African-American spirituals like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Wade in the Water” are so much a part of the American song book that we tend to take them for granted. Few of us are aware of their origins, much less the hidden messages contained within them.
“Most people conflate them with Gospel songs, but they’re a different genre,” said Dr. Arthur Jones, Clinical Professor of Culture and Psychology, and Associate Dean at the Women’s College of the University of Denver. He's also founder of the Spirituals Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the sacred songs of African-American slaves.
As a psychologist, Jones specializes in African-American mental health issues, but it wasn’t until he began studying the Spirituals from a psychotherapeutic point of view that he began to see a connection between music and the psychological well-being of the black community. Black culture, he maintains, is oral culture. Its history, mythology, and values are transmitted through song. “That was how we passed on our stories, how we passed on the black experience,” he said.
The trouble was that African slaves, newly arrived and thrown together without regard to family tie or tribal affiliation, found themselves cut off from their ancestral roots. “The creative solution,” Jones said, “was to borrow ancestors from the Old Testament, all of whom just happened to be freedom fighters.” (Moses, who led his people out of bondage in Egypt, is a case in point).
African-American spirituals abound with hidden social justice messages. “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot,” for example, is an oblique reference to the Underground Railroad. “Wade in the Water,” sung by slaves as a baptismal rite, contains secret instructions for potential runaways to go by water to avoid leaving a trail for bloodhounds to follow.
Arthur Jones’ passion for music first flowered when he won a place on the New York All-City High School Chorus. “It was very competitive to get in,” he said. “Singing in that choir was the highlight of my high school life. I lived for the rehearsals on Saturday mornings.”
But in college -- up to his ears in coursework -- Jones was forced to set his passion for music aside. “I was only the second person in my family to go to university,” he said. “It made no sense for me to major in Music. So I followed in my older brother’s footsteps and got a PhD in Clinical Psychology.”
Jones credits a mid-life crisis with rekindling his interest in music. “I had a yearning to sing again,” he said. “I started working with a voice teacher who taught me how to breathe and project, and a performance coach to learn music performance.” He auditioned and won a place in the chorus of Opera Colorado, toured with the Colorado Springs Symphony, and in 1990 was approached by the Denver Museum of Natural History to do a recital in honor of Black History Month.
“Without thinking I blurted out, ‘I’d like it to be about the hidden meanings in Negro spirituals. The thing is, I had only surface knowledge of the hidden meanings in Negro spirituals, so I had to dig deeper. This was the first time I did a concert exclusively of spirituals and I was overcome with emotion. I was really drawn into it.”
So much so that he began a serious study of the Spirituals, and eventually wrote a book on the subject called “Wade in the Water; The Wisdom of the Spirituals.” It was while writing the book that he came to understand the connection between music and mental health. “I finally felt centered in my professional life,” he said. “I’ve always been meant to do this, to be at the center of a national movement to preserve and revitalize this important cultural tradition. For me, it’s become a spiritual calling.”
For more info:
The Lamont Chorale joins the Spirituals Project Choir for a free community concert on Tuesday, February 26th, 7:30 PM at the Neuman Center for the Performing Arts, on the on the campus of the University of Denver.
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