Spirituals are often described as sacred songs in the African-American tradition, but Boston composers as early as William Billings (1746-1800) called some of their most moving anthems “spiritual songs.” Sacred Harp singers and other devotees throughout this country further confuse the issue by referring to 19th-century hymns as spiritual songs, or even “white spirituals.” Choirs of all sizes and ages perform concert arrangements of African-American music but audiences seldom hear the raw material in its original form. This made Saturday’s lecture-recital by Jim Thomas and his Spiritual Choir at the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers an important local event.
While attending Fisk University, Thomas performed with the world-renowned Jubilee Singers, and he has appeared as soloist at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Since 1976, he has been the founding director of the American Red Cross Chorus, and he is the founder and president of the Martha’s Vineyard-based U.S. Slave Song Project.
Thomas, a dynamic and informed speaker, prefaced each of the 20 a cappella selections with historical commentary. His singers performed while seated in a traditional horseshoe shape reminiscent of the original touring concerts of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The diverse program included work songs, celebratory songs, and coded slave songs relating to aspects of Underground Railroad history. The event began with a 20-minute discussion of slave song in the Americas, beginning in 1619 (when the first slaves arrived in Jamestown), and emphasizing song as a crucial way to communicate. Thomas remarked that the early Africans in the colonies averaged 17.3 years old; they were required to “work all day and not talk,” so early coded songs might be “the first texting.”
Dressed in a flowing red robe trimmed with gold brocade, Thomas highlighted significant historical figures referred to in the texts — UR conductor Harriet Tubman as “Moses” and “Sweet Chariot,” with other conductors described as “angels” — and brought out ironic subtexts (Wade in the Water as a way to avoid bloodhounds). While acting as tenor soloist for most of the selections, he played a large carved djembe made from cowhide and a single piece of wood that he struck with two wooden mallets to emphasize certain choral rhythms. He described his attire as “the robe of the chief, as my own personal protest,” emphasizing that although some Africans brought to the Americas were royalty, and came from areas that had religious, literary, and artistic roots stretching back thousands of years, they were “all treated like farmers.”
The program illustrated three main elements of slave-song style: call and response structures (Roll, Jordan Roll), folk melodies with strong pentatonic roots (Nobody Knows, No More Auction Block for Me), and syncopated songs with embedded dance rhythms (Every Time I Feel the Spirit). Soprano Martha Mezger was featured in There’s a Great Camp Meeting Over There, a song which Mr. Thomas suggested might show the “first blue note” through its emphasis on the lowered seventh in each bridge section. Bass Bob Lee contributed additional percussion rhythms throughout the songs on a goatskin and monkey-wood djembe carved by Vineyarder, Taggart Young. Noted choral conductor/composer Philip Dietterich also sang bass in the ensemble.
Although his full group numbers several dozen when at home on Martha’s Vineyard, the reduced group performing with Thomas for this event (five male and five female singers) perfectly filled the intimate sanctuary. They have a raw, authentic sound that reflects the outdoor/work song settings of some tunes. Their 1-4 part arrangements emphasize simplicity of open harmonies, especially fourths and fifths, which predated modern concert arrangements.
The audience, which numbered over a hundred, was notable for the presence of children and students of all ages. For the last of three sets of songs, Thomas invited local singers who had collaborated with his group in a recent benefit concert at the historic Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs to join the choral complement: these included sopranos Bella Jaffe from Cambridge and Rowan Wheeler from Arlington and bass George Pereli, from Arlington High School. Thomas emphasized the educational and community-based mission of his ensemble, concluding the concert with the whole audience joining in on the rousing traditional spiritual “Amen.” Amen indeed.