Spirituals in Zion: A Spiritual Heritage for the Soul



Spirituals in Zion

A Spiritual Heritage for the Soul

ORAL MOSES, bass-baritone

1. Nobody knows de trouble I see

2. A little more faith in Jesus

3. And he never said a mumberlin' word

4. Tryin' to get ready

5. Po' pilgrim of sorrow; or, A city called Heaven

6. I'm a rollin'

7. Listen to the Angels shouting

8. Ev'ry time I feel the spirit

9. Go down Moses

10. I want to be ready; or, walk in Jerusalem just like John.

11. Oh Freedom

12. Deep River

13. Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho

14. `Tis the old ship of Zion

15. Steal Away

16. Great Day!

17. My Lord, what a mourning

18. Nobody knows the trouble I've seen

19. Swing low, sweet chariot

In 1619, twenty-two persons from different countries and tribes on the continent of Africa, landed in Jamestown, Virginia and were quickly bought and sold into the non-human existence of slavery. From this arduous and painful slave life sprang a poignant and powerful music genre that has become one of the most significant segments of American music in existence. As you listen to this unique recording of unaccompanied Negro Spirituals, bass-baritone, Oral Moses transports you into this deep dark world bondage. Moses' deep resonant voice is well suited to command the strength, power and aesthetic beauty needed to maintain and support the strong tradition and characteristic elements that are so essential and inherent in the Negro Spiritual.

The Negro Spiritual, sometimes referred to as plantation songs, sorrow songs or slave-songs, originated from the innermost being of enslaved Africans who were captured from the West Coast of Africa and transported to the Americas. While in bondage they were forbidden to talk or make musical instruments that they had used in Africa but could sing whatever they felt. The gift of singing became an invaluable tool of expression and a relief from the cruel and brutal existence of a slave-life. It is in these simple African melodies, which, “sprang into existence,” where the enslaved Africans expressed their pain, anger, grief, faith and joy. Just as Africans communicated among themselves using drum language in there own countries and tribes, so did the enslaved Africans continue to do in America by using “cries,” “hollers,” “calls,” “shouts,” which eventually evolved into spirituals and work songs. To the slave owner, it may have been entertaining to hear the slaves sing these “simple” songs of faith, but for the enslaved person these songs were powerful messages of hope, a way of assuaging their unfortunate plight in life and above all fighting to maintain the most basic form of human dignity that would help them sustain and endure the arduous hardships of a slave existence. These plantation songs united and strengthened the slaves and gave them an abiding faith and strong courage.

These simple melodies still cause people today to examine themselves, tap their toes, clap their hands, shed tears, laugh, dance and shout. This music still has the ability to touch the human spirit and have a lasting effect on one's emotions and beliefs. The simplicity of the melodies makes room for a singer to improvise during a performance, even if only a single note is added to the original melody “as the spirit moves.” This may vary greatly from one performer to another. In its original form the spiritual was free in form, rhythm, text, and performance styles and allowed for much variation from singer to singer as it was passed on orally. Such characteristic features are typical and unique to the Negro Spirituals. As stated in Slaves Songs In The United States,

“The best that we can do, however, with paper and types, or even with voices, will convey but a faint shadow of the original. The voices of the colored people have a peculiar quality that nothing can imitate; and the intonation and delicate variations of even one singer cannot be reproduced on paper. And I despair of conveying any notion of the effect of a number singing together.”

“And what makes it all the harder to unravel a thread of melody out of this strange network is that, like birds, they seem not infrequently to strike sounds that cannot be precisely represented by the gamut, and abound in “slides” from one note to another, and turns and cadences not in articulated notes.” “It is difficult to express the entire character of these Negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs. The odd turns made in the throat, and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on the score as the singing of birds or the tones of an Aeolian Harp.”

This performance of solo-unaccompanied Negro Spirituals is presented in a very unique form that will add greatly to its enjoyment. Moses, with his rich voice, has carefully performed these songs with natural interpretation and precision, which adds much to the simple but beautiful and rich melodies of the African-American culture. One can hear an effective use of a wide vocal range, good diction, precise rhythm and beautiful dynamics.

Anyone who has the desire to sing the Negro Spirituals will find this recording a useful tool for learning. And for those who wish to listen to the music for the sake of satisfying the needs of the spirit and soul, these Negro Spirituals will be the “Balm in Gilead” that will make you whole.

Of the many thousands of Spirituals that are said to exist within this vast body of African-American song literature only nineteen are recorded in this collection. Included here are spirituals that well represent three groups that are commonly used to catalogue these musical jewels. (1) The slow, sustained, long-phrase melody include songs, “Nobody knows de trouble I see,” and “My Lord what a mourning,” performed with great depths of understanding and feeling. The variations of the melody, the meditative mood and the occasional free rhythm bring out the beauty of the song. Added words and notes are used in certain phrases as a way of personal but effective interpretation. Successful execution of this performance practice is achieved only when the performer has true knowledge and understanding of the song(s). The Spiritual, “I'm trying to get ready,” is performed with a steady beat which reminds one of listening to these people singing and stomping their feet on wooden floors of the old country church as they fervently worshipped and praised God. Listen for the sincere desire to “try on my long white robe.” (2) The signal songs or “coded” spirituals are those with hidden or double meanings and oft-times coded messages. Such songs were used often among the slaves to signal or give warning to each other of some secret meeting, plan of escape or to avoid capture. Among these songs are, “And He never said a mumbelin' word,” “Go down Moses,” “Oh Freedom,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.” (3) The “call and response chant” Spirituals with syncopated, segmented melody include, “I want to be ready; or, walk in Jerusalem just like John,” “ Ev'ry time I feel the spirit moving in my heart I will pray,” and “A little more faith in Jesus.”

