When a friend posted this clip on Facebook a few years ago, I sat there wide-eyed listening to a mere one minute of music and thought “This voice!” If there was ever a time to say “This is a singer to watch” – or rather listen to – this was it. Otello's brief entrance at the opening of Verdi's masterpiece must be one of the most daunting walk-ons of all time, no chance to warm-up to it, just go out and let loose with it.
And now, you'll get a chance to hear him in a recital at Market Square Church, 7:30pm on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023, here in Harrisburg with pianist Mark Markham in a program of Negro Spirituals called “Make Them Hear You.” After that brief introduction, you'll probably agree that shouldn't be a problem, even from the back pews of the church...
On January 20th, Pulliam made his Carnegie Hall debut in New York City, all part of a career that saw him debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Radames in Verdi's Aïda back in mid-December. But this is not just the big break for a newly discovered voice: Limmie Pulliam is now 47. In the 1990s, dreaming of singing on major stages around the world, this Missouri-born tenor who most of his life had always dealt with “weight issues” quit singing in his early-20s “because of concerns about body-shaming in the music industry.” But now his renewed career is being called a “comeback” – what is the take-away when you hear his story and think what prejudices have caused us to miss out on, all those years in between?
(Listen to his interview with NPR's Scott Simon on Weekend Edition here.)
There is no irony, perhaps, then, during this “Black History Month,” we are listening to a program called “Make Them Hear You: A Spiritual Journey” which includes a dozen familiar Negro Spirituals born of racial prejudice. Arising out of the world of Slavery, they gave comfort and inspiration to generations of those who'd created these songs but which continue to inspire everyone, regardless of race or culture, today.
Great Day! -------------------- arr. Thomas Kerr (1915-1988)
Wade in the water ------------ Improvisation
Take me to the water -------- arr. Undine Moore (1904-1989)
His name so sweet ---------- Hall Johnson (1888-1970)
There’s a man goin’ round - arr. Moses Hogan (1957-2003)
Were you there? ------------ Traditional
Deep River ------------------ arr. Mark Markham
You can tell the world ------ arr. Margaret Bonds (1913-1972)
This little light of mine ----- arr. Margaret Bonds
Witness ---------------------- arr. Hall Johnson
Give me Jesus ------------- arr. Moses Hogan
Ride on, King Jesus! ------ arr. Hall Johnson
(There will be no intermission.)
Limmie Pulliam w/an orchestration of Hall Johnson's Ride On, King Jesus! (performed in 2015 with the Delta Symphony, Neale Bartee conducting, in Batesville AR)
Unlike a more traditional song recital with repertoire usually gathered into groups by composer or period, giving someone writing program notes or, say, a blog-post about the program's musical background, an opportunity to delve into a piece-by-piece analysis or historical commentary on each song (“Now, Schubert composed these next two songs on the same day...”).
Since no composer is otherwise associated with them, in many peoples' minds that makes them “folk songs” which evolved out of the culture rather than were specifically created by an individual. It might be more appropriate to think of them as “songs composed by Anonymous” that were passed down through the community's Oral Tradition. While somebody must have written it sometime, the composer's name is unknown: in other words, “provenance unknown.” But then, one can argue, “folk songs didn't just compose themselves.” As usual, terminology often confuses reality.
As Lucy Miller Murray mentions in her program notes, “Mark Markham has importantly pointed out this program is a collection of Negro Spirituals, not folk songs, but that they are at the level of American art songs which have been arranged by the composers listed in the program.”
Speaking of terminology, there is also a matter of identifying them as “Negro Spirituals,” “African-American Spirituals” (hyphenated or otherwise), or simply “Spirituals.” While the Wikipedia entry (itself labeled simply “Spirituals”) states the Grove Dictionary (1986 ed) defines “spiritual” as a “type of sacred song created by and for African Americans that originated in oral tradition. Although its exact provenance is unknown, spirituals were identifiable as a genre by the early 19th century,” noting they also did not use the “African American descriptor.” But when I checked my own copy of the Grove Dictionary (1980 ed), it's listed under “Spiritual” (singular, with no descriptor) as a “type of folk song which originated in American revivalist activity between 1740 and the close of the 19th Century,” specifically to distinguish it from “metrical psalms and hymns of traditional church usage.”
