Go Down, Moses

May 1999

Program Notes

I.  African-American and Christianity: The Second Great Awakening

Go, preach my gospel ("Dr. Watts" -style hymn) traditional South Carolina style, transcribed by William Dargan
The Old Ship of Zion Sacred Harp
Walk Togedder, Childron Hampton Institute songbook

II.  The Underground Raildroad and the "Invisible Church"  


Run to Jesus from Fisk Collection
Steal Away arr.Joseph Jennings
In dat great gittin' up mornin' trad., arr. Jester Hairston

III.  The Spiritual Goes North: Emancipation and Cross-Pollination

We shall walk thro' the valley from Fisk Collection
Hold On White Holiness tradition, from rural Kentucky
Hold On arr. Jester Hairston



IV.  Black and White Spirituals Come of Age

Fix Me, Jesus arr. Hall Johnson
Calling My Children Home Lawson/Waller/Yates
Oh, Freedom! arr. Emmylou Harris
Hush! Somebody's calling my name arr. Brazeal Dennard
Roll, Jordan, Roll arr. Nashville Bluegrass Band

V.  Old Testament, New Setting    


"Go Down, Moses" from Birth of Soul (1996) Peter Saltzman
Elijah Rock arr. Moses Hogan

Tracing the roots of the African-American spiritual: A journey into history
by Jonathan Miller

In this concert, we’re doing two things.  We’re celebrating our rich tradition and shared heritage of spirituals, white and black.  We’re also delving deeply into the origins of the African-American spiritual, one of our nation’s most beloved musical styles. 

The first part is rather straightforward.  It’s not that hard to compile a program of spirituals, since good arrangements are in abundance and the singing style can be learned after sufficient, exposure to the idiom.  I am sure you will enjoy the music, both old and newer.

The second part, looking for the origin of the spirituals, is much more difficult.  You may wonder why this is so important to me; the answer is rampant curiosity, about both the subject matter (which I love) and the process (which I am just learning to understand).  How do we learn about music that came from a time before us, and which originated in oral traditions?  How do we trace anything in our culture at all, or in other cultures, for that matter?  How are ideas, cultures, trends shaped and made available to later generations? 

Our present-day sense of the spiritual is a combination of oral transmission, personal experience, recordings we’ve heard, myth and stereotype, plus what precious little is actually known of the historical record.  I started this project like a good performer/scholar, doing research on a well-defined topic.  I decided to read a lot of books and articles.  I expected to glean from my labors a strong set of conclusions, ringing with certainty.

I made some opening assumptions.  I assumed that, starting in the late 1600s with the earliest American slave trade, black Americans gradually but thoroughly converted to Christianity.  I assumed that, over a period of about 200 years, a clear set of factors would have combined to create the spiritual by 1800 or so: continued oppression, faith in Jesus, and musical styles retained from Africa.  I assumed that spirituals, as a genre, were well solidified in the mid- 1700s and came to glory around 1800. 

I thought I knew a thing or two about spirituals.  I was right about recent music, but as far as the early historical record goes, I was mostly wrong.  This was kind of scary for a while.  (After all, I have a Ph.D in musicology.)  Ten years ago, while in graduate school, I had read extensively about early American sacred music.  And I have sung spirituals myself for almost thirty years. 

As I write these notes, I am somewhat relieved.  I now have read most of the major several minor publications on the early history of spirituals.  Bad news: I have much less concrete detail than I’d hoped.  Good news: nobody seems to have much information, and virtually no printed sources for the actual tunes and the famous texts.  I don’t feel as stupid as I did half a year ago, just still ignorant. 

But the questions remains:  where did the African-American spiritual come from?  The most important research in this area had been done by Dena J. Epstein, a Chicago resident who is the former curator of the recordings collection at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.  (I took and independent study course from her in college; at the time I had no idea what a giant she is in the field of black American music.)  Over a period of twenty years, Epstein combed historical documents in the United States and the West Indies, to attempt to create an accurate historical record for the whole of black fold music before the Civil War.  Her monumental effort remains as the most significant documentary wok on the religious and musical environments in which the black spiritual shaped. 

