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SPIRITUALS: Barbara Conrad
When asked to personalize an introduction to this recording,the soloist, Barbara Conrad reflected: Imagine a smallsouthwestern rural black community, rich-red soil, beautiful fields of cotton, corn,potatoes, and such clear blue skies, hot-hot sun, huge oak-trees that provided wonderfulshade and gentle breezes perfumed with the unique smell of East Texas Pines. This is theplace where I grew up, a place called Center Point. And where my family and friends,proudly and dutifully toiled long and hard to establish this community. They built ourhomes, our school and Center Point Baptist Church where I first experienced great gospelrevivals and the singing of negro spirituals. It was a great old Church to worship and tovent matters of the spirit, be it troubled or exultant. It was a safe haven where allcould release some of the pain of a segregated and sometimes cruel South. We, as a family,prayed, sang, shouted, and often wept for the horrible injustices done to our people. Andit was in those early years of my life that I first gleaned what a great antidote thesespirituals could be - how it let spirits and hearts know the ecstasy of freedom. It was inthis Church that I was able to freely express all my joys and sorrows and find the sourceof inspiration so that Jesus, my black Jesus, could dwell in me. Where else, therefore,could I possibly do my first recording of spirituals but in the Church, where every prayermeeting began with my Bigmama singing, O, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, when I lay My BurdenDown, and often ending with my brother Dinard playing the piano and singing, Come YeDisconsolate - (Earth has no sorrow, that Heaven cannot heal). It is notsurprising that Barbara Conrad in looking into her heart dedicates this recording to herbeloved brother, Dinard.
In his introduction to Fisher's Negro Slave Songs in the United States (1953), R.A.
Billington of Northwestern University took the view that "the African-Americanspiritual has been revealed as a master index to the mind of the slave."
Billington asserted that "Equally startling is Dr.
Fisher's discovery, through the medium of songs, that the slaves were dutiful, obedient,and well adjusted to their lot... we have taken our cue from the abolitionists and theirdescendants among New England historians and have pictured the Negroes as surly,resentful, and constantly on the verge of rebellion. This view is flatly contradicted bythe spirituals, which reveal in the bondsman a strong sense of duty, a desire to pleasetheir masters - the Lawd in the vocabulary of their songs - and an eagerness to conform nomatter how unpleasant their tasks might be. Apparently the slave must be pictured in thepattern of Uncle Tom rather than of Nat Turner."
This is ground upon which few would stand today. However, itmakes a useful point about the ways in which American culture has addressed the Negrospiritual. Its richness and ancient tradition has been susceptible of manyinterpretations. Although simplified and prettified by well-meaning popularizers, itsvitality and boldness remain insurmountable.
From the view that it represents a longing for safety,certainty, and reconciliation in the arms of Jesus, across to a subtextual code of rageand rebellion, this African American music holds influence well beyond its makers. In thisrecording, Barbara Conrad explores its most brave and beautiful meanings.
Only after the Civil War did the spiritual become known to thelarger world. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University led the way, concertizing here and inEurope from 1871 to 1878. Following them came a wide appeal, wider repertoire,publication, and transcription into new forms. But, even during this first period, concernwas expressed about durability. Wrote Thomas Fenner in 1865, "The freed men have anunfortunate inclination to despise this music as a vestige of slavery; those who learnedit in the old time, when it was the natural outpouring of their sorrows and longings, aredying off, and if efforts are not made for its preservation, this country will soon havelost this wonderful music of bondage."
In 1904, Booker T. Washington held that "The plantationsongs known as the Spirituals are the spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervour,and had their origins chiefly in the camp meetings, the revivals and in other religiousexercises. They breathe a child-like faith in a personal Father, and glow with the hopethat the children of bondage will ultimately pass out of the wilderness of slavery intothe land of freedom... while some of the coloured people do not encourage the singing ofthe songs because they bring up memories of the trying conditions which gave them rise,the race as a whole realizes that apart from the music of the Red Man the Negro folk-song is the onlydistinctively American music, and is taking pride in using and preserving it."
Ninety years later, following tidal changes in law and attitudeand culture, the music endures. Its origins are African, Caribbean, and New World,biblical and natural, work and celebration, spontaneous and additive, and subject toendless variation. In this recording, Barbara Conrad, The Convent Avenue Concert Choir,and The New England Symphonic Ensemble, restore original life, and infuse new life, intothe spiritual. The music endures.
Steal Away is a call-song,one of the origins of the spiritual. In the southern fields of hard labour, slaves wouldoften sing out to one another. Here, they call for release in death: Steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here. Thereis some evidence that this song may actually have been written in 1825 by the Spartacus ofhis day, Nat Turner, and used to convene secret meetings of his fellow insurrectionists.
Certainly, Lord is a biblicalsong taking the call-and-response form in which preacher and congregation converse.
In the fifth chapter of John, the story is told of a manwaiting beside a pool. In Wade In The Water,the story is transcribed for the special circumstance of its audience. Wade in the water, children, God is going to trouble the waters,is read both as a story of baptism and as one of escape through the watersnearby to freedom afar.
Ride On, King Jesus illustratesanother of the starting-points of the spiritual: the New Testament certainty that one'spersonal saviour is greater than any hardship and that, from the mundane to themiraculous, no man works likes Him.
The lamentation Take My Mother Home, here given by piano and solovoice, has a startling personal power. Its blues and dissonance strengthen the voice ofJesus, begging that his mother be taken away so as not to witness His death.
The folk-hymn Amazing Grace isnot strictly an African-American spiritual. It was notated by William Walker in SouthCarolina in 1835, and uses text attributed to Newton. It has numerous variant titles, anda close relationship to the old hymn Primrose.
The course of a great river is easily read as that of a man'slife. To the slave, it must have been a river like the Mississippi. To the slave dreamingof freedom, it was a channel of escape, a final hurdle before finding safety in the North,or Canada, or some safe harbour. We love Deep River forits exalted sound and are troubled by its sub-surface meaning. The song originated inNorth Carolina. Its title may have referred to the name of the local Quaker meeting-house,Deep River. This congregatio