February Is Black History Month: Celebrate it Spiritually!

Chip Barker, Director of Music, has the choir doing a variety of songs this beginning of the musical year. The choir sang “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” as its opening song of the New Year. Here is just one version of Every Time I Feel the Spirit.”   The spiritual is on page 315 of our blue Presbyterian hymnal.

February is Black History Month, and expanding the African American Spiritual theme, it’s possible to weave an entire service around spirituals using the Presbyterian Hymnal and Liturgy. It is possible to use spirituals and other categories of songs for or an entire year, incorporating the Presbyterian Hymnal and Liturgy.

February Music, with Black History, Spirituals, and the Presbyterian Hymnal and Liturgy

African American Spirituals:  A Synopsis

Despite the efforts of their masters to destroy their languages, families, and cultures, the Africans who came to the United States as slaves resolutely preserved them all, especially the musical part of their cultures. As time and their servitude stretched into centuries, they adapted the American version of Christianity into their own music, creating timeless songs which are part of the musical tradition of their former masters. Slaves who could not read transformed Bible stories into unforgettable songs, songs like Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Go Down Moses, Little David Play on Your Harp, Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?  and Amen.  Escaping slaves also used songs to communicate with each other. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is probably the most famous of these songs.

Historical events like the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War in 1865. and the 1865 ratification of the 13th Constitutional Amendment abolishing slavery lowered the volume of spirituals for a time. Former slaves had surviving on their minds, not captivity, sorrow songs. Slave Narratives noted spirituals and a few white people tried to preserve their music and lyrics. In his Army Life in a Black Regiment, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote down the slave songs he heard the black Union soldiers sing In 1867, compiler William Francis Allen  published Slave Songs of the United States. In the preface of the book, he pointed out the unique qualities of black voices and black spirituals and how difficult it was to record them.

Spiritual singers passed on their songs from person to person, and they improvised to suit themselves and their audiences. No one can accurately estimate the number of spirituals, because laws prohibited slaves from learning to read or write so they had to create them orally, but there is a record of more than 6,000 spirituals.

Some famous spirituals:

  • “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”
  • “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”
  • “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
  • “Go Down Moses”
  • “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • “Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees”
  • “Wade in the Water”
  • “I’m in His Care

In the 1870s, a group of musically trained singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, joined together to form a musical group that became The Fish Jubilee Singers. Their pride in their music and skill in performing and tours to raise money for their university carried spirituals to parts of America that were unaware of African American spirituals. They also toured Europe, performing for royalty and common people alike.

The success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers inspired other Black colleges to form touring groups and spirituals enjoyed a renaissance that is still singing strong today. Artists from every part of the globe and every range of ability perform African American spirituals in multiple locations, ranging from coliseums to churches, including Presbyterian churches.

Connecting Spirituals to Presbyterian Worship

Using events in Black History from a Biblical perspective, using spirituals from the Presbyterian hymnal and using the work of black poets like Langston Hughes, to illustrate each spiritual.

Using spirituals to expand the themes of Suffering, Redemption, and Resurrection.

Suffering

The sufferings of Black people under slavery and the sufferings of Jesus under the sins of humanity are expressed in spirituals.

Let My People Go.  It is on page 334 of the Blue Presbyterian hymnal. This is the Paul Robeson version of the song.

“Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” This spiritual is on p. 80 of the Blue Presbyterian Hymnal.

“He Never Said a Mumbalin Word,” This spiritual is on p 95 of the Blue Presbyterian Hymnal.

“Were You There,” This spiritual is on p 102 of the Blue Presbyterian Hymnal.

Redemption

“There is a Balm in Gilead” by Jessye Norman. The spiritual is on page 394 of the blue Presbyterian hymnal.

“Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door,  This spiritual is on p. 382 of the Blue Presbyterian hymnal.

“Lord I Want to be a Christian”,  Blue Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 372.

I Love the Lord He Heard My Cry,” Blue Presbyterian Hymnal p 362

Resurrection

 “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” This spiritual is on p 363 of the Blue Presbyterian Hymnal.

“Great Day.”  Blue Presbyterian Hymnal, p 445

“My Lord, What a Morning,” Blue Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 449

“He is King of Kings,” Blue Presbyterian Hymnal, p 153

For a joyful, upbeat benediction:

Amen

Wade in the Water

When the Saints Go Marching In

Fun Listening:

Climbing Up the Mountain Children

I’m in His Care

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

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