Roll, Jordan, Roll:
The Spiritual, Old and New

February 2010

Program Notes


I Want to be Ready

arr. Moses Hogan


arr. Jack Halloran
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We Shall Walk Through the Valley

arr. Fisk Jubilee Singers
Hear de Lambs a-Cryin’ arr. Paul Carey

* * * * * *

I’ve been ‘buked  arr. Hall Johnson

Give Me Jesus

 arr. Lela Anderson

* * * * * *
Save Me, Lord!   Robert L. Morris
Amen Jester Hairston

* * * * * *

Crucifixion arr. Adolphus Hailstork
Roll, Jordan, Roll arr. Rollo Dilworth


Selections from guest youth ensemble:  

Feb. 6: Naperville North High School Chorale, Jim Yarbrough, director

Feb.7: Merit Singers from Merit School of Music, Mary Martell, director
Feb. 13: Bazao A Cappella from Evanston Township High School, Mary Theresa Reed, director
Feb. 14: A Cappella Choir from Oak Park and River Forest High School, Elaine Hlavach, director
Combined ensembles:
Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ My Name

arr. Brazeal Dennard

  * * * * * *  
Am I a Soldier of the Cross arr. Joseph Jennings

* * * * * *

Go Down, Moses

arr. Robert A. Harris

Oh, Freedom!

arr. Hall Johnson

encore: Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel arr. Paul Crabtree


Celebrating the Gift of the African-American Spiritual

opening thoughts from Jonathan Miller

Speaking in very broad strokes, we can say that three broad categories contain the greatest musical gifts that African-Americans have given to the musical traditions of the United States: the spiritual, gospel music, and jazz. Everything else— rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, funk, and hip-hop—springs from these three foundations, at least in my view.

If you were with us for Baroque and Beatles in October, you may have heard WXRT’s radio host Terri Hemmert talk about the college course that she teaches on the “History of Rock & Soul.” In her teaching, she reaches way back to the 1920s in order to show young people that hip-hop did not simply spring out of nowhere; rather, hip-hop is only possible because of what musically came before. Taking her historical view back further still, it’s clear that those 1920s records that propelled hip-hop are in turn only possible because of the spiritual and its related forms such as work songs—which have been with us for more than two hundred years—and the forms that followed them, such as jazz and blues.

* * * * *

We don’t know exactly how the spirituals came about. Perhaps they were written in different ways. Maybe there was a single slave working in a field humming to himself or herself and working out words and melodies, and the person with the idea would work them out in small groups or teach the new idea to others back in the cabin at the end of the work day. Some of the songs may have begun life as riffs from melodies brought over from Africa, with new words added in as slaves learned biblical stories and their message of deliverance from bondage.

More likely to me, however is a sense that the spiritual was from the beginning a group effort. We know that there was a huge wave of hymn-writing that occurred during the camp-meeting revival movement of the early 1800s—the result of thousands of people worshipping together. We also have countless stories of slaves secretly going to secluded places in the woods and performing the “ring shout,” a form of song and dance with an ecstatic release. The ring shout had a special power that seems to have truly threatened slaveowners to the point where the practice was banned, hence the need to perform it in secret. Scholars talk over and over about the ring shout as the truest form of African-American spirituality and the locus of its power—and, at the risk of stating the obvious, you cannot have a ring shout without a ring of people.

The central characteristic of the spiritual is “the moan”—that fundamental grounding in the sorrow of a people who were subjected to cruelty as a matter of course. Nevertheless, I always feel better after singing a spiritual. It doesn’t matter much what the text is. I would guess that spirituals affect others in similar ways. I even feel better after listening to spirituals if I’m not singing. Other writers have praised the deep quality of spirituals wherein they affirm our common humanity; and once again there is that quality of “we,” that we are not alone, not even in our suffering.

* * * * *

It was right after the end of the Civil War that the African-American spiritual began its long move from the plantation to the concert hall. White slaveholders in the South had been mostly uninterested in their workers’ music, except as it might help them become better Christians. However, Northern abolitionists started collecting the slaves’ songs before the end of the Civil War, and the first published book of Negro spirituals was issued in 1867 under the title Slave Songs of the United States. As early as 1852, transcriptions of slave songs were being sent to one of the volume’s editors, Lucy McKim Garrison, by her uncle John, who lived in Georgetown, Delaware. In fact, the farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, owned by Ms. Garrison’s grandfather Micajah Speakman, was a stop on the Underground Railroad. (You can read more of the wonderful story in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War by Dena Epstein, one of the most important scholarly volumes ever written on the development of the spiritual.)