There were also “White Spirituals,” the 1980 Grove continues, also originating in the South which, from its own oral tradition, developed into the published form of “Shape-Note Hymnody” another fascinating rabbit-hole for those wishing to explore the difference between “spirituals” from one culture and another. These “shape-note” hymn books were designed to facilitate congregational and social singing, each “shape” representing a particular pitch in the major or minor scale. In New England, for instance, communities would gather, trained by a “singing master” in the tradition of William Billings (as well as Andrew Law and Supply Belcher, the “Handel of Maine”) where these old hymn tunes – and, eventually, their own original ones – would be arranged and harmonized as part of a social choral experience, whether in or outside the church itself.
Among slaves of the 1th and 19th Centuries, without access to publication and a wider community of activity, these texts and their melodies, based on Bible stories and lessons, originated from “work songs” on the plantation. In 1839, a plantation-owner's wife wrote in her diary, “how they all sing in unison, having never, it appears, attempted or heard anything like part-singing” (that three- or four-part harmonized style we associate with hymns). At a funeral, she continues, “the whole congregation uplifted their voices in a hymn, the first high wailing notes of which – sung all in unison – ...sent a thrill through all my nerves.”
As late as the 1970s, researchers described the performance of these early spirituals: “The lead singer who would frequently improvise was generally supported by 'basers' who provided a vocal groundwork and interpolations. The singing... abounded in 'slides from one note to another [with] turns and cadences not in articulated notes'.” In their printed collection of spirituals, they regretted their inability to convey in notation 'the odd turns made in the throat and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different, irregular intervals'.”
In time, during the course of the Civil War and following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 “altering mainly the nature (but not continuation) of slavery for many,” cultural awareness of the spiritual spread. And while the historical and cultural details and their implications are far beyond this simple introduction's scope, this often entailed arrangements of the melodies to suit society's musical concepts which would included harmonic accompaniment and a four-part hymn-like style, first with groups like The Fisk Jubilee Singers, students at Fisk University forming an a cappella choral ensemble in 1871 to tour and raise money for the college. Their repertoire consisted primarily of “arrangements of traditional spiritual songs and songs by Stephen Foster.” Their performances brought this music to even an international awareness.
Many of these songs reflected the tribulations of slave life, translated into biblical metaphors, like Go Down, Moses. Songs like He never said a mumblin' word or Nobody knows the trouble I've seen were often called “Sorrow Songs.” There was also the evangelical fervor in such joyous songs as Ride On, King Jesus, giving hope that there would be freedom in salvation beyond the present.
Frederic Douglass, an ex-slave and Black leader born around 1817, wrote about singing spirituals when still a slave: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan something more than the hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North and the North was our Canaan,” the Promised Land.
Several writers have described spirituals as “codified songs of protest,” especially with texts based on the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage or Daniel from the lions' den; or, like Steal Away, an inspiration to escape from their own bondage. And meanwhile the plantation owner's family living up in the big house, listened to their slaves' singing, unaware of the underlying significance of these texts.
Marian Anderson, contralto: Crucifixion ("He Never Said a Mumblin' Word")
Henry T. Burleigh, a Black singer in New York City, studied composition with none other than Antonín Dvořák at the National Conservatory in the mid-1890s. Burleigh, an Erie PA native born in 1866, was taught a number of “spirituals and slave songs” by his grandfather. After winning a scholarship to the conservatory (with the help of the registrar, who was also Edward MacDowell's mother), he would later sing many of these songs for his composition teacher and Dvořák was fascinated by them.
One of the reasons the famous Dvořák had been brought to New York, of course, the prestige of having his name on their faculty aside, was to help young American composers study music without having to go to Europe. His own music had grown out of the folk songs of his native Bohemia but the real problem in America was “what was an American folk song?” The nation was made up of so many immigrant (and mostly European) cultures. Dvořák decided, after hearing Burleigh sing, that these songs of the American Negro constituted “the real” folk songs of the nation and he recommended his students study them and out of them, directly or indirectly, build their own musical voice.
Whether Dvořák's famous “New World” Symphony was intended to show his students and audiences how to do this or merely to be another European-style symphony inspired by his stay in America, it did not include any overt “Spiritual Themes.” One can argue the famous tune in the slow movement, the “Largo,” could've been inspired by one of Burleigh's songs, but it's never been proven, though it bears many of the hallmarks of a “spiritual theme” with its non-traditional scale, simple phrasing, and, with or without the soulful sound of the English Horn playing it, the emotions of a spiritual's ethos. Once the words for “Goin' Home” were attached to it in 1922, it became a popular song but regardless remains one of the most memorable themes in all of Classical Music.
