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Harry T. Burleigh portrait by Clement von Buseck

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The Origins of the Spirituals

By Craig von Buseck Producer - The following is an excerpt from the upcoming narrative biography, "The Lamplighter: The Life and Music of Harry T. Burleigh".

Over time, southern slaves developed plantation songs that also carried secret messages. Only the slaves knew their meaning. It was through these songs that important information was passed along a system of communication throughout the South. Coded songs conveyed messages about rebellions or escapes through the Underground Railroad. They were also a way for the slave to "sass the Massa" without fear of retribution. The plantation owners and overseers never suspected their smiling chattel who sang such simple songs - or so they made themselves believe.

There was one final group of haunting melodies, rich with emotion, and deeply moving. They were songs of hope and anticipation. Some folks called them the sorrow songs. Eventually, they would come to be known as spirituals. They were the soul-cry of the black slave, longing for freedom. They were born in the fields, among the hoed rows of cotton and tobacco. They sprang to life among the salty wharves of the Atlantic harbor and the Mississippi bayou. These songs rose to heaven above the whine of the sawmill and the roar of the waterfalls that drove them. From the painful cries of the female slave enduring yet another violation by the master, these ballads arose. They issued forth from the sweat and heartache of a lifetime of unrewarded toil.

Most of the time they had their start in the fervent heat of a backwoods religious meeting. Slaves gathered secretly to encourage one another and to cry out to God for freedom. This kind of meeting was against the law, and they knew that they could face a severe beating, or even death if they were caught. But the joy and peace that they received from heaven in these meetings made it worth the risk they faced here on earth.

The atmosphere in midst of the woods was always charged with emotion. As they mourned their wretched existence, songs would develop spontaneously - psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In time, these melodies were memorized and passed along from plantation to plantation.

Like a captive eagle, a man's spirit cries out under the tethers of oppression. In the same way that a caged bird yearns for freedom, the black slaves cried in anguish under their captivity. The spirituals were born from those cries.

As the lashes came down on their backs, the pleas to God for justice and a homeland of freedom across the Jordan rose from their bellies. The spirituals became a bloodline, bringing the vital flow of hope and faith to the emotional and spiritual heart of the slave. Through these melodies they held onto the hope of survival. By them, a unique and vibrant community formed. They served as a second language that only the slaves understood. Through these songs the slaves expressed in subtle words and melody their pain, loneliness, weariness, and sorrow - but also their hope and determination to live on.

Though the slaves were not allowed to read the Scriptures, they learned Bible stories at the church on the plantation along with the white folks. The Sunday morning routine included Sunday school, singing hymns, Bible reading, and the sermon - where the preacher told them to obey the Misses and the Master.

But the slaves also learned God's word from white and black abolitionist preachers from the North who traveled through the southern states. After the Great Awakening, some southern whites who had come into the "new light" became Baptists. Much to the annoyance of many southerners, these new evangelicals began teaching the slaves about the way to salvation. Black and white evangelists alike poured out their lives, preaching the gospel to the captives in secret late-night meetings.

A favorite analogy from the Scriptures used by these circuit preachers was the plight of the Hebrews of Exodus and God's handpicked leader, Moses. The African slaves identified with this ancient oppressed people. They grew to understand that it was through their faith in the God of the Bible that freedom was given to these slaves of old.

The Old Testament fired their imagination. Had not the people of Israel been enslaved in Egypt? And did not God rescue them, leading them out of bondage and into the Promised Land? Quickly they formed a close kinship with Israel. Would not God do the same for them in their enslavement? Moses became their man too, and figuratively they implored him in song, "Go down Moses - way down in Egypt's land. Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go."

The capacity to funnel the trouble of their daily lives into song was the unique genius of the black slave. They were helped in this creation by their own preachers who identified with what the congregation had been through since their last meeting. They saw husbands sold away from wives; children separated from parents; women at the mercy of their master's lusts; and men at the end of an overseer's whip. Their environment, with the lash in frequent use, told them they were in no way significant as persons - that they were important only as property. But as the slaves learned of the God of the Bible, they began to see themselves as His children.

"No, no, no!" their black preachers told them, "you are not slaves, you are the apple of God's eye, made in His very own image." They learned that it was through a good and benevolent God, who heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves, that freedom came. They realized that they were not inferior to the white man, just as the Hebrews were not inferior to the Egyptians.

The spirituals attested to this and proclaimed the goodness of this God and His ultimate triumph over evil. This is the lesson that Harry T. Burleigh learned from his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, taught him every time they went out to light the gas lamps in Erie, PA. And that that is the message that Burleigh shared with the world through his artistic arrangements of the Spirituals.

The slaves would taste freedom, they believed, across the Jordan River of death - and some sweet day in the here and now. Looking forward to that day of freedom, the slaves sang of the "Deep River," with its mighty waters flowing into distant horizons. As the embers glowed in the fire, in the heart of the forest they would sing:

Deep river -- my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Don't you want to go to that Gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace.
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

For a time, the slaves simply by-passed the New Testament, especially since their white taskmasters used it to justify slavery. But there was something about the man Jesus, hanging there upon the hard, wooden cross. Here was a man who was beaten like they were. He was spit upon. He was falsely accused. He was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Finally, he was hung on a tree, a method of execution familiar to the slaves. Through all of these indignities, Jesus prayed, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

"How was he able to forgive?" they questioned. "What was it that enabled him to love those who were unlovable?" Was he in pain? They were in pain. Did he have to drink the cup of suffering? They had to drink theirs, too. Yes, their cross was one with his cross. Jesus died for the sins of all men, of every color. He had to be who he said he was. How else could he have done what he did? In time, they embraced Jesus as their Savior, and they experienced His peace, His grace and forgiveness, and His hope for the future.

From this relationship they were able to sing:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, to tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?

From the cross they felt a mighty emergence of the divine will, breaking down the barriers that separated man from man, and man from God. And so, instead of taking the destructive road to violence, many began to hum, then to sing, and sometimes to shout the spirituals - a cry to God for freedom and a declaration of faith in His ability to provide it.

Harry T. Burleigh gave this gift to the world. When he died in 1949, the Los Angeles Times made a note of this invaluable contribution and called Burleigh "The Dean of the Negro Spirituals."

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