Have We Forgotten These Rare Theological Gemstones?

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During the Christmas Season, I attempted to find a Spiritual written by Dr. William L. Dawson entitled, "Hail Mary". Much to my dismay, I was unable to do so and found that the only recording which was available was not one by Tuskegee, where he was Professor and Choir Director, but by Saint Olaf Choir in Northfield, Minnesota. Additionally, what few Spirituals I was able to find were lumped together with some Contemporary Gospels, which are as different from Spirituals as fire and ice.

Perhaps the greatest difference is in the area of theology. I am reminded of one Gospel, which I simply could not reconcile, nor form my lips to sing, which said, "The Holy Ghost saved me."

While we are correct to say that there is but ONE God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--the Second Person, JESUS ALONE is SAVIOR. On the other hand, as the few words below will attest. Spirituals are among the best sermons ever written and are among the rarest GEMS of Christian Theology.

A) Everybody talkin' 'bout Hebbin ain't goin' dere"!

B) Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel? Then Why not every man?

C) You better mind how you talk; You better mind what you talkin' about, Cause you got to give an account at the Judgment. You better mind!

D) (Question) What Kind of Shoes are those you wear, That you can walk up in the air? (Answer) These shoes I wear are Gospel shoes; And you can wear them if you choose!

The experience mentioned above brought back memories of the last time I visited Bourbon Street and discovered that persons featured in the Jazz Clubs were all ethnically quite different from me. Although it is wonderful that the whole world loves and appreciates our musical heritage, I fear this heritage has become a lost art among African Americans.

I should hope a part of our Celebration of African American History and achievemants will afford us the opportunity to revisit, reexamine and discover anew these precious GEMS of or rich and wonderful musical heritage.

-- Anonymous, February 12, 2002


I must agree with you on the statement you made about the "GEMS". Last year I was blessed to have attended a Joint Institute For Ministers sponsored by the 12th, 8th, 10th, and 13th Episcopal Districts of the AME Church. Two of the presenters at the conference were Dr. William B. McClain and Dr. Verolga Nix. They were contributing editors to the United Methodist Church's Black Hymnal "Songs of Zion." You are probably familiar with this publication. Songs of Zion is very rich in our heritage and traditional spirituals. You must understand that I am only 26 yrs old and grew up in a Baptist Church filled with spirituals and gospels as they used to call it and I eventually grew weary and leaned toward contemporary gospel music. Attending that conference and discovering the meaning of some spirituals and learning to sing them made me really appreciate my heritage and also made me want to know and teach more about them. So I enrolled in graduate school at a local university to learn more and be able to teach these to my generation. What you said about most of the contemporary gospel is sad but true. There is little to link it to our rich cultural heritage other than our young people singing in a style and manner that was created by a people full of innovation, rhythm, and most of all God's Holy Spirit.

From a theological standpoint, many of the songs my generation sings are horrible (I had to attend seminary to fully comprehend why some songs are just inappropiate in a worship service). I hope and pray that we will not allow our cultural heritage to be kept by those tried to take it away from us to begin with by not allowing us to fully participate and worship in our tradition. I can only hope and pray that we as AMEs see the need to maintain our identity through our hymnal, the recitation of true Negro spirituals, and the education of our young people in these matters so that we may grow and go higher in His service and grace.

-- Anonymous, February 13, 2002

Brother Robert,

It's my joy to hear and sing the old spirituals. Our people just act like they are ashamed of that part of their heritage. Two years ago during our founder's day celebration, our choir was singing the contemporary stuff and the youth choir from the UM church across the street from us (downtown)came in OUR church and sang two Negro spirituals. I was shame. The young people sat there listening to our choir sing something they had no knowledge of and then those young people (white, I might add) got up and blew us out of the water.

What's wrong with us? it's unfortunate that our choirs would rather sing contemporary songs and not learn their history. They say that's old school and not relevant today. They're saying we've got to move away from the past and get on with our lives. HYMNS!! HYMNBOOK!! Forget it. It's not relevant!! O God Our Help In Ages Past our HOPE...HOPE...

Our Minister's Spouses Alliance is preparing to do a skit on our history for the opening of the District Conference next week, which will include all spirituals as the music. Most of them they didn't know, but thanks be to God music is my area and I was able to help and ended up with the leading role (ha, ha). Our point is to have our young people there so that they can see this living testimony of our heritage.

Keep Ringin dem bells!!

-- Anonymous, February 13, 2002

Robert, This is an extremly timely post. My early exposure to Spirituals was from a common meter singing format. I don't know the correct term but let me struggle by asking is this still the prefered method to sing Spirituals today? Does the AME Hymnal devote a section to Negro Spirituals? I am embarrased but I don't have a copy of an AME hymn book in my home. But, when I purchase my piano for my daughter's piano and violin lessons I'll rectify this literary defect :-) QED

-- Anonymous, February 14, 2002


The AMEC Hymnal has several Spirituals. Many of them are written or arranged by composers who were A.M.E. such as Wendell Whalum and Frederick Hall. However it also includes those traditionally written by slaves such as "Steal Away" and "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." Spirituals may be sung either accompanied or unaccompanied if the singers can stay on pitch.

Our hymnal also contains the original hymn/spiritual from which "We Shall Overcome" was derived, "I'll Be Alright", even though the words were incorrectly transcribed. In our hymnal they read "If in my heard I do believe" but they should read, "If in my heart I do not yield."

We are also aware that original Spirituals had a duel meaning. They not only incorporated accurate theological concepts but they also used a code for escape from slavery. Thus, "Gonna Lay Down My Burden Down by the Riverside" often meant the place where someone from the Underground Railroad would meet you. "Wade in the Water" meant neither dog now man can follow your tracks in running water; and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" meant look up in the sky at the end of the Big Dipper and follow the North Star which always points north to freedom.

The term meter simply refers to poetic syllabication. The three basic metric forms are Common Meter (so named because the majority of hymns use this form) which has a four line metric syllabication of 8686, Short Meter which has four lines of 6686 and Long Meter which has four lines of 8888. These also may be doubled. All words with the same metric syllabication may be interchanged with any tune written for words in that meter.

Additionally there are quite a few other syllabic variations. Each variation is grouped and listed in the appendices of most hymnals so that musicians may know which tunes can be used to provide variety in singing and playing or simply to stimulate interest for some words which have grown old through time and use.

-- Anonymous, February 15, 2002

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