Kumbaya: Stories of an African American Spiritual (podcast)

With the help of AFC archivists, Stephen Winick and John Fenn reveal the history of a great work of African American folk creativity: the spiritual “Kumbaya” or “Come By Here.” You’ll hear how it was collected from oral tradition in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1920s, and hear it become the first State Historical Song of Georgia on the floor of the Georgia State Senate. You’ll find out how the words “come by here,” sung in a regional dialect, came to be spelled “Kumbaya” around the world. Listen here

Literacy, History, and African American Spirituals

Members of a Pentecostal church praising the Lord in Chicago, 1941 (Library of Congress).

In his 1935 interview with Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Quarterman, a ninety-one-year-old formerly enslaved man, shared a spiritual that expressed the discursive realities of enslavement. Legally denied literacy, African Americans developed a dynamic oral discourse through both slave songs and the performance of orality. read more

NEW BOOK: Spirituals and the Birth of a Black Entertainment Industry

Front CoverNew book by Sandra Jean Graham (University of Illinois Press2018)

Spirituals performed by jubilee troupes became a sensation in post-Civil War America. First brought to the stage by choral ensembles like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, spirituals anchored a wide range of late nineteenth-century entertainments, including minstrelsy, variety, and plays by both black and white companies. In the first book-length treatment of postbellum spirituals in theatrical entertainments, Sandra Jean Graham mines a trove of resources to chart the spiritual’s journey from the private lives of slaves to the concert stage. Graham navigates the conflicting agendas of those who, in adapting spirituals for their own ends, sold conceptions of racial identity to their patrons. In so doing they lay the foundation for a black entertainment industry whose artistic, financial, and cultural practices extended into the twentieth century. A companion website contains jubilee troupe personnel, recordings, and profiles of 85 jubilee groups. Please go to: http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/graham/spirituals/

Music/Worship Aids for Martin Luther King, Jr, Birthday

Smith, William Farley. “Cries of Freedom in Afro-American Spirituals:  and Black History Month Recognition.” Drew Gateway 61 (1991): 60–70.

Presents an overview of slaves during antebellum America. The African American leaders in the churches encouraged slaves to rise and strike for freedom. One particular pastor was Henry Highland Garnet, an advocate of militant abolitionism from Buffalo, New York. Supports Garnet’s work and argues that it is theologically sound, as are 98 percent of the slave songs. With that in mind, Smith outlines a potential order of worship for a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday and African American History Month recognition. Includes a brief bibliography of collections, writings, and commentaries on slave songs.