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How Sweet the Sound: American Sacred Music
Guest conductor Wayland Rogers

The first half of this program features American sacred music of the 19th century as it is found in three traditions: shape-note hymns, African-American spirituals and Shaker songs; the latter half features contemporary works that have been influenced by these and other religious traditions.

The abundant flowering of religious music coincided with the religious fervor that captured rural America in the south and west at the start of the 19th century. Continuing for more than a century, it erupted in 1801 with the first outdoor camp meeting revival, a week-long gathering of between 12,000 and 25,000 Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. These meetings were marked by passionate preaching, fervent exhortation, and extraordinary physical manifestations of conversion including shouting, dancing, barking, trembling and singing.

Many eyewitness accounts relate the nearly continuous singing from morning until late at night, sometimes singing as one body and just as often singing as many as six different songs simultaneously, with each group singing the songs familiar particularly to its own church. Astonishingly, the gathering welcomed slaves. They occupied a distinct area adjacent to the Caucasians.

The cross-fertilization between the European-style hymns of the whites and the songs of the African-American slaves would prove an important milestone in the development of American folk music.

The camp-meeting phenomenon spawned thousands of new “spiritual songs” that soon began to appear in print in small, portable “songster” books. Like traditional 18th-century hymnals, these contained text only; the tunes were known by heart.

Much of the music of those days would have been lost were it not for the proliferation of singing schools and shape-note hymn books that appeared in abundance between 1800 and the Civil War. In the shape note system of notation, each note of the scale is given a specific shape in addition to being placed on the staff. The Kentucky Harmony of 1820 was the first to include a significant number of these songs.

However, the most important collection to be published was The Sacred Harp in 1844. It became and remains the primary source for what some refer to as the “white spiritual.” This book is still published, the latest edition being 1991, and the traditional “singings” have a strong following throughout the United States. You may attend one in Chicago! Click here to learn more.

The most famous song to come out of this tradition is AMAZING GRACE. The text, by Englishman John Newton, was first published in 1779 and was sung to several different tunes before coming to roost in the tune known as New Britain, the origin of which is unknown. We are singing the first two verses in three parts—as it first appeared in The Southern Harmony, a shape-note hymnal compiled by William Walker in 1835. The last three verses we are singing in four parts as it appeared in 1844 in The Sacred Harp. A comprehensive history of the song can be found here.

The version of HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION performed in our concert is probably not the one familiar to most churchgoers. I learned this rare, beautiful Southern Appalachian song from a recording by the Berea College (Kentucky) Choir in the 1950s — I’ve not been able to find it in printed form.

WAYFARING STRANGER has been widely sung since folksinger Burl Ives recorded it in 1944. It is one of those songs disputed by scholars as to its source, whether black spiritual or white folk song. The text may be found for the first time in 1858, but a variant of the tune did not appear in print until 1882.

BEEN DOWN INTO THE SEA, on the other hand, is most definitely a black spiritual. The tune is first found in Old Plantation Hymns of 1899. I first learned it from the aforementioned Berea College Choir recording. A Hallelujah chorus is a defining feature of many camp-
meeting songs. Some plantation owners required their slaves to attend the white church, where they were consigned to the gallery seats. There they accepted the religion of evangelical Baptists and Methodists and heard the hymns that they would appropriate for use in their own manner. These became “spirituals,” which they sang in their own “invisible” churches where they gathered to practice their particular combination of Christian and African religion. The exclusively black church was only in its early stages at the turn of the century; only three existed prior to 1800.

The spiritual BALM IN GILEAD serves as an example of the transformation from one genre to the other. It is derived from the text of the chorus interpolated in 1854 by Washington Glass into a pre-existing hymn of 1799 by John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”). The music of the spiritual is in no way similar to the melody of the hymn. The words, along with several brand new verses, were merely fashioned into a new song.

The first printed version of AIN’A THAT GOOD NEWS is found in the 1901 publication, New Jubilee Songs Sung by Fisk Jubilee Singers. This group of students of Fisk University (founded in Nashville, Tennessee, six months after the end of the Civil War) was responsible for introducing the spiritual to the wider world. Their international tour of 1871 not only broke racial barriers in America but entertained kings and queens of Europe.

The Shaker sect began in England in 1747 and came to America in 1774. Like Baptists and Methodists at that time, Shakers also practiced an ecstatic form of divine inspiration in their meetings that included visions, speaking in tongues and shouting. In addition, Shakers performed proscribed dances consisting of concentric circles. Their name derives from the shaking motion of the hands during these and other dances (shaking out sin).

Shaker missionaries attended the aforementioned camp meetings to recruit members, since procreation was not allowed among members. They added enough new converts to start two communities in Kentucky: South Union and Pleasant Hill.

Music was considered an important divine gift by members of the Shaker community, and, fortunately, when such inspiration struck a person it was written down using his or her own distinctive notation system.

GENTLE WORDS was written by Sister Polly M. Rupe of the Pleasant Hill, Kentucky community.

This arrangement of SHAKER ROUND DANCE attempts to suggest aurally the effect of the worshippers dancing in concentric circles, men and women in opposing wheels within wheels. Nonsense syllables were commonly used for the choruses. The tune comes from the Enfield, Connecticut community.

NOT ONE SPARROW IS FORGOTTEN can be found in the Canterbury Shakers Hymnal of 1908. It comes from the Mount Lebanon, New York community.

RISE, RISE MY SOUL uses a text from 1710 by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts and can also be found in The Sacred Harp. This piece makes use of the pentatonic scale, a favorite mode of shape-note songs.

O SOURCE OF PEACE is a prayer found in Gates of Prayer: the New Union Prayer Book of Reform Judaism.

REJOICE AND BE JOYFUL combines text from Joel 2 and the Mass Liturgy. It was commissioned by Edward Lally for St. Ferdinand Catholic Church in Chicago. Its dance-like rhythms are similar to the Shaker dance songs.

Bobby McFerrin’s PSALM 23 is written in the style of an Anglican chant. He has said that he wants to show the love of God as it manifests itself in the nurturing care of women. It is dedicated to his mother.

The syncopated rhythms of Rosephanye Powell’s THE WORD WAS GOD brings to mind that found in some black spirituals of the 19th century.

PILGRIM’S HYMN comes from an opera by Stephen Paulus based on a Tolstoy short story, “The Three Hermits.” The text of the hymn is adapted from a Russian Orthodox prayer.

– Notes by Wayland Rogers

7:30pm, Saturday, May 3
Our Lady of Victory
5212 W. Agatite Avenue, Chicago

4:00pm, Sunday, May 4
Ebenezer Lutheran Church
1650 W. Foster, Chicago

4:00pm, Sunday, May 11
Grace Lutheran Church
7300 Division Street, River Forest

Adults $20, Seniors $15, Students $10
Click here to purchase tickets.

Past concert details can be viewed here.