Last week, I was reminded of the strong opinion Zora Neale Hurston had in her perspective of how spirituals should be sung. For her, things started to go wrong with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She talks about this in her essay “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” and blames them for putting forward this folk material in the wrong way. She insists: “I am of the opinion that this trick style of delivery originated with the Fisk Singers: Tuskegee and Hampton followed suit and have helped in spreading this misconception of the Negro spirituals.” She calls their style, “the Glee Club Style.”
As a Zora Neale Hurston scholar, and the daughter of a spirituals scholar, I was always torn by the insistence of her way and from what I knew in what I had grown up with. I’ve decided, and I hope Hurston might agree if she knew the current cultural climate, that we’ve got to hold on to these cultural treasures in any way we can. As you read this blog post, these works of literary art and faith are fading from our culture. From my perspective, holding on to something is better than nothing.
To me, the difference in how these songs are interpreted made for a natural conflict in my upcoming work, The Songbird’s Stand. My heroine March Smithson has her own views about the songs of her childhood, but the mysterious new teacher who comes to Milford College, Julian Lewis, has his own ways. Who will win? Is there such a thing as a victory in a battle of wills over intellectual property? I hope to bring you the answer at the end of March.
Meanwhile, here is a selection from my family singing group, The Gift of Song, as directed by my father. This song, “Don’t be Weary Traveller” is another one of those clever code songs, if you listen to the words. Aren’t the singers just welcoming some tired dude to Jesus? Listen closely. Just amazing.