We owe much of the concert-hall tradition to the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers. This ensemble was created at Fisk University in Nashville, a school that was founded in 1866 with the promise that young men and women could receive a liberal-arts education “irrespective of color.” However, by 1871 the school was in economic turmoil. George White, Fisk’s treasurer and music professor, led the effort to have the school’s choir tour to raise money. Much was needed to shore up the university’s finances, which had deteriorated dramatically in the school’s first five years.

On October 6, 1871—only two days before the Great Chicago Fire—the Fisk Jubilee Singers departed the campus on its first concert tour. Indeed, at one of the tour’s early concerts, in Cincinnati, the choir raised the sum of $50, which was sent to Chicago to aid victims of the Fire. Gradually the singers gained popularity and were able to raise more than their expenses, thus earning money to build permanent buildings on campus. The choir’s repertoire was published in an anthology which was sold around the world: the first publication of spirituals designed for concert use.

* * * * *

You will hear several sub-styles of music today, all under the rubric of “the spiritual.” We can list these in an order from simplest to most musically complex, based on what the arranger has decided to do with the material at hand. The simplest musical setting is that of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (“We Shall Walk Through the Valley”), a simple harmonization of a gentle melody. In a similar vein is “Hush! Somebody’s Calling my Name,” set by Brazeal Dennard from Detroit. Add a little more harmony and an intense rhythmic drive, and you get Joseph Jennings’s version of a “Dr. Watts”-style congregational psalm.

Next in line come the settings of Hall Johnson (“I’ve been ‘buked” and “Oh, Freedom!”), which capture the increasingly sophisticated harmonies of arrangers from the first half of the 20th century. Moses Hogan seems to come from the same general school of thought, though he is known for virtuoso touches that can knock you off your seat when you least expect it. Jack Halloran’s “Witness” is in a style similar to Hogan’s—open, declarative, strong, and harmonically lush, expanding to eight voice parts at the end.

It also is a great pleasure to be able to introduce you to a more recent generation of arrangers, who stretch the musical language of the spiritual further still. These musicians include Lela Anderson, Rollo Dilworth, Robert Harris, Robert Leigh Morris, Adolphus Hailstork, Paul Carey, and Jack Halloran. (All but the last two arrangers are African American.) The talent in this group of arrangers is top-drawer. We might say, by way of a hopefully useful image, that these more recent works are musical planets that continue to orbit the same sun of the spiritual while spinning a little further out in their paths than do some of the more conservative earlier settings. These newer arrangements are still in the same solar system that we call the spiritual, bound by its pull, integrally related, of like substance.

For those of you interested in an overview of some of the inner workings in these newer settings, here are a few details. Anderson, Morris and Dilworth pull the harmonic language in a jazz-inflected direction, with Morris pulling in influences of gospel quartets and Dilworth that of groups like Take 6. Both Hailstork and Harris are masters of counterpoint, weaving countermelodies in and out of the main tune (Hailstork’s masterful “Crucifixion” almost feels like Palestrina at times, with different building blocks from Renaissance church music but composed using similar principles). Carey takes a slightly different direction, weaving the tune “You hear de lambs a-cryin’” in and around itself in a sort of canon while maintaining the forward drive of the entire chorus.

* * * * *

When I think of singing spirituals, it is almost always with the sense of being in a group. While spirituals are sung mostly in the first person, they are generally sung collectively. Singers of spirituals form a community of people, all singing of a common feeling (such as “I want to go to heaven when I die” or “I’ve been ‘buked”). There are exceptions where the narrative voice is plural, such as “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” or “We shall walk through the valley” or “We shall overcome.” Yet more often than not, the spiritual speaks in a personal, individual voice, proclaimed in a song form that requires many. Even when hearing solo recordings of the greats Paul Robeson or Marian Anderson singing spirituals, I always have a sense that they are singing for us all. Perhaps it is the historical connection between the spiritual and the struggle for social justice and racial equality that gives us (or at least me) these associations.

* * * * *

I wish to share with you a quality of the African-American spiritual that we seem to intuitively feel but find it hard to describe or discuss. I hope that I can write about this feeling adequately.

It seems to me that, for many of us, the spiritual has at its essence the quality of a gift. There is a sense that we have been given the spiritual through grace—through no merit of our own, simply by something outside of ourselves. A gift is not meant to be hoarded; it is meant to be shared, to be passed on to others. It did not come from us and does not accrue to our credit, and we must give it away if it is to have lasting value and power. The spiritual is part of our cultural heritage, and it powerfully enriches our lives—but none of us owns it.

(I realize that my African-American brothers and sisters may have a different experience and may feel differently. In any event, I would hope that something of the sense of the spirituals being a gift from prior generations has something of the ring of truth, and I would appreciate any feedback or clarification on the topic.)

