Zion Baptist Church

Zion Baptist Church

A Spiritual Heritage For The Soul

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 it’s 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 is 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 use 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.