The only problem was, given the racism inherent in White society, Dvořák's suggestion did not prove a popular avenue for something as “high-society” as Classical Music. One of Dvořák's contemporaries was the largely self-taught Amy Beach who decided to base the themes for her own symphony the year following Dvořák's “New World” on the folk songs of her Scots-Irish ancestors, so she called it the “Gaelic” Symphony (incidentally, the first symphony in America written by a woman, yet another rabbit-hole for the Google-eyed curious).
When Henry F. Gilbert, a Massachusetts-born composer (who was White interested in folk music, submitted his 1908 work, Dance in Place Congo, inspired by Creole dances from Congo Square in New Orleans, to the Boston Symphony, conductor Karl Muck dismissed it as “[N-word]-Music” and refused to play it. It wasn't performed until 1918 with appropriate choreography at the Metropolitan Opera House. It later became a success in Europe in the late-20s. While it may smack of “cultural appropriation” today by some, Gilbert's intent was little different than, say, Brahms, a North German composer, writing dances inspired by Vienna's Hungarian gypsy bands.
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Over the generations, the singing of these spirituals soon developed into the blues and gospel songs that became popular in the 1920s.
By the time the phonograph came along, companies only recorded these “spiritual” and gospel songs with White performers. In 1920, following her success as a blues singer, Mary Smith became the first African-American singer to make a commercial record, but they still recorded her with an all-White back-up band. The producer “had received threats from Northern and Southern pressure groups saying they would boycott the company if he recorded a Black singer. Despite these threats the record was a commercial success and opened the door for more Black musicians to record.”
Given how something like This Little Light of Mine could grow into a world of music shining far beyond its roots, pardon my metaphors, it is something else to think about when listening to them in a recital setting. Given arrangements to complement their original style, supplying simple harmonies, they also prove capable of more complex treatments just as many of the folksongs that inspired Dvořák or were imitated by composers as diverse as Brahms, Mussorgsky or Bartók (I will always remember a violinist friend listening to Bartók's 4th Quartet, how “this must be what 'down-home music' sounds like to a Hungarian”).
The arrangers of these songs, in their own ways, elevated their status to the level of Art Songs whether by Schubert or Rachmaninoff and made them available to a wider audience. Here are Lucy Miller Murray's biographical sketches for each of the arrangers, quoted from her program notes:
Baltimore-born Thomas Kerr (1915-1988) dreamed of attending the Peabody Conservatory but, since African American students were not admitted at that time, he attended Howard University and later continued his studies at the Eastman School of Music where he completed his Bachelor of Music degree in piano and his Master’s degree in music theory. He later returned to Howard University as a Professor of Piano and Chairman of the Piano Department. He composed more than one hundred works including those for piano, voice, organ, choir, and chamber ensembles and was awarded numerous prizes. Sadly, he died in a car accident at the age of seventy-three.
Undine Moore (1904-1989) was considered the “Dean of Black Women Composers” and a distinguished classical pianist and teacher. She wrote numerous vocal works many of which were inspired by Black spirituals and folk music. She attended Fisk, an historically Black college, and received a scholarship to Juilliard and later studied at Columbia, the Manhattan School of Music, and Eastman. She was the recipient of many distinguished awards. Her numerous works include twenty-one art songs for solo voice and accompaniment.
[Born in Athens GA], Francis Hall Johnson (1888-1970) achieved fame for his arrangements of African-American spiritual music as well as for his performances as a violinist and violist. [As a child, he was inspired to play the violin after hearing a recital by the grandson of Frederick Douglass.] He was also noted for his music [conducting the choirs] for such films as The Green Pastures [with its all-Black cast], Lost Horizon, and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Among the singers he coached were Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin Sr.
Moses Hogan (1957-2003) is yet another American composer and arranger best-known for his settings of spirituals. He is considered to have revitalized the Negro spiritual tradition. Along with Deep River that we hear on this program, his many works also include such famous ones as Abide With Me and Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Mark Markham has importantly pointed out that this program is a collection Negro Spirituals, not folk songs, but that they are at the level of American art songs which have been arranged by the composers listed in the program. Of special note is Mr. Markham’s arrangement of Deep River that we hear on this program. He played the work at Jessye Norman’s funeral:
Chicago-born Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) was one of the first Black composers to gain recognition in the US and is best remembered today for her arrangements of African-American spirituals. She studied with Florence Price and later at Northwestern University and the Juilliard School and with Nadia Boulanger. Her father was an active force in the civil rights movement as was Bonds herself and her musician mother. Bonds worked closely with Langston Hughes and set much of his work to music.
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– Dick Strawser