oppression, strength and healing. These traditions blended with Christian church traditions to become the familiar spirituals such as: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, This Little Light of Mine, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Friends of Negro Spirituals was founded in 2008 to preserve and extend this heritage. This is accomplished by recording the memories of those who grew up within the tradition of spiritual music. A Bay Area oral history archive has been established at Mills College as well as the Oakland Main Library History Room and the African American Museum and Library, also in Oakland.
Now Friends of Negro Spirituals has partnered with StoryCorps in this effort. We have completed over a dozen recordings so far with more scheduled this summer including a Door-to-Door recording in Oakland.
Late in June I had the pleasure of meeting and facilitating a conversation between Sam Edwards Jr., 67, and Jacob Ray White, 81, pictured above, as they recounted their early experiences with this stirring music. Mr. White recalled his rural childhood in Alabama during the Great Depression. Jacob, the youngest of seven children on a subsistence farm, was “sickly” and instead of doing the customary chores, spent many solitary hours hunting and fishing to provide food for his family. The youth drew on his experience in Sunday School and found comfort and solace in the spiritual, Way Down Yonder By Myself.
Are centuries old spirituals that found a reawakening in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s still relevant? In an article in San Franisco’s Bay View newspaper, Lyvonne Chrisman, Vice-President and co-founder of Friends of Negro Spirituals (and StoryCorps participant!) said, “Considering the many home foreclosures, daily job losses and the dark clouds of uncertainty of the times, spirituals are tailored for all of us. We can still sing together and learn about songs that formed a bridge that brought thousands over.”