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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1993—Volume 6:11

Pianist, Christ Congregation
Dallas, Texas  

I. Introduction 

It is reported that even the bellhops that Easter morning in Washington, D.C. prayed, “Lord, please don’t let it rain!” 

Their prayer—and that of thousands of others—was answered. Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, dawned gray and cloudy, but it didn’t rain. Washington in 1939 was a sleepy Southern town not noted for its racial justice. Why should the bellhops care? A distinguished lady member of the racial group of many of them, a lady who had conquered the capitals of Europe with her magnificent voice, was to sing at the impressive Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. Room for all people of every ethnic group. 

The story is well known. Marian Anderson was to have sung at prestigious Constitution Hall, then the only large auditorium in Washington—until the Daughters of the American Revolution found out that the performer who wanted to rent their Hall was an African American (a race forbidden to perform by a clause in the by-laws of their Hall). 

The reaction in the music world and elsewhere was shock: 

Leading musicians whom Marian did not know canceled their concerts at Constitution Hall; journalists, government and religious leaders, public and private citizens alike, rose as one. This insult to American democracy was more than they could stand.

“I am ashamed to play at Constitution Hall,” said Jasha Heifitz, one of the world’s leading violinists.

“One of the most monstrous and stupid things that has happened in America in years,” said Heywood Broun, journalist.

Walter Damrosch, composer-conductor; Deems Taylor, critic; Lawrence Tibbett, Metropolitan star and president of the American Guild of Musical Artists; Fiorello La Guardia, Mayor of New York City; and hundreds of others sent the D.A.R. wires of protest. Wired Deems Taylor: 

This action subverts the clear meaning of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights, and places your organization in the camp of those who seek to destroy democracy, justice, and liberty.[1] 

The D.A.R.’s decision became a cause célèbre. Here are Miss Anderson’s own recollections: 

I was in San Francisco, I recall, when I passed a newsstand, and my eye caught a headline: MRS. ROOSEVELT TAKES STAND. Under this was another line, in bold print just a bit smaller: RESIGNS FROM D.A.R., etc. I was on my way to the concert hail for my performance and could not stop to buy a paper. I did not get one until after the concert, and I honestly could not conceive that things had gone so far.[2] 

Nearly twenty years later, when she described the Easter concert in her autobiography, she had to look up the details. Again, the contralto’s own remembrance: 

All I knew then as I stepped forward was the overwhelming impact of that vast multitude. There seemed to be people as far as the eye could see. The crowd stretched in a great semicircle from the Lincoln Memorial around the reflecting pool on to the shaft of the Washington Monument. I had a feeling that a great wave of good will poured out from these people, almost engulfing me. And when I stood up to sing our National Anthem I felt for a moment as though I were choking. For a desperate second I thought that the words, well as I know them, would not come.

I sang. I don’t know how. There must have been the help of professionalism I had accumulated over the years. Without it I could not have gone through the program. I sang—and again I know because I consulted a newspaper clipping—”America,” the aria “O mio Fernando,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and three spirituals—”Gospel Train,” “Trampin’,” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.”[3] 

It became a tradition with Miss Anderson to sing all sorts of classical pieces and end with three or four spirituals.[4] 

II. The Genre “Negro Spiritual” 

The religious songs commonly called “spirituals” grew out of both West African musical roots and the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16) used in early 19th century mixed-race churches and later in black ones. Choruses were added to the regular Protestant hymns. Some conservative black ministers disapproved, but the new material met such a need that they eventually outstripped the traditional music of European origin. 

Booker T. Washington, the famous African American educator, expressed what spirituals really are as follows: 

The negro [sic] folksong has for the negro race the same value that the folksong of any other people has for that people. It reminds the race of the “rock whence it was hewn,” it fosters race pride, and in the days of slavery it furnished an outlet for the anguish of smitten hearts

The plantation songs known as the “spirituals” are the spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervor, and had their origin chiefly in the campmeetings, the revivals, and in other religious exercises. They breathe a childlike faith in a personal Father and glow with the hope that the children of bondage will ultimately pass out of the wilderness of slavery into the land of freedom.[5] 

III. The Words of the Spirituals 

In a hymnal or any song book the left hand side of the selection will list the author of the words and the right hand side will give the composer. When it comes to folksongs, including spirituals, we rarely know either one. These songs just sprang from the heart, probably words and music often at the same time.

We will nevertheless discuss words and music as our two main topics, in that order. 

The literary content of the spirituals is nearly as wide and varied as the Bible itself. Famous stories from Genesis to Revelation are popularized in such universally-known songs (in the U.S.A., but also beyond its borders, through such artists as Miss Anderson[6]) as “Go Down Moses,” “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” “Little David Play on Your Harp,” “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” “Were You There?” and “My Lord, What a Morning.” 

