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‘Expanding the Narrative’ — slave songs and spirituals as early music

Virtual event analyzed both the historical and modern-day significance of slave songs and spirituals

<p>The Early Music Access Project hosted another edition of "Expanding the Narrative" with musicians James Dargan, Patrick Dailey and Reggie Mobley.&nbsp;</p>

The Early Music Access Project hosted another edition of "Expanding the Narrative" with musicians James Dargan, Patrick Dailey and Reggie Mobley. 

The Early Music Access Project presented an event as part of its new virtual series “Expanding the Narrative” on Nov. 22 as “an effort to center voices of color in the study and performance of early American music.” The discussion — which took place over Zoom, and can now be found on the Project’s YouTube — focused on analyzing slave songs and spirituals from historical and modern-day lenses, and featured the points of view of three unique musicians. 

The event began with a discussion about the musical technique of “lining-out,” a style of hymn primarily displayed in Protestant Churches. New England baritone James Dargan, one of the panelists on the episode, shared his thoughts on the tradition. 

“What we know of the musical and religious traditions of enslaved Africans … is that they [did] lining out, and the crazy thing is that [it] sounds like the organ,” Dargan said. “It’s such a visceral form … it’s human voices, so if you're in the room, it just moves through you. In a room where lining-out is taking place, everyone becomes a part of this super high wave of sound.” 

Dargan also discussed his own personal experiences with the tradition of lining-out. Growing up in the deep South, lining-out was not as common there as it once was. It was introduced to Dargan through his parents and family. 

“[My parents] were working on this book about lining-out, and because of that, I got to enjoy the fruits of their labor,” said Dargan. “It's always been one of those things that I kept tucked away in my ear and in my heart because it wasn’t happening much around me in general.”

A highlight of the event was Dargan’s poignant performance of a spiritual called “Over My Head.” The lyrics are a testament to the hope for freedom that enslaved African Americans possessed — “Over my head I see beauty in the earth / There must be a God somewhere.”

The event continued with a discussion of the musical culture at historically Black colleges and universities, both historically and in the present. The discussion focused on the importance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an ensemble started by George White at Fisk University, whose efforts helped to preserve the tradition of singing spirituals and spread this art form across the world. Acclaimed countertenor Patrick Dailey, the second guest speaker, gave his thoughts on the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ decision to sing spirituals.

“[The Fisk Jubilee Singers] were initially resistant,” Dailey said. “They said, ‘no this is for us [and] this is for our own memories.’ But they were eventually convinced [to sing spirituals].”

Dailey also provided insight into how the Fisk Jubilee Singers influenced modern-day musical groups at HBCUs.

“In New Orleans at Xavier University, they have a rich tradition of opera … [we can] see the implementation and integration directly of jazz and gospel,” Dailey said. “Our campuses are just alive with music but it runs deeply back in many ways to that impetus of the [Fisk Jubilee Singers].”

Dailey then performed an emotional arrangement of “Lil’ Boy,” a narrative spiritual that tells the story of Christ. 

Following this performance, the event featured guest speaker Reggie Mobley, a countertenor from Boston and director of the organization H+H. Mobley gave his thoughts on his work with H+H.

“H+H was [historically] a den of abolitionists all fighting towards slavery,” Mobley said. “I had conducted [H+H] in 2015, [and] it was maybe a little later that I found out that I was the first Black person to ever lead H+H in its 200 year history.” 

Mobley also shared some of the work he has done to showcase diversity and inclusion in the early music field, including through a concert series project in Boston, where he lives, called Every Voice.  

“[Through my Every Voice Series], I focused on various aspects of the Boston community,'' Mobley said. “[I had] concerts on subcommunities in Boston [and] broke them in three vignettes and did three communities per concert. I showed people that showcased not only the brilliance of diverse musicians [in the Boston area] but also that all of us have existed for so long in classical music that we aren't just newcomers as we've been taught to believe.”

Mobley ended his thought-provoking commentary with a beautiful performance of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” calling it “a salve for the soul.”

The event ended with a brief roundtable discussion with each of the three guests and EMAP Artistic Director David McCormick about the “smoothing-down” — the changing of these spirituals to make them palatable for different audiences — and its significance. 

“This smoothing down in singing idea is a reflection of what's being imposed upon [enslaved people] with the intention of ‘this is how you will survive if you move yourself into the eurocentric white griot,’” Dailey said.

Mobley offered unique insight into the significance of “smoothing-down” and its role in music today.

“We can smooth this music down for white audiences today, but we know within ourselves that when we’re ready to sing, we can sing,” he said.