He creates a totally different mood with crisp rhythms, syncopation and dynamics, with this well-known call and response form. These lively performances bring out the joy in the singer's heart and I am sure will be contagious.

The Negro Spirituals are very unique to the American music culture and I thank people like Oral Moses who help to preserve this vital and significant music tradition.

Zion Baptist Church

As the oldest black Baptist church in Marietta, Georgia, Zion Baptist Church stands on the corner of Lemon and Haynes streets, where it has stood since it was first erected in 1868. Much of the information we have about the founding and development of Zion Baptist comes from church records, written shortly before and during the Civil War. Unfortunately, most of the records kept after this period were lost in a fire.

Zion Baptist Church had its origins in First Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist Church in Marietta. In 1836, the all-white congregation of First Baptist received and enrolled its first black member, a slave woman known only as “Dicey.” First Baptist's black membership grew rapidly so rapidly, in fact, that a balcony had to be constructed at some point during the 1840s or '50s. Their names were entered into the church records, which have survived from that period. Slaves were listed by their first name only, while free blacks were listed by both first and last name. By 1851, the black members of first Baptist had their own conference, which met the second Saturday of every month. All black men were required to attend the conference meetings and records indicate that the conference raised money for charitable organizations and dealt with disciplinary issues within the black congregation.The First Baptist Church records mention Brother Ephraim for the first time in 1851. Ephraim, the “servant” of one of the white members of the congregation, asked the church for permission to perform marriage ceremonies for other blacks. While this request was denied, he was allowed to preach at prayer services, when allowed to do so by the watchmen (members of the black congregation who watched over the others and reported disciplinary problems). Ephraim's influence grew when he was made a watchman in 1853.

In 1856, some of First Baptist's black congregation, led by Brother Ephraim, petitioned the church leaders to be allowed to form their own “African Church.” While the idea was rejected at the time (and Brother Ephraim was excluded from the church for two months for his insolence), in May, the blacks of First Baptist church were given permission to have their own house of worship, while still remaining members of First Baptist.

A committee was appointed to oversee the purchase or construction of a building and to devise and enforce the rules and regulations of this new church.

While Brother Ephraim's request for a license to preach was turned down, two of the members of the congregation were made deacons.

Brother Ephraim's name appears several times in the few church records that survived the Civil War. In 1863, the white church conference was unable to meet because so many of its members had left to join the fighting. The black conference did meet, however, and granted Ephraim a license to preach. The license was confirmed in July, despite the protests of the state court system. In 1865, the blacks of First Baptist Church applied for letters of dismissal and for permission to secede from First Baptist and to form a new, completely separate, church of their own. This request was eventually granted and on Aril 8, 1866, Zion Baptist church was formally organized with Rev. Ephraim B. Rucker (formerly known as Brother Ephraim) as its pastor.

Zion Baptist Church has been active since this time and celebrated its 131st anniversary in 1997.

Oral Moses, bass-baritone, performs regularly throughout the United States and Europe singing Opera, Oratorio and recitals with special emphasis on a wide variety of art song repertoire by African-American composers.

He has had numerous successes with Opera companies performing major roles in Le Nozze de Figaro, Regina, La Boheme, Albert Herring, Tremonisha, Rigoletto, and Die Zauberflöte among many others. Symphonic engagements have included works with the Nashville Symphony, the Jackson Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Lansing Symphony, Tacoma Symphony and the Atlanta symphony. In 1983 he toured Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Berlin singing the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess.

Born in South Carolina he began his singing career as a member of the United States Seventh Army soldiers Chorus in Heidelberg, Germany andas a member of the famed Fisk Jubilee singers while attending Fisk University following his military career. Upon completion of his undergraduate studies he was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, which provided him the opportunity to return to Germany for further study in vocal performance and Opera with Elsa Domberger. Upon his return to the United States he attended the University of Michigan where he earned a Masters of Music and a Doctorate of Musical Arts Degree in Vocal Performance and Opera.

In 1986 as a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant he co-authored a book entitled, “Feel The Spirit-Studies in Nineteenth Century Afro-American Music” published by Greenwood Press. In 1991 he was awarded a second National Endowment for the Humanities Grant to study the broad spectrum of American music.As a solo recording artist for Albany Records his premiere CD, “Deep River: Songs and Spirituals of Harry T. Burleigh,” is featured in the PBS film documentary, “Antonin Dvorak in America.” His second CD just recently released is, “Amen! African-American composers of the Twentieth Century.” He has collaborated with gospel artist, Babbie Mason on the CD/Video project, “Treasured Memories: A Celebration Of Our Gospel Music Heritage,” documenting the rich legacy of Gospel Music. A second CD collaboration entitled, “Third Day Offerings: A Worship Album,” allowed him to record with Third Day, the contemporary Christian rock group which earned him his first gold record.

In addition to future concert and recital appearances he continues a busy schedule as guest lecturer and clinician for Gospel and Spiritual music workshops and conferences throughout the United States and Europe. He is Professor of Voice and Music Literature at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Executive Producer: Erik Lindgren

Produced by: Erik Lindgren for sFz RECORDINGS

Mixed by: Frederik Rubens

Programs Notes by: Paul Kwami - Director, Fisk Jubilee Singers

Recorded June 9 - 10, 2000 in Old Zion Baptist Church, Marietta, Georgia by Erik Lindgren.

Mixed September 9-10, 2000 at Sounds Interesting, Middleborough, MA.

Special Thanks to Ann Sears for her contribution to liner notes.

Special Thanks to Rev. Dr. Harris Travis, and all of the staff and members of Zion Baptist Church for their generous contribution and use of the Old Zion Historic Church building.