c. 2005 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON _ Standing in the middle of a recreation room on a hot midsummer day, spirituals expert Arthur Jones introduced his effort to inject enthusiasm in the city’s youth about the age-old slavery songs of survival.
The first music that filled the room? The sound of hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas rapping “Where Is the Love?,” a song about the world’s modern-day troubles.
Before long, Jones connected the newer rhythms to the far older ones of “Wade in the Water,” a spiritual with layers of meaning for African-American slaves of yesterday and an interracial range of people today.
“Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.”
Jones, a psychologist and Roman Catholic, founded The Spirituals Project at the University of Denver in 1999 to help keep alive the message and meaning of the songs that have moved from the fields of the South to the concert halls of the North over the last three centuries.
Jones wants to preserve the spirituals’ heritage among blacks and whites, young and old. But he’s especially concerned that the next generation of African-Americans maintain an important link to their past.
“They’re the ones who are going to be passing it on,” Jones, 59, said of the youth, during an interview.
“Spirituals are really the first major music that African-Americans created and everything that’s happened in the culture after that has been influenced by them. … Rap is just the latest expression that’s come out of the African-American community that’s in the same stream as the spirituals.”
The youth program was co-sponsored by two Washington organizations, The Faith & Politics Institute and the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. Hours later, he gave a more formal performance of spirituals for a congressional reception sponsored by the institute.
But it was the children that have become his focus and who drive his sense of urgency about spreading the message about spirituals and their connection to the present.
“Black people for a very long time have been creating songs about problems that we have in our world and what should be done about it,” Jones told the youth ranging from ages 6-13, seated around the room at a local Boys and Girls Club.
Despite the heat of the room and the loudness of the fans that attempted in vain to keep them cool, the children responded to Jones words and his tenor voice. Dressed in T-shirts and denim shorts, they sang, clapped and danced at his direction.
Even with occasional forums like Jones’, the spirituals are not as widespread as they once were.
“The irony is that if you want to hear a spiritual today, the place that you’re most likely to find it is in a concert by an African-American singer who’s trained in classical music,” he said.
Beyond that, spirituals remain a mainstay particularly in small black churches _ often Baptist or Pentecostal _ in the deep South. But they also have endured on the printed page, featured in black hymnals used in mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. And African-American churches across the country still use “Wade in the Water” as they immerse new members in the rite of baptism.
That particular song happens to be Jones’ personal favorite and he used it to share the multidimensional aspect of spirituals with the children.
“This is a song that Harriet Tubman used to help people get out of slavery and into freedom,” he told the children, before getting them to sing the words louder and louder, and eventually, with harmony.
He explained the call-and-response aspect of the song, a trait of spirituals, where he sang the verses, and the children responded with the four-line chorus, their hands clapping and their feet swinging from chairs, not quite reaching the floor.
When Jones sang, “See that band all dressed in red. It looked like a band that Moses led,” he explained that Moses was the nickname for Tubman because, like the ancient lawgiver, she was leading her people out of slavery.
“You couldn’t tell the slavemaster that you were going to escape,” Jones explained to his charges. “Harriet Tubman was called Moses, so that was code for escape.”
And the reason to physically “wade in the water” was to throw off the bloodhounds slavemasters sent after escaped slaves.
Coming full circle, Jones encouraged a few of the young people to develop their own raps as the children hummed the traditional tune.
In a matter of minutes, punchy poetry with words about “links of chain” and the need to “work together through pain” were recited by one. Another rapped: “Wade in the water, save our sons and daughters, children, wade in the water. We’re gonna rise. That’s the order.”
One of the impromptu rappers, Erin Richardson, 11, said he’d known about spirituals, but getting to write one of his own was “crazy” _ in a good way. “I could really have fun if I do that,” he said.
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Jones’ hopes for passing on the tradition to another generation seemed not to fall on deaf ears.
“I think it’s great,” said Kapria Carter, a seventh-grader from nearby Clinton, Md. “Because you can learn so much about your culture and where you came from.”
Jones evoked the movement as well as the music of the spirituals, gathering the children in circles in the middle of the room to do their version of the “ring shout,” a worshipful dance used by slaves when they met in secret.
He and the youth danced to “I’m Gonna Sing When the Spirit Says Sing,” a song about “digging deep and finding that guardian Spirit that can help you be strong,” Jones said.
“The ancestors passed these songs to us,” Jones said as he completed his hourlong program.
“These are songs that are gifts to us today. We need to stay strong, just like all the people in the past needed to stay strong.”
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