Epstein observes the African-Americans’ conversion to Christianity “was an essential precondition for the emergence of the Negro spiritual.”  True enough; but her timeline surprised me.  In particular, she found nothing to demonstrate that southern blacks were converted to Christianity in any serious way or any significant proportion before 1800.  The critical date is probably more like 1810 or even 1820, maybe even 1830.  She notes, “The saintly pious slave personified by Uncle Tom did not evolve until the second quarter of the nineteenth century.”

Before the American Revolutions, slaveholders cared little for the souls of their property.  (You’ll hear some of their thoughts on the topic as we read from the documents which Epstein cites.)  Because so very few blacks were converted prior to 1750, the cultural conditions necessary for the creation of a black Christian fold genre simply did not exist.  Around 1760, however, things began slowly to change: southern blacks who were converted found great delight in singing the psalms and hymns of Isaac Watts, whose emotional, personal religious poems struck a powerful chord in both white and black hearts.   Letters do survive in which church officials request additional copies of Watt’s poetry for the express purpose of giving slaves good things to sing. 

I would give almost anything to time-travel back to the years from 1800 to 1835, with my Walkman and a Polaroid camera.  As far as we can tell, these are the years during the spiritual, or distinctive black religious music, began to take shape as its own musical genre.  Despite strong interests from both blacks and whites in the spirituals’ history, and despite more than 125 years since the first publication of slave songs, precious little is known about the way spirituals developed.  Epstein has written convincingly about the camp-meeting as a breeding-ground for early spirituals: conditions there were ripe for improvised singling, including the lively and personal embrace of Christianity common to whites and blacks, the slaves’ constant interest in music which kept call-and-response musical elements from Africa alive in the work songs and folk songs; and so on.  Spirituals of this type share some characteristics with white religious fold music: a preference for call-and-response structures, lively refrains, and “wandering couplets,” pairs of poetic lines that migrate from hymn to hymn.  Such features are prominent in the early white “shape-note: hymnals, notable Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second, a surprisingly good source for what scholars feel are transcriptions of camp-meetings and revival hymns. 

Scholars have only recently scratched the surface to find more common elements between white and black music from this period.  Much remains to be done, for both scholars and performers.  The field is full of enthusiastic researchers who (luckily for the rest of us) keep their musical sensibilities in the forefront as they engage in the intricacies of the musical research.  Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is an authority on West African musical traditions and their survivals here, a topic also currently being investigated by the tireless Samuel Floyd, director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College, Chicago. 

No work of history is ever able to take account of everything, and this concert is no exception to that rule.  In a sense, this program may be best considered a work in progress, a first installment in an ongoing series that digs deeply into the history of the spiritual, both white and black.  There are several subgenres of the spiritual, which no ninety-minute program can include fully.  Foremost among these is the ring shout, probably the single most important musical holdover from African tradition; the ring shout allowed African Americans to retain a cultural identity during centuries of oppression and disconnection from their lands of origin.  Likewise, there are important composers and arrangers whose work is regrettably beyond the scope of this program.  In particular, we have barely scratched the surface here of the splendid recent work of Robert Harris, Moses Hogan, and Pamela Warrick-Smith, among dozens of others.  It also goes without saying that the entire relationship, both historical and musical, between spirituals and gospel music deserves a program unto itself.  We will come back to this great musical tradition frequently, in small part on some future programs and in large part on others.  For now, I invite you to enjoy, on all the levels that one can, this journey to a time before any of us were born, a time whose tales are told by the music which survives on paper and in the ears and hearts of millions who hold it dear.


A personal note is in order here.  When I moved to Chicago, at age nine, from a very white Boston suburb, I had no idea that I would immediately begin taking a lifelong journey into the music of black America, which would indelibly stamp my musical sensibilities and profoundly affect my career choices.  It is safe to say that if I hadn’t grown up in Hyde Park in the 1970s, during the flourishing of the Black Power movement and the great successes of those committed to an integrated society, I would probably be conducting an all-early music group now.  I would like to take a moment to express personally my gratitude to the singers, arrangers, teachers, and others who have inspired me for years with their commitment to the music of Black America; while I cannot name them all, I particularly thank Lena J. McLin, one of the most important black musicians in Chicago, who was my choir director and voice teacher at Kenwood Academy; the late Joseph Brewer, who taught me gospel-music voicings by ear in the Chicago Children’s Choir during the late 1970s; Christopher Moore, the Children’s Choir founder, who believed in power of the spiritual to draw together people from widely varied personal and social backgrounds; as well as the hundreds of singers with whom is has been my great fortune to make music during my twenty-seven years as a singer.  I feel a great humility and gratitude to have gratitude to have been able to participate and share in one of the great art forms of humankind, one perpetually grounded in faith and search for justice while bind us as a single human family.  My deep thanks to you all. 