* * * * *

In our rehearsals, Chicago a cappella’s singers and music staff work to create a unified ensemble in terms of style, tuning, dialect, and more. We do so not simply in order to “get it right” or to try to hit some oft-elusive sound ideal. There is more to it than that. We have a sense of honor, that the music deserves our best selves. I am sure that many musicians and artists feel that way about their art form. Hall Johnson wrote of the genre in which he excelled:

True enough, this music was transmitted to us through humble channels, but its source is that of all great art everywhere—the unquenchable, divinely human longing for a perfect realization of life. It traverses every shade of emotion without spilling over in any direction. Its most tragic utterances are without pessimism, and its lightest, brightest moments have nothing to do with frivolity. In its darkest expressions there is always a hope, and in its gayest measures a constant reminder. Born out of the heart-cries of a captive people who still did not forget how to laugh, this music covers an amazing range of mood. Nevertheless, it is always serious music and should be performed seriously, in the spirit of its original conception.

For me personally, the spiritual is one of the few genres at the top of my list of types of repertoire that deserve exactly this kind of care. Perhaps that is why we keep doing them.

* * * * *

The gift of the spiritual from us to you might be said to move something like this: first, we hear about it. The arrangement is somehow brought to our (usually my) attention, through personal connections with singers or composers, or through referrals from other conductors, or by a great recording.

Then we work in rehearsal to prepare our musical gift to you: we share with one another our relevant experiences, understanding of style, desire for great tuning, need to make phrases spin and to have dynamics swell and roll. Finally, we walk onto the stage and present our gift of song to you. We are not sure what you do with it after that. We would be grateful if some of you could tell us. So that is the usual trajectory, or the usual cycle, of how the music moves through Chicago a cappella from “program conception” to you.

You may notice that we perform most of these spirituals in an African-American dialect as opposed to “standard English.” One of the great gifts to this program is the ongoing expertise of Trevor Mitchell, who coaches us in his family’s Mississippi-based dialect. There is some debate about this practice in the choral community, with the extremes being that some arrangers and performers completely eschew dialect while others insist on it. Our general approach is to sing in dialect unless there is a reason not to do so; adopting this performance practice is yet one more way to honor the traditions from which this remarkable music has sprung.

* * * * *

Part of my self-imposed work is to be rather picky about the arrangements that Chicago a cappella offers to you. This is less harsh than it sounds, for it is born of a desire more than anything else to simply share with you the music that we find so stirring. The task comes from my personal conviction that every song on a program must have a purpose, must communicate vividly, must move us—that means you and us—somehow to a different place or plane than we were in before we heard it or sang it. The music is in that sense our gift to you. I say this because I want you to understand the intent of the presentation at its core, at its essence. I want—we want—for you to receive our gifts of song and to come away enriched in the process.

As I was writing these introductory notes, it became clear that this sense of putting concert programs together, which forms one of the core values of Chicago a cappella, is itself a gift to us from another mentor. I got the gift from Rev. Dr. Christopher Moore, the founder of the Chicago Children’s Choir. While driving around the country on the tour bus, Chris would let me sit with him in his usual seat, on the right toward the front, where we could see out the bus’s big front windshield as we chugged along the interstate. We would pretty quickly get to talking about the music we might sing at the next town we reached. Did the spiritual belong here? Should we add another tune there or cut one here? I did not realize at the time, at age 15 or 16, what a gift I was being given in that relationship. I can only tell you that I feel a compulsion, almost an obligation if you will, to pass the gift along with our own concerts—to honor that early important relationship, to honor the profound impact that he had on me, and to share with you the joy of a concert that is intended as a gift. That is, at its core, why Chicago a cappella exists. We are truly grateful that you are here, so that the gifts of music for which we are so thankful may remain abundant as they pass through us and continue in their journey.

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director


arr. Moses Hogan: I Want to be Ready

This is a strong, four-square setting of a hopeful tune. Like other arrangements by the late Moses Hogan, it features a strong rhythmic drive, fidelity to the original tune, and the back-and-forth nature of call-and-response verses.

For the record: Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Elijah Rock” appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Jack Halloran: Witness

Halloran’s setting has become a classic among recent “blockbuster” arrangements for choir. There are several changes in voicing to emphasize the lyrics. While a little more “showy” than most, the effect is worth it, for the momentum that builds at the end is full of hope and promise.

arr. Fisk Jubilee Singers: We Shall Walk Through the Valley

A simple and sweet setting, this comes from the first songbook published by the Fisk Singers in the 1870s, when they became world-famous for singing spirituals on tour to raise funds for their campus building needs. The four-part harmonies are gentle and keep the focus on the message of the text.

