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.
Beautiful song, and I agree – works like these are disappearing from our culture. Do you know of any groups or organizations performing in Hurston’s preferred style?
Reblogged this on Nesie's Place.
Thank you for your kind words, Felicia. If there was a battle to be won in terms of style, then those who sang in the “Glee Club style” were the ones who won it. The Europeanization of the songs had more widespread appeal and that is what we are familiar with today, hence my conclusion of taking what we have as better than nothing at all. Hurston made her own efforts at preservation of the work style of song in directing her own choral groups, but those efforts were not lasting, unfortunately. So, no. Those groups, as far as I know, don’t exist.
Love, love, love this post. Have you read “When the Church becomes Your Party” WSU press. Its on my tbr list but this essay is a comparative to this book. I heard the author speak. Preservation is so much more than collecting relics, its really about allowing the truth in history to remain. Time and memory has a way of promoting erasure. Preservation is a must, but change is inevitable. Thank you for your intelligence.
You are so welcome! I will have to add that to my TBR pile. Thank you for stopping by!
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I consider my work with Moses Hogan to be the definitive modern day interpretation of these great songs. They were meant to be performed in an attention-getting fashion and yes, at times, even in an affected way, but that is precisely what was so incredibly wonderful about hearing them. Yes, we can always look for ways to perform the spirituals better, with more accuracy, rhythm and with a clearer understanding of meaning and intention, but we must perform them nonetheless. I fear that those who are harshly over critical of such things do so more out of a personal, negative experience they had with spirituals while in school choir and growing up in an ignorant, racist society rather than out of an honest, educated and well researched knowledge of the genre. Also there are those that would just as soon let that dark period of history be forgotten and resent even being reminded of it, which is certainly understandable. Therefore, these rich songs of American history are to be highly cherished and are to be sung with a great sense of awe, reverence and respect. We ought never sing spirituals, referred specifically and accurately by music historians as the Negro spiritual, in a mocking style or without having studied them like we would any other piece of legitimate music of the repertoire. But as you correctly stated, Hurston’s way didn’t stick and I would bet that she would have preferred that they not be performed at all. So, I encourage directors to listen, listen, listen to the those who have successfully recorded these songs (Shaw, Hogan, Norfolk State, Tuskeegee, etc.) and read all that one can about the rich history from which the Negro spiritual was born. Sing on!
Very well said! My father, as a scholar of the spirituals himself, spoke very highly of Moses Hogan. I agree, I think that She would not have wanted these songs to be performed, but they are art. They are our art and we must treasure them. Thank you for taking the time to respond and for commenting on my blog!