-Jonathan Miller

Notes on Composers, Arrangers, and Individual Works

Fisk Jubilee Singers Collection:  Go Down, Moses
This simple setting comes from the famous early publication from 1876 called The Story of the Jubilee Singers, With Their Songs, published on the heels of the Jubilee Singers’ first major concert tour.  Several later editions followed, each adding new tunes with the Fisk singers made popular. 

ed. William Dargan: Go preach my gospel (“Dr. Watts” style)
I first learned this tune at the Library and Archives of the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College Chicago.  William Dargan wrote an excellent article called “Congregational Singing Traditions in South Carolina” (Black Music Research Journal 15/1, pp. 29-70).  He has been most helpful to me in pointing out the differences in styles by this region as well as genre, and his transcriptions are very good.  While this is not the most representative style of Southern “Dr. Watts” singing, it has strong character, and a nicely balanced structure to reflect the two-line couplets in the poetry. 

Sacred Harp: The Old Ship of Zion
I love bringing back old favorites, of which this is one.  I first sand this tune in spring 1985, when Anne Heider included it in her rollicking program “Music in the New World” for his Majestie’s Clerkes.  Its structure and text gives it away as a camp-meeting on revival tune.

from the Hampton Institute book: Walk Togedder, Childron
Every program has its “true find,” a piece I stumble upon toward the end of my research.  This fabulous tune comes from Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro, a book containing dozens of superb early arrangements from the Hampton Institute choirs.  Their touring success followed that of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  The Hampton tunes tend to have split bass parts and chords more densely filled in than their Fisk counterparts.  This is a contender for the #1 spiritual with the most joy brimming over the top.  By the way, “mourn” means a declaration of faith, not sadness; to “mourn an’ nebber tire” means unceasing praise.

Run to Jesus
I was astounded to learn that a simple song prompted Frederick Douglas to first think of running away from the farm where he was a slave.  The modality is unusual; it sounds more like a white Appalachian tune in its shifting tonal center, or even like a troubadour melody.  In any event, the message is unmistakable: there is anticipation in the words, “I don’t expect to stay much longer here,” which can almost make one think that tonight is the night of escape. 

Steal Away
Joseph Jennings, Music Director for Chanticleer since 1984, is also known as a skillful arranger of spirituals.  He grew up in Alabama, where gospel quartets like the Clara Ward Singers were his first idols.  A countertenor himself, he loves exploiting high vocal ranges as well as the low E-flats that constantly recur in the bass.  Very few people I know can sustain a deliciously slow tempo the way Joe can

Hairston: In dat great gittin’ up mornin’
Jester Hairston was one of the first African-American musicians to successfully exploit the broadcast medium to spread the black spiritual around the country.  After many years working under Hall Johnson and appearing on early nationally broadcast radio shows, Hairston moved on to film scored and continued to publish influential arrangements.  He retains classic black-spiritual voicings in this setting, while adding the nice touch of ongoing upward key changes to give a palpable sense of “gittin’ up,” or dead rising on Judgment Day. 

Fisk Collection: We shall walk thro’ the valley
Several songs in the Jubilee Singers’ collection are slow and stately, like this one, which we sing like a “straight” church hymn with no embellishment.  Later setting of this text retain its grandue and dignity; there is a constant sense of slow walking in the rhythm, which needs little else to make its point.

Hold On! (white and black versions)
I love tunes like this where excellent versions survive from both the white and black traditions.  “Hold On” is a staple of the African-American idiom, also surviving to our own time in white settings by groups like the Nashville Bluegrass Band.  The women’s setting was published by Cecil Sharp in 1917, in the pathbreaking collection English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians.  The playful setting almost suggests rope-skipping or other physical activity to go with the singing.  The white version seems to emphasize the slipperiness of Satan, who will snare you at every turn.  By contract, Hairston’s thunderous setting brings out the sense of a rock-solid gospel plow, which provides great steadiness amid turbulent waters.  I’m sure that a CD could be made, just comparing versions of this tune. 


arr. Hall Johnson: Fix me, Jesus
Preparing to die is an important rite of passage, especially for black Christians.  This song asks Jesus to help “fix” (get one ready) one for death; the word “fix” means “make one ready” as well as “fit” (as in fitting one for the long white rode).  As you can hear, this is a deliberate process, not to be rushed. 

