I had a soulful, musical experience this weekend that has left me (nearly) speechless. I went to a free afternoon concert of The American Spiritual Ensemble (ASE) at a local church—a concert to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with African American spirituals. I had no idea what a big deal the ASE is—they are “a critically-acclaimed professional group composed of some of the finest singers in the classical music world.” Their members have performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Kennedy Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Aspen Music Festival and more. They are a big deal…and they are good. Incredibly good.
I expected to hear some beautiful music, to be moved, yes—but it was so much more. It was a history lesson, a spiritual experience, and a reminder that we are all connected, that we must meet each other with compassion and in our suffering. We must lift each other up and Walk Together, Children—the first song.
O, Walk together children
Don’t you get weary
There’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land
The conductor, Dr. Everett McCorvey, shared that Negro spirituals, created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery, were songs of hope and survival. The music was a lifeline for the slaves. They had lost everything—their country, culture, language, family, and way of life, but the music gave the slaves spiritual sustenance and energy. They worked harder when they sang—and the slave owners noticed. So, they were permitted to sing all but one song, Go Down Moses.
They sang about freedom. They sang about the Promised Land, of being delivered from their slavery. They sang about their suffering and their hope. Music was their only sense of freedom. In 21st century America, we cannot understand the suffering that our African American brothers and sisters endured. And still, endure. But we can try. We can learn.
I read in the program: “The American Negro spiritual is the mother music that gave birth to jazz, blues, gospel and pop. The spiritual was born in American during the most difficult time in our history and helped America find its voice. Even as our country was being formed, slaves were not allowed to cover their own music or speak their own language. And in many cases, they were separated from their families. They had to learn a new way of communication. The melodies they sang in the cotton fields, in their homes and at camp meetings became the American slaves’ musical expression. Some of these songs date back to the 1500s.”
So how did the Negro spirituals become so influential in American music? How did they get from the fields to the concert halls? Dr. McCorvey shared that it was the world-renowned Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák, who worked at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, who permitted African Americans to be accepted into the Conservatory. Dvořák had worked extensively with the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia and believed that Native and African American music should be the foundation for American music in general. This was the beginning of writing the spirituals down—6000 songs in all.
I hear there are a lot of Czechs in Nebraska, the conductor said. This is true—I am Czech. This story made such an impression on me—how someone from around the globe can lift another up, can make a difference, and in this case, liberate the African slave experience in song for all history.
We need each other—we need to Walk Together, Children, as the song says. We cannot know when we might need help from another, when we too may become the oppressed. I am reminded of my visit to Prague, Czechia in 2014—such a beautiful city, and yet, it is notable, that their cultural identity was stripped through the oppression of communism. Oppression happens in many ways. It is our duty to come to the aid of the suffering, the marginalized, the poor—to give others hope. It is the Benedictine practice of hospitality. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule:
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matt 25:35).
And this is what today is about in the United States of America. We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—advocate for social justice, racial harmony and equality, civil rights and non-violent resistance. MLK wrote that spirituals “give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.” In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote that civil rights activists “sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday’”
We shall overcome, Black and white together,
We shall overcome someday
The King Center, a living memorial to MLK, envisions a world where global brotherhood and sisterhood are not a dream but the state of humankind. Let this be our prayer today—that we walk together as children of God, that we ease the suffering of those near and far from us, that we stand up for the oppressed—the poor, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the suffering. Let us pray, that through our efforts and the grace of God, that we shall overcome.
“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.”—Pope Francis, Address to Congress, 2015
More information: How The ‘New World’ Symphony Introduced American Music To Itself