9 Famous Spirituals To Enlighten Your Understanding Of Black American History

9 Famous Spirituals To Enlighten Your Understanding Of Black American History

Our senior choir sings spirituals year round, because we love the expression of praise and worship of Christ, the sharing of a gospel, reflected in sweet poetry and lush melody.
Christine Weerts
By

When my senior choir at our rural Lutheran Church founded by African Americans began singing the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” last year they knew exactly what the song meant.

Yes, they knew the Old Testament story about Elisha watching the prophet Elijah carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot without knowing death (2 Kings 2:11 ). Yes, they knew the Jordan River was where the Israelites crossed into the promised land (Joshua 4:23) and where Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:16-17).

But as the last generation to pick cotton in rural Alabama, they knew the song was not so much about theology as it was about backbreaking toil of working the cotton field—and could imagine doing the work as a shackled slave. “I know that’s right, come on chariot,” said one of my choir members during rehearsal. “Jesus, get me out of this hot miserable field, off this plantation and home with you.”

Swing Low, sweet Chariot 

Comin for to carry me home…

Swing Low, sweet Chariot

Comin for to carry me home.

According to the family lore, that is exactly how the song came about. Unlike  most spirituals, whose creators we don’t know, there is documentation about the creation of this popular spiritual recorded by artists ranging from Johnny Cash to B.B. King.

Wallace Willis and his wife Minerva, slaves of plantation owner Britt Willis, were hoeing cotton under the blazing hot sun in August 1840, when Willis looked up and saw the sun glinting off a nearby river. Known for his sweet singing, Willis began a new song, inspired by Elijah and the Jordan River.

Britt’s granddaughter, Jimmie Kirby, recalled the story, saying her mama remembered slaves “hoeing the long rows of cotton in the rich bottomland field. They worked in the fields from sun-up to sundown. And sundown was a long way off” when Wallace saw the sun hit the nearby Red River and began singing.

Wallace Willis knew too well the hard life of slavery, and its unique trials and tears. We don’t know the trail that took him into slavery on a plantation in Mississippi. But we know he walked the Choctaw Trail of Tears, following his master over 700 miles from Holly Springs, Mississippi to the “new Indian territory” in Oklahoma in the early 1830s.

Britt Willis did well for himself in the new territory. The slaveowner soon oversaw a large plantation in Doaksville, near the present site of Hugo. Just before the Civil War, he “loaned” Wallace and Minerva  to work at Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school near Fort Towson run by the Presbyterians, possibly to secure their safety.

Alexander Reid, a fierce antislavery pastor, was the superintendent of the school and took in the elderly couple, who spent many evenings singing Wallace’s songs for the school children, like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Steal Away.”

Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home;
I ain’t got long to stay here.

My Lord, he calls me;
he calls me by the thunder.
The trumpet sounds within my soul;
I ain’t got long to stay here.
 

The songs of slavery are filled with poetry, faith and a mournful strength of overcoming and the struggle and emotion born of iron chains. We don’t know the origin of most spirituals, but we appreciate the depth of meaning and cultural richness they offer. Many, like “Go Down Moses,” reflect the importance of Old Testament stories relating to the slavery of the Israelites.

Others show the power of God as he works through our OT heroes, like “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” (Joshua 6:1-27 )

and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” (Daniel 6:1-28).

Other songs reflect the joy in celebrating and being with a God who shows no partiality. In “De Gospel Train,”

all are urged to “get on board” the heaven bound train because there’s room for all and

 De fare is cheap an’ all can go, de rich an poor are dere

no second class aboard dis train, no diffrence in de fare

While most slaves owned very little, they knew they would be walking all over heaven in shoes, wearing a robe and a crown! And they reminded listeners that not every one who claims faith would be there.

I’ve got shoes, you’ve got a shoes
All of God’s chilruns got shoes
When I get to Heavn goin’ to put on my shoes
Goin’ to walk all over God’s Heavn

Heav’n, Heav’n
Ev’rybody talkin’ ‘bout Heav’n ain’t goin’ there

Heav’n, Heav’n

Goin’ to walk all over God’s Heavn

In haunting melodies they sing of their love for the suffering Christ, who knew their pain and agony. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…nobody knows but Jesus.

Soon a will be done-a with the troubles of the world….goin home to live with God.

Many of the spirituals we know today were preserved through the mission of the Fisk University Singers, who toured with the songs from 1871 to 1878. When Rev. Reid heard the choir, he shared the songs he had heard Wallace and Minerva Willis sing. As Wallace’s grandson Frances Banks recalled in the WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives:

My grandfather, Uncle Wallace, was a slave of the Wright  (Willis) fam’ly when dey lived near Doaksville, and he and my grandmother would pass de time by singing while dey toiled away in de cotton fields. Grandfather was a sweet singer. He made up songs and sung ’em. He made up ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ and ‘Steal Away to Jesus.’ He made up lots more’n dem, but a Mr. Reid, a white man, liked dem ones de best and he could play music and he helped grandfather to keep dese two songs. I loves to hear ’em.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was first recorded in December 1909 by the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, a male foursome carrying on the legacy of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. In 2002, the Library of Congress honored it as one of 50 recordings added to the National Recording Registry. It was also included in “Songs of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Black History Month is a great time to listen to and sing the spirituals, songs uniquely tied to the blood-soaked cotton fields of the plantations by a people bearing the terrible burden of iron chains, who looked heavenward — and northward — for salvation and freedom.

Our senior choir sings the songs year round, because we love the expression of praise and worship of Christ, the sharing of a gospel, reflected in sweet poetry and lush melody.

The brightest day that ever I saw

comin for to carry me home

When Jesus washed my sins away

coming for to carry me home.

These spirituals also recall the reality of a life of punishing hardship that is an essential part of all of our history.

 I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down.

comin for to carry me home.

But still my soul feels heavenly bound

comin for to carry me home.

We also sing them to remember a humble man who walked the Trail of Tears, who hoed long rows of cotton under the blazing sun, who loved the Lord, and who sang so sweetly: Wallace Willis.

Historians say he is buried in an unmarked grave in the slave section of the old Doaksville Cemetery. But maybe, just maybe, he was standing by the Red River when the blazing chariots of heaven swung low, comin’ for to carry him home.

Christine Weerts, author of "Heroes of Faith: Rosa Young," directs the senior choir at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Autauga County, Ala., founded in 1922 through the ministry of African American missionary Rosa J. Young. She has degrees in music (BA) and religion (MA) and is a freelance writer.

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