Slave song project gives new meaning to spirituals

Jim Thomas, president of the U.S. Slave Song Project and the Project choir performed at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs in 2012. — Photo by Adrianne Ryan

The lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,”perhaps the most well known of African American spirituals, can be interpreted two ways, said slave song expert Jim Thomas of Oak Bluffs. While to the majority of people the popular song refers to ascendancy to heaven, Mr. Thomas said that at the time the song was written, the Chariot was code for abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the band of angels referred to members of the Underground Railroad, and the River Jordan stood for the Ohio River, which slaves had to cross in order to gain freedom in the North.

“The episode of the Underground Railroad was brief but filled with these songs,” Mr. Thomas said. “All contain at least two levels of meaning — one meant for the master and mistress, and one deeper level meant for the slaves.”

Mr. Thomas is founder and president of the Martha’s Vineyard-based U.S. Slave Song Project. The Project choir will hold their annual summer concert on Saturday, July 20, at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. The choir performance, “Songs from the Field: The Mystery of Spirituals,” will include a number of tunes written by slaves, each prefaced by an explanation of the song’s origin and dual meaning.

“I’ll introduce all with a brief introduction and explain what to listen for,” said Mr. Thomas, “People who have listened to them all their lives will hear them new.”

Mr. Thomas has been performing, studying and researching American slave songs since his days as a member of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, the world’s foremost group dedicated to popularizing African-American spirituals.

A powerful baritone singer and percussionist, Mr. Thomas performed and studied under Fisk University’s John W. Work, who, along with members of his family, arranged about 1000 of the spirituals that survived after the Civil War.

“I’ve been singing all my life,” Mr. Thomas said. “This special interest was spurred directly by my great grandmother, who was a slave in Tennessee.”

After graduating from Fisk, Mr. Thomas embarked on a half century career with the American Red Cross, traveling all over the globe. Upon retirement he settled on the Vineyard and eventually founded the U.S. Slave Song Project in 2005. “I felt there was additional need for education of what the slave songs were, how they were started, their meaning,” said Mr. Thomas.

The M.V. Spirituals Choir currently has 23 members — both full time and seasonal residents — who rehearse weekly during the summer and perform at various functions. For the upcoming concert they will be accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments and on the chapel’s immense pipe organ by Lavert Stuart, the organist and choir director at Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church Cleveland. The annual performance is always a popular, inspirational, and moving event.

The program will consist of tunes covering the period of slavery in the United States from 1619 to 1865.

Mr. Thomas explained the genesis of the dual purpose slave songs: “The little codes embedded in the verses were unique to the African culture, where they would sing information – births, deaths, current events. The average age of the first group of slave in 1619 was 17.3 years. They were not allowed to talk during the work day. Teenagers will be driven to communicate. Their frustration gave way to singing.”

Eventually, slaves developed a way to communicate confidential information through songs.

“The slaves who accompanied their master and mistress to church noticed that they [slave owners] seemed to be moved by the language of the church. Slaves learned that they could use that language in song and communicate anything that they wished.”

Mr. Thomas cites examples of verses that refer to the trans-Atlantic voyage from Africa. They include: Roll, Jordan Roll, Deep River, and Oh Wasn’t that a Wide River. The image of a river was often used to symbolize either the original ocean passage or the crossing of the Ohio to freedom, or both, as in “One More River to Cross.”

Singing religious songs also served another purpose. “Many slave songs were influenced by the desire to be free,” said Mr. Thomas, “They could be free if they could be seen as being a part of Christian religion. That was the way they could be codified into law.”

Mr. Thomas notes that almost all slave songs had dual meanings, including “Wade in the Water,” a song that is frequently used for baptismal purposes, but also served as advice to fleeing slaves to seek water to throw bloodhounds off the trail.

Similarly, the song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” was intended to instruct refugees to follow the north star, located in the Big Dipper. A drinking gourd was a dipping tool for Africans. The song contains explicit directions for a journey north, including to leave “when the first quail calls.”

“A quail is a bird that winters in the south,” said Mr. Thomas, “They had to arrive in the Ohio River in the middle of winter when it was frozen and they could walk over to freedom.”

Songs such as these helped slaves communicate information undetected by their masters. However, the enigmatic nature of the songs has made it challenging to research the hidden meanings.

“Most were carried on as folklore,” said Mr. Thomas, “I really have to work hard to find the linkages since the owners after the war did not wish to accept the fact that they had been duped by their slaves, whom they considered stupid.”

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