I could not help but be drawn to the recent Piccolo Spoleto performance of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Spiritual Ensemble. The theme was, "No Trouble at the River: The Perilous Story of the Underground Railroad." I wanted to learn more about spirituals from the old South and better understand our nation's history of the Underground Railroad, which played such an important role in aiding runaway slaves headed toward freedom.
The performance was held in the 147-year-old Centenary Methodist Church with its Greek revivalist architecture so typical of Charleston's houses of worship in the early 19th century. This mixed racial ensemble choir, directed by David Richardson, brought us back to those traumatic times in our nation's history. It was very important to distinguish at the outset that the music we were listening to was called "spirituals," not gospel music.
The beginning of this genre of music represents a specific historic period in African-American history. Its connection to Charleston, the major hub of the slave trade, made it a region where some of the most powerful music was written. This concert opened a portal through the power, empathy and faith of this ensemble to be more than an eyewitness to the history of the Underground Railroad; instead, the audience tapped into the raw emotions of American slaves forming a continuum from pain and degradation to hope and redemption. For me the concert became a modern-day narrative of the Exodus. Such songs performed in the concert as "Lawd, How Come Me Heah?," "Steal Away" and "Wade in the Water," not only taught the history of how their faith was tested but also how they transmitted and preserved their emotional memory.
The founder of the ensemble, Lee Pringle, spoke about the purpose of the Spiritual Ensemble to preserve spirituals for the future. This music might never reach the top of the pop charts, but I am willing to bet that groups like the CSO Spiritual Ensemble will be performing this music 100 years from now. I am not sure one can say the same about the current rock music today. These choir members presented a degree of passion and conviction in their performance that enabled me to feel on a gut level the indescribable pain of the woman who sang about losing her child to the slave trade. The chill spread down my back as they sang of being down by the river, which is the way many traveled so as to avoid leaving behind a trail that tracking dogs used to chase after them.
What is even more ironic about history is how redemption can preserve memory not only inside a church but for an entire state. The state that played such a central role in maintaining and perpetuating the slave industry in the South ultimately voted through the General Assembly in 1999 to designate the spiritual as the official music of South Carolina. Who could have imagined in the marshes of antebellum South Carolina, and along its winding rivers, that those who risked life and limb to rid themselves of the yoke of slavery, who sang songs in their adopted English language, who prayed with their adopted Christian religion, and who were inspired by the spirit of the African culture that did not leave them in this foreign land would create a genre of sacred music that would come one day to represent the entire state?
The Lord sure does work in mysterious ways.
Some of these songs -- such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Go Down, Moses" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" -- are all classics in this genre and have been adapted into other types of music such as jazz. Many of these songs invoke passages from the Bible and use those scenes from the Exodus story as metaphors reflecting their own experience along the road to freedom.
What touched me so deeply about this music was that I could feel the deep pain and the disillusionment of downtrodden slaves on the run as well as their unbreakable will to prevail through the unknown dangers ahead of them. That dichotomy is what I heard in the resolute and crisp sound of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble and what resonated so deeply for me and, I suppose, for the rest of the audience that day. And that is why memory is so important, because the final song on the program, "Do Lord, Remember Me," taught me that the power of a slave's memory and the music that carries it to our present day is much stronger than the oppression and hatred of the slave owner.
I shall rejoice on the day if and when the Lowcountry will play host to the CSO Spiritual Ensemble and then our community, gathering an audience from all faith traditions, will listen to the wondrous voices of those who will take us on their journey, enabling us to embrace a sacred heritage that they so work hard to preserve for future generations.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.