Go Down, Moses

April/May 2002

Program Notes

 I.  ESHU O

 

 Opening Libation:  Mama Edie, Oba William King, Momma Kemba

 Eshu O Elegbada E

trad. Ghanaian;
choral arrangement by Jonathan Miller

 II. THE SLAVE SHIPS

 

 The Slave Ships

arr. J. Miller

 Chained and Bound

trad. spiritual, taught by Oba William King

 I couldn’t hear nobody pray

arr. William Henry Smith

 III. “NEGROES FOR SALE!”

 

 “Negroes for Sale!”

Jonathan Miller

 Hush! Somebody’s callin’ my name

arr. Brazeal Dennard

 Fix me, Jesus

arr. Hall Johnson

 IV. ON THE PLANTATION

 

 Walk togedder, childron

ed. Nathaniel Dett

 Wade in the water

Traditional

 Hold on!
 

arr. Jester Hairston

 Steal Away

arr. Joseph Jennings

INTERMISSION

 IV.  ON THE PLANTATION (continued)

 

 Go Down, Moses

arr. Fisk Jubilee Singers

 Elijah Rock

arr. Moses Hogan

 Run to Jesus

arr. Fisk Jubilee Singers

 V. OH, FREEDOM

 

 Oh, Freedom!

arr. Hall Johnson

 Ella’s Song

Bernice Johnson Reagon

 

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to an immersion in the world from which the African-American spiritual came to be. This is, I believe, the most emotionally compelling show that Chicago a cappella has ever performed—that’s my humble opinion, and I’ve been in all of them to date. We’re glad you’re here.

Three years ago, in the spring of 1999, we sang a concert of spirituals. Our audiences clamored for a recording of that music. With the NEA’s help, two years ago, we did make that CD; you can take it home with you tonight.

While most of the repertoire is the same, this show overall is quite different from the 1999 one. The story we’re telling tonight required a change from the “stand up and sing” format so common in choral music. Once the storytelling team got immersed in the emotional content of black history, the entire production moved well beyond what I initially imagined. Here’s how it happened.

Revisiting the Spirituals: Knowing the Moan

One year ago, while planning the current season, I decided to revisit this beloved repertoire, and go deeper with it than we had ever gone before. Chicago a cappella has sung spirituals since our debut, and we feel comfortable with the genre. For this production, however, I intended that we would take a quantum leap in the depth of our interpretations of spirituals. I’ve known for some time that, as the musical director, I myself needed to move aside in a sense, and let forces come into play that I had heretofore resisted.

For the 1999 concerts I had intentionally left out one element of the African-American emotional and musical experience that gave rise to the spiritual. That element is the moan. The moan is the very quality that most white singers find so elusive.

For our 1999 concert, I had telephoned Professor William Dargan, a scholar from Raleigh, North Carolina, to see if I was on the right track. While he was mostly supportive, Professor Dargan insisted that if our program was going to be truly complete, it would have to include the moan. “Oh, sure,” I thought at the time, “it would be nice to get to that, but we don’t have time.” He was pointing to the very thing I knew I needed, which had a spiritual quality I couldn’t quite grasp.

You will know the moan when you hear it. You already do. It is as central to the African-American experience as is the brutal Middle Passage. The moan is the product, in sound, of that most horrific experience.

I am grateful that adults are teachable. In preparing for this show, I have been on a personal journey—a journey of stories, with the emotional content that only stories can carry. I have heard from my collaborators countless stories about the brutality of slavery, and about the injustices that have continued and still continue in American society, despite the advancement of policies and the passage of laws.

Because this production is a marriage of history and song, it seemed essential to first create the story, around which the music would be woven. I turned first to my trusted colleague Megan Wells, who co-created our Nordic Wolf production with me last year. Megan has served the Go Down, Moses project in countless ways, working as facilitator, conduit, translator of music-speak into actor/teller-speak, narrative consultant, stage director, and spiritual sister for me during this process. In all these capacities she has gone well beyond the call of duty, and I thank her.

Creating the Team

Megan and decided right away to find, and talk to, the Chicago area’s top black storytellers. Last July, Megan and I met with each of the three storytellers, telling them in turn about our vision for the project. Each teller has a unique energy and perspective, qualities which give a richness to the production.

Megan and I met Mama Edie first. Over lunch at the Medici in Hyde Park, which that day happened to be crawling with storytellers of all stripes, Edie immediately warmed to the idea that we could use the production to build bridges across our huge racial divides. This sensitivity is one of her greatest gifts. Edie told us several stories of her own history, and of others’ journeys toward justice and truth-telling, which I found compelling and inspiring. From her I learned about razor plants, about the dignity that lives in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, and about the sense of being home that is so difficult for African-Americans to find in this country.

