Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Friday’s concert at the M.V. Public Charter School is not open to the public.
Jim Thomas has been singing the praises of America’s artful and once-secret slave communication system for 10 years.
Mr. Thomas formed his choral group, The U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir, on Martha’s Vineyard a decade ago at the behest of the Island chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The 33-voice choir has planned an 11-event schedule this season, including several appearances off Island.
All performances are open to the public and all but two of the choir’s events are free. Their annual fundraising performances ($15 admission) will be held on June 28 at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven and on July 19 at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.
Other Island performances are at the Chilmark Community Church for the Sunday morning service on June 15, and an East Chop sunset performance on July 28. Off-Island performances will take the troupe to the Medford Royall House and Slave Quarters, to the Old North Church in Boston, and an appearance in western Vermont. Though not open to the public, the choir performs for students on Friday, May 30, at the M.V. Public Charter School in West Tisbury.
The ambitious tour has support from the Martha’s Vineyard Permanent Endowment Fund and advertising is being solicited from Island businesses for inclusion in a commemorative 10-year anniversary booklet to be published this season.
In an interview this week, Mr. Thomas told a riveting story of a slave culture that developed a coded means of communicating their struggle for freedom – through music. According to sources found through online research by The Times, history does not record a single new spiritual created after 1865, when the last slave was freed.
Mr. Thomas is a retired executive at the American Red Cross and a graduate of Fisk University, home of the renowned Jubilee Singers spiritual chorus, He became enthralled with the idea of spirituals as a means of communications through conversations with his great-grandmother, who was born a slave in western Tennessee. Mr. Thomas has researched the history trail of spirituals through the catacombs of the Library of Congress, a search that led to university libraries around the country.
“We don’t know anyone else who is doing the musical work we’re doing. We sing the songs exactly as we believe slaves sang them. There was likely no 12-part harmonies or changing keys in that environment. Just a high and a low. We always offer a short explanation of the meaning of the song before we sing it to provide insight to the audience,” he said.
Mr. Thomas noted that oppressed people have always found ways to communicate secretly with each other, most often in language dialect (such as Yiddish and the Irish Shelta dialects).
“But trouble can also be the mother of invention,” he said. “Slaves were not permitted to talk with each other as they worked. But slaves who would accompany their masters to church noted how the language of the church affected their slave-owning listeners, made them comfortable. So the slaves developed the spiritual, using that church language in musical form as a means of communication.
“Despite the stereotype, slaves were not stupid. They were just young. On average, slaves were 17.3 years old when they got here.”
The Slave Song Project choir has a diverse multi-racial and ethnic composition that works for Mr. Thomas. “We all share a mutual destiny,” he said. “We do have common background and a common future. We need common understanding. We all want the same things.
“Much of this information is not recorded in our African-American history and we have a distorted view of our legacy. So, one by one, we are helping our people to have a positive view of whence they’ve come.”
The U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir has evolved into its own nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization. Donations to the choir may be made by contacting Mr. Thomas at Jim@US-SlaveSongs.org or by phone at 703-407-1207. Donations may also be sent to P.O. Box 3041, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.
Music: U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir, Friday, May 30, 1 pm, M.V. Public Charter School, West Tisbury. For more information, visit usslavesongproject.com.