For the record: Three settings by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, including “We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Paul Carey: Hear de Lambs a-Cryin’

Hear de Lambs a-Cryin’ puts the attention on the believers who are petitioning God for favor. The work is on the contemplative side, with strong imagery to make the song easy to remember and the message easy to absorb. Carey’s setting features call-and-response style, with a constant refrain to “feed-a my sheep.” The text also shares material with the well-known work by Nathaniel Dett, Listen to the Lambs.

arr. Hall Johnson: I’ve been ‘buked

This strophic setting is powerful, clear, and direct. It speaks directly to the heart of three things: (1) my sorrow; (2) our collective sorrow; (3) the resolve to stay strong. No other spiritual claims so clearly, “Ain’ gwine lay my ‘ligion down.”

For the record: Two spiritual settings by Hall Johnson appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Lela Anderson: Give me Jesus

Anderson’s delicate yet well-grounded setting moves in the direction of complex harmonies, with particularly evocative word-painting during the verses. The song’s dramatic climax frames death not as a dull event to which one should be resigned, but rather a reunion with “my sweet Jesus.”

Robert L. Morris: Save Me, Lord!

Morris is a master of the gospel-quartet style and of creating angular rhythms that propel the piece forward. Like Moses Hogan, Morris draws the rhythmic life that is in the melody into the other voice parts as well. The florid, virtuoso soprano solo makes this work unusually vivid and plaintive, while the men sing in open harmonies to ground the mood in the earth.

For the record: Two spiritual settings by Robert L. Morris appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.

Jester Hairston: Amen

Originally written for the film Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier (although it was Hairston’s and not Poitier’s voice heard singing the song in the movie), this song showed Poitier, an out-of-work young journeyman, teaching spirituals—both style and dialect—to the German nuns whom he encountered in his travels. The song has since then become a concert classic. A charmingly condensed telling of the life of Jesus, it has a sweet smile behind it all the way through.

For the record: Two spiritual settings by Jester Hairston appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Adolphus Hailstork: Crucifixion

This is a work of great power. A master of counterpoint and of sustaining prolonged emotional engagement and tension, Hailstork has written here one of his finest choral works. The sentiment sung over and over again, the “he never said a mumbalin’ word,” is sung with anger, sadness, resignation, and even a sense of defiance at the end.

arr. Rollo Dilworth: Roll, Jordan, Roll

Commissioned by Chicago a cappella, this joyful arrangement takes full advantage of the ensemble’s range and flexibility. There are inflections of gospel style in some of the chords, richly voiced, and a playful back-and-forth between groupings of voices. The piece starts with a rolling line in the basses that makes it feel like the Jordan River is rumbling nearby.


Selections from guest high school choirs

arr. Brazeal Dennard: Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ my Name

Hush! is a perennial favorite of Chicago a cappella audiences. The simple musical materials and poetry of this song take on remarkable life in Dennard’s skillful hands. The melody is simply stated, plainly arranged, and powerfully marked for dynamics and articulation. This is no lullaby: the speaker is scared. While the text provides an unusually strong image of death at the end, “creepin’ in my room,” there is no maudlin sentimentality here, but rather merely a statement of fact, followed by the now-familiar chorus. The song’s narrative voice seems confident in meeting death, because he “got my ‘ligion in time.”

For the record: Brazeal Dennard’s “Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ my Name” appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Joseph Jennings: Am I a Soldier of the Cross

This style of music is rarely performed in classical concert halls, as it comes from the African-American church tradition and is typically sung informally by people in church and can include the entire congregation, with solo lines migrating from person to person. This setting came to us from Chanticleer’s recently retired music director, Joseph Jennings, one of the most important choral conductors of his generation.

For the record: Joseph Jennings’ arrangement of “Steal Away” appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

arr. Robert A. Harris: Go Down, Moses

Professor and director of choral activities at Northwestern University in Evanston, Dr. Harris has created here a dramatic, intense setting of the familiar tune. The soprano solo is plaintive and searching, while the choral parts pull and tug with their own life.

arr. Hall Johnson: Oh, Freedom!

The original tune of “Oh, Freedom!” seems to have originated shortly after the Civil War ended, in the early years of Reconstruction. Johnson’s a cappella arrangement was published in 1958 and is likely to have been sung prior to that, since he founded the Hall Johnson Negro Choir in 1925 and toured around the world with his ensemble. The song became quite famous in 1956, when the folksinger Odetta recorded it on her album Spiritual Trilogy. Johnson’s setting has a lively middle verse in men’s gospel-quartet style and a solid foundation with an extra bass part that gives it gravity as well as enthusiasm.

For the record: Two spiritual settings by Hall Johnson, including “Oh, Freedom!,” appear on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.

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