Momma Kemba is a perpetual teacher. She hands me something to read every time I see her. I have always come away from her presence with a deepened sense of African-American history and of the demand for justice. She always reminds me that the versions of American history, and especially of African-American history, that I am likely to hear as a Caucasian American are frequently not to be trusted, or at least not to be taken uncritically. She can pierce you with a stare that asks, “Are you really sure of that?”—a loving skepticism which is also a gift. I will never forget Kemba’s question at our first meeting: “How do you know you ain’t black?”

Oba is a fount of energy—focused, quick, fiery, intense, and, like me, highly auditory. His laser-beam energy kicked in quickly when we first met. Within twenty minutes of discussing the project over breakfast, he started hearing the production. With our eggs and coffee in front of us, he asked me to hum a moan, and he overlaid the music with an improvised version of the slave-ship narrative. We knew from the start that talking about the slave ships would be an essential part of the narrative, including naming the ships themselves and telling of their cargo. The way he grabbed onto the sheer sound of the show told me that our energies would be a good match.

I’ll never forget the day when Megan and I realized, “We’ve got to work with all three of them!” The team has given the production a powerful energy. Megan, Edie, Kemba, and Oba all met together for the first time at my house in September, over a huge lunch. (Food has been essential to this gestation process, just as when a mother eats for two.)  At that first meeting, Kemba and Edie said, as nicely as they could, that they had some reservations about our performing style. It was clearly my turn to learn, so I asked them what they meant. They proceeded to demonstrate the moan.

Why the Story Matters

Here is the paradox: the quality I was looking for in the music didn’t come from the music itself at all. However, I had not had access to these stories. The stories truly made all the difference.

When Kemba, Oba, and Edie sat in my dining room and told story after story, and I heard the voice of captured Africans on board ship, and of King Prempie, and of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and of slaves walking from the auction block, away from family, to a new plantation and owner, then those qualities which I craved in the music of African-Americans started to truly live.  (I told Megan later that some intuitive part of me knew that something would be amiss in this production if the black storytellers didn’t outnumber her and me.)

Narrative does indeed enable us to construct our world, as individuals and as groups. I have been fascinated and amused to learn of recent scientific research that confirms the centrality of the narrative function in the development of the human brain. Young children, babbling stories about themselves and their families and surroundings, are creating synaptic connections in the process. This makes sense intuitively. Why should stories not literally create the world for us, as so many creation myths imply?

I will never again assume the mindset that I know “how it was” for African-Americans under slavery, or even how it is now. Let me give you a simple example. Shortly after Megan and I had met with each of the tellers in turn, I stumbled upon the following passage in Frederick Douglass’s autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.

The search for completeness is not over, even though the Fourteenth Amendment has been on the books for almost 150 years. When Edie told me that Ghana was the first place where she felt she was truly and completely at home, a feeling she had never had on this side of the Atlantic, she enlightened a fundamental truth about the forced taking of Africans to America that is often overlooked. There is a sense of home that white Americans take for granted, which black Americans have largely not experienced. White Americans have not been stopped driving through neighborhoods where we “shouldn’t” be; we haven’t been discriminated against solely because of our skin color; we haven’t been red-lined; we’ve had the vote since well before the 1960s.

You have probably had an experience where learning some key theme or trend in history gave you an entirely new perspective on your place in the world. Perhaps tonight the same will happen for you. In any event, I encourage you to just take it in, all of it—the songs and the stories—and see what resonates for you the most. Perhaps, like me, you will no longer be able to separate the spiritual from the stories, and perhaps that is a good thing. Time will tell.

* * * * *

The most meaningful comment about our 1999 spirituals concerts came to me from a woman in Hyde Park, who said, “You took me right back to my childhood, when we would listen to Wings Over Jordan on the radio. This was just like that all over again.” That moment was one of many epiphanies I’ve had with spirituals. It confirmed in spoken words my strong intuition that a musical style truly can be learned, that it can come to live in your bones. For a white man, directing a mostly white ensemble, to be able to touch the African-American community in this way is the ultimate honor, because I myself have been so touched by this music, and so lovingly coached to make it live and breathe. Of course, mostly-Caucasian ensembles have been singing spirituals since shortly after the Fisk Jubilee Singers started touring. Indeed, the first Northeners to attempt to write down slave songs were abolitionists working on the eastern seaboard.

I would like to pay special tribute to all the singers, who worked so hard during the concerts, rehearsals, and the recording sessions that produced our spirituals CD. I extend a profound thanks to Trevor Mitchell, who shares with me a deep love for this repertoire, and whose coaching on style and language contributed immeasurably to the end result.

There is something available in the spiritual that is not present in any other musical genre.  In addition to its sheer musical beauty, the power of the spiritual is in its demand for justice and compassion. I am often awestruck that an oppressed people created a repertoire with such universality of outlook. It’s no wonder that European and Asian concert audiences crave spirituals from touring American choirs. A story as painful as the story of American slavery can still be told in a way that affirms who we are as human beings. That’s our goal, in addition to doing our work as performers to deliver this story and to sing some of the most powerful music ever created on this earth. Tell us afterward if we succeeded. Thanks again for being here.