Spirituals return to Union Chapel

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir at a past performance at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. — File photo by Adrianne Ryan

Jim Thomas and his Spirituals Choir return to Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for their annual July performance on Saturday, July 21, at 7:30 pm. Also featured will be organist Lavert Stuart. Tickets are $15. They will be available at the door and can be obtained in advance from choir members. The proceeds benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part.

This year’s program, “Songs from the Fields,” ranges from songs of toil so relentless that death is welcomed as a kind of freedom (“A Wheel in a Wheel,” “Hail, Hail, Hail!”) to “Rise, Shine, for the Light is a-Coming,” celebrating the approach of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. In between come songs of forced separation from loved ones, songs inspired by Bible stories (“Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”), and songs from the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and guides that from 1830 to 1860 helped slaves escape to the North. These include “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” in which the would-be fugitive swears never to turn back but to continue onward to “see what the end will be.”

Spirituals are songs sung by African slaves in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865. When former slaves performed these songs after Emancipation, they were often asked to remain seated, lest they tower over their white audiences and intimidate them. Thus the choir sings sitting down and with only percussion accompaniment. Mr. Thomas explains how the songs evolved and the various purposes they served for their singers. His powerful baritone leads the choir, which is made up of Vineyard summer and year-round residents.

Thomas founded and directs the U.S. Slave Song Project, which is dedicated to educating the public about the slave songs. The Spirituals Choir brings these songs to life in their performances.

Lavert Stuart is the organist and choir director at Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, he also helped develop Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. In 2010 the Boston City Council honored him for “45 years of providing spiritual leadership through music ministry, for providing community service in the Cities of Boston and Cleveland, and for his significant commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black history and culture.” Stuart’s keyboard repertoire ranges from traditional church music to gospel to jazz.

Jim Thomas, a seasonal Vineyard resident, is an alumnus of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and the Paul Hill Chorale.