Lawson/Waller/Yates: Calling My Children Home
Emmylou Harris, the country/folk singer, has done a great public service through dozens of recordings of white spirituals in bluegrass-harmony arrangements.  With her band the Nash Ramblers, she performed this song in concert at the famous Ryman Theater in Nashville, and recorded it on the CD that I bought about ten years ago.  This is a more recent composition than most of the others on this program, but it captures beautifully the voicings of white bluegrass singing and shows well the close kinship to black vocal styles that can sometimes get obscured by typical “country” instrumentation.

arr. Hall Johnson: Oh,  Freedom!
This setting switches nicely from full-chorus to a lush men’s quartet scoring about halfway through.  The quartet, both female and male, is as central to the black spiritual as it is to white-gospel and barbershop singing. 

arr. Brazeal Dennard: Hush! Somebody’s calling my name
Dennard is one of the leading arrangers of the current generation.  I particularly like the simplicity of this arrangement, which, like Hall Johnson’s selections, retain a classic scoring of the four voice parts.  There’s nothing flashy here, just good, straightforward music. 

arr. Nashville Bluegrass Band: Roll, Jordan, Roll
We first performed this arrangement three years ago, on our “Ain’t That Good News” program.  It came to me courtesy of my brother-in-law, Tim Evans, who has amassed a terrific selection of recordings during a lifetime mostly lived in or around the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.  The year before our daughter was born, Tim sent my wife and me a fantastic cassette tape, with this tune as part of the compilation.  The bass doesn’t usually get the lead in white bluegrass singing, so it’s nice to be able to assign myself a solo from time to time. 

Peter Saltzman: Go Down, Moses
Peter Saltzman, a respected pianist, composer and conductor, is founder and artistic director of The Revolution Ensemble, which he began in 1977.  Since he began composing at age 10, he has written in almost every major musical medium, including sing, solo piano, chamber, orchestral, choral, opera, jazz combo, big band, film and dance.  Among his major works are three string quartets, seven orchestral pieces, four trios for piano and other instruments, an opera (Conneat), numerous solo piano works, a song cycle based on “The Song of Songs” and a quintet for winds.  His music has been performed throughout the Unites States, Mexico and Europe.  The Czech National Symphony Orchestra recorded his orchestral dance suite Walls release on the A&R label.  Peter has received many grants, awards and commissions, including an ASCAP Composers Prize.  He studies jazz and composition at Indiana University, Bloomington, and composition and piano at Eastman School of Music.  His music is published by Oxford University Press. 

This piece is a new concert setting of a movement from Peter’s six-movement suite, Birth of Soul, Part 1.  He wrote is for the voices of Chicago a cappella in early 1996; we premiered it a few months later.  Peter calls this work a “Jewish spirituals-blues suite.”  The tune is not only a staple of the black spirituals repertory, found in print as far back as the Fisk collection, but it’s also routinely sung at Passover Seders by American Jewish families as they recall their own bondage in Egypt. 

arr. Moses Hogan: Elijah Rock
Moses George Hogan is one of the nation’s most prolific, well-known, and important arrangers of African-American spirituals.  He is founder and director of the Moses Hogan Chorale, an ensemble which for a decade or so has taken audiences nationwide by storm and has just completed its final touring season, having been featured at the national ACDA conventions and other prestigious venues; his ensemble has also made several acclaimed recordings. 

This setting of “Elijah” occupies the other end of the intricacy spectrum from Brazeal Dennar’s “Hush.”  Hogan’s work is the most rhythmically complex arrangements of any spiritual I know; it conveys a whole host of ideas brilliantly, including a sense of religious ecstasy almost approaching a ring shout, the simultaneous layered complexity of many shirt phrases, and the rock-solid bass, representing the “rock” on which Moses stood.  Hogan, a gifted pianist, clearly knows his blues chords, which spice up harmonies nicely in the slow middle section.  Incidentally, this piece is also great fun to sing. 

-Jonathan Miller