Before the blues, jazz, gospel and rock ’n’ roll, African Americans honed another uniquely American form of music — the spiritual. Created in the fields and slave shacks of the American South, these folksongs allowed slaves to communicate secretly with each other, giving them the power to console, heal and resist.
The new PBS documentary THE SPIRITUALS eloquently recounts the bitter history from which the art form arose, and follows the American Spiritual Ensemble and the group’s director Everett McCorvey as they attempt to preserve the vanishing folk songs of the slaves. The film takes viewers behind the scenes and on the road with the group as it enchants audiences during a tour of the Deep South. The program airs in Monday, July 16, at 3 a.m. on KUED-Channel 7.
“The spirituals come from deep inside. It’s moans, it’s groans, it’s feelings, it’s passion,” says Metropolitan Opera diva Angela Brown in the film. “I don’t think we’ll ever know where it came from, but we know it came out of pain.”
Dr. Uzee Brown, chairman of the Department of Music at Morehouse College, provides historical context in THE SPIRITUALS: “Quite often masters on plantations tolerated the music because it did have this calming and soothing and peaceful nature about it,” says Dr. Brown. “It was beautiful stuff. And it did not seem, at least on the surface, to be anything that was in any way dangerous.” Composer-arranger and conductor Dr. Roland Carter conducts a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the film and exclaims, “The slaves were singing about freedom, but the singing in itself was a freedom.”
During the civil rights movement, spirituals were an important tool of resistance during marches and demonstrations. “The only way people could sustain themselves was through song,” recounts activist Ann Grundy. “As the civil rights movement kicked off, the spirituals were front and center, and absolutely perfect for the moment.” Spirituals continue to be an important tool for galvanizing protests and movements throughout the world. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Go Down Moses,” “We Shall Overcome” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” are just a few of the enduring spiritual melodies of the Deep South. On tour, the American Spiritual Ensemble illustrates the dedication to preserving the spiritual and keeping the music vibrant and alive through performance.
Operatic training provides the ensemble with an extraordinary sound that differentiates them from other spiritual groups. Their performances create a wall of sound and power and bring joy and tears to their audiences. McCorvey founded the group in 1995. Many of its members have performed with organizations such as the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Boston Opera and the Atlanta Civic Opera.
THE SPIRITUALS captures the ensemble’s messages of hope and forgiveness and offers a fresh approach to African-American history, while clearly reiterating the unmistakable contribution of African-born slaves and their descendants to American musical history.
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