Spirituals swing low - to the place they call home

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 13, 2012 

The Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble will perform an ode to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers Oct. 22 at Battery Creek High School in Beaufort.

SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble in concert at Battery Creek High School Performing Arts Center, 1 Blue Dolphin Drive, Beaufort; Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Presented by ArtWorks Community Art Center, Theater and Gallery, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Information: 843-379-2787.

Hold your light, Brudder Robert,

Hold your light,

Hold your light on Canaan's shore.

What make ole Satan for follow me so?

Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.

Hold your light,

Hold your light,

Hold your light on Canaan's shore.

African-American spirituals will wash ashore in Beaufort County this week, holding a light for a new generation to see where all American music comes from.

"Hold Your Light" was the favorite song in camp in the county 150 years ago when Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson mustered the first black regiment for the U.S. Army. The Massachusetts abolitionist was among the first to share with the world a music form called "Negro songs" or "slave songs." It was music unique to America, and it stunned all who heard it on the marshes and forests of the Lowcountry.

Higginson copied verses in dialect, publishing them in Atlantic Monthly and later in his 1870 book, "Life in a Black Regiment."

Others have preserved spirituals through the years, but they still struggle to be heard over the loud din of its successors -- blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues.

This week, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble will bring this art form into the classrooms of two Beaufort County high schools. Students will join the 35-voice ensemble in a portion of Saturday's public performance at Battery Creek High School of "Circa 1871: An Ode to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers."

The Jubilee Singers sprang from the financially-struggling African-American school in Nashville, Tenn. The choir still exists. But in 1871, it took the spirituals so familiar at Sea Island campfires and praise houses on tours around the nation and world. They literally sang for food and clothing -- suffering abuse during the era of black-face minstrels, but then being revered for the beauty they brought to performances for Queen Victoria and the president of the United States.

The call-and-response songs created by African-Americans in the fields were blended with the King James version of the Bible to produce music that Lee Pringle, founder and president of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble, says is "just as classic as the work of the European composers."

'REBAWN AGAIN'

Pringle's ensemble, conducted by David A. Richardson, succeeds an earlier movement in Charleston to capture the beauty of the spirituals.

In 1922, a group of white people considered part of the Charleston Renaissance created the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals. They knew the music belonged to the blacks, but it had been part of their lives since birth. They loaded clunky, primitive recording equipment into Model T's to record spirituals in city and country churches.

They also performed them, and they, too, made it to the White House. Their effort was dormant for many years, but has been revived over the past decade. Songbooks and compact discs are available of the original recordings in churches and the choir of whites who preserved the music. Last year, The New York Times wrote about the unlikely keepers of a black cultural tradition, and the Charleston Mercury followed with a story: "Rebawn Again: Gullah Spirituals Live On."

Pringle said the ensemble's first concert in 2008 was dedicated to the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals.

'STEAL AWAY'

In Beaufort County, spirituals sung on St. Helena Island were recorded in the 1867 book still available at libraries, "Slave Songs of the United States."

And in the early 1920s, banker and philanthropist George Foster Peabody brought African musician Nicholas George Julius Ballanta-Taylor to the Penn School, where Peabody served on the board. Ballanta lived at the school and wrote down lyrics of spirituals in the dialect of the islanders. The school published "Saint Helena Island Spirituals" in 1925.

The spiritual "Steal Away to Jesus" was sung by the Penn School Quartet at the funeral of prominent Beaufort attorney Julius I. Washington in 1938, according to the Beaufort District Collection of the Beaufort County Public Library. Spirituals were the focus of the collection's commemoration of Black History Month this year.

A record of the Penn School papers at the University of North Carolina shows that the Penn School Quartet, like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, went on a tour of the North in 1926 "to attract attention and money to the school."

Flashing forward to this week, spirituals will again try to attract attention in a distracted generation.

The spirituals will try to rekindle a light on Canaan's shore, here in their old homeland.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble

The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals

Fisk Jubilee Singers

Project Gutenberg e-book of "Army Life in a Black Regiment" by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Podcast: Lee Pringle of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble on "Walter Edgar's Journal"

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