The Literary Style of the Spirituals 

The styles vary: plaintive, such as “Steal Away to Jesus”; devout, such as “Were You There?”; boisterous, such as “Joshua Fit [Fought] the Battle”; tender, such as “Sweet Little Jesus Boy”—and really the whole gamut of human emotions. What John Calvin said about the Psalms can also be said about spirituals: They express “an anatomy of all parts of the soul… All the sorrows, troubles, fears, doubts, hopes, pains, perplexities and stormy outbreaks by which the hearts of men are tossed—have been depicted here to the very life.”[7] 

The quality of the words varies greatly, but by and large the force of the words depends on repetition, deep sincerity, charming simplicity, sometimes humor, sometimes serious warning. The language is not formal American English, but casual and not always grammatically “correct.” This, however, is part of its charm. Who would trade “It’s Me, It’s Me, O Lord, Standin’ in the Need of Prayer” for “It is I, It is I, O Lord, Severely Lacking Intercession”? 

Harold Courlander summarizes the variegated qualities of the spirituals: 

They are not all equally good or equally evocative. Each carries the mark of the feeling and genius that created it. Some achieve the level of pure or great poetry while others contrive to make drama out of prosaic substance, and still others never quite manage to escape being doggerel.[8] 

Courlander notes that today some people are saying the spirituals were actually political, not religious statements:

 Considerable attention has been paid in recent times to the possibility that a large number of spirituals were not what they seemed on the surface, but in actuality were songs full of hidden meanings, hints, messages, and signals for slaves looking toward escape. The spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus,” for example, frequently has been pointed out as a double-meaning song—ostensibly religious in intent, but in reality an invitation to the slaves to steal away to freedom: 

Steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home.
I ain’t got long to stay here.
My Lord calls me, He calls me by the thunder,
The trumpet sounds within my soul.
I ain’t got long to stay here. 

Similarly, the spiritual “Go Down Moses” has been regarded as a significant double-meaning song:

 When Israel was in Egypt’s Land,

   Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
   Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s Land,
   Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go![9] 

The Doctrine of the Spirituals 

By and large the spirituals reflect the conservative biblical Protestantism of the Old South. (Of course, there are exceptions.) Deep, sincere faith in God, in Christ, in the Bible, in heaven and hell—all are expressed through a uniquely African-American culture and outlook. Just as the sunlight is one as it hits a stained-glass window, yet separates inside the church to reveal a spectrum of variegated colors, so biblical stories and teachings are filtered through the polychrome window of different ethnic experiences to appeal to a wide variety of people. 

While the spirituals were probably employed from time to time with a political meaning, it is best to see them as what they are: religious outpourings of a devout people. 

On the other hand, not all Negro spirituals pass the “grace test.” While one spiritual will express confident resting on the Savior’s blood atonement, another will stress works, human efforts, and a lack of assurance of salvation. 

Some of the spirituals, like some of any other songs of Christendom, show a clear assurance of salvation, and others are fraught with doubts and anxieties. Others,do not touch on this issue at all. 

In 1801 a hymnal was published for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation in Philadelphia. There were two editions, both edited by Bethel’s minister, Richard Allen (1760-1831).                               

Richard Allen’s hymnal is of historic significance for several reasons. It was the first hymnbook compiled by a black man for use by a black congregation. As a “folk-selected” anthology, it indicates which hymns were popular among black Methodists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many of these hymns served as source material for the spirituals of the slaves—the so-called Negro spirituals. To phrases, couplets, and stanzas culled from favorite hymns, the slaves added other verses and refrains to compose the texts of their spirituals. Finally, according to all evidence, Allen’s hymnal is apparently the earliest source in history that includes hymns to which “wandering” choruses or refrains are attached; that is, choruses that are freely added to any hymn rather than affixed permanently to specific hymns.[10] 

Free Grace Spirituals 

The very first hymn in this premier African-American hymnal is quite specifically what we call Free Grace oriented. Here are the first two stanzas and refrain: 

The voice of Free Grace cries, escape to the mountain,
For Adam’s lost race Christ hath open’d a fountain,
For sin and transgression, and every pollution,
His blood it flows freely in plenteous redemption.
Hallelujah to the Lamb who purchas’d our pardon,
We’ll praise Him again when we pass over Jordan.
That fountain so clear, in which all may find pardon,
From Jesus’s side flows plenteous redemption,
Though your sins were increas’d as high as a mountain,
His blood flows freely in streams of salvation. 

A spiritual that expresses a similar assured knowledge of salvation is “I Know the Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me”: 

I’m born of God I know I am,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me,
Been new born by the dying Lamb,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me.
Oh, I know the Lord,
I know the Lord,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me.
He took me from the miry clay,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me,
And told me to walk the narrow way,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me.
I never felt such love before,
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me,
Saying, “Go in peace and sin no more,”
I know the Lord has laid His hands on me. 

 Works-Oriented Spirituals 

On the other hand, many spirituals are works-oriented and express only a hope of getting to heaven, “tryin’ to get in”: 

I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow,
I’m in this world alone;
No hope in this world for tomorrow,
I’m trying to make heaven my home.
Sometimes I am tossed and driven,
Sometimes I don’t know where to roam;
I’ve heard of a city called heaven,
I’ve started to make it my home.
My mother’s gone on to pure glory,
My father’s still walking in sin;
My sisters and brothers won’t own me
Because I’m tryin’ to get it. 

Two other spirituals which express only the desire and the hope of eternal life include the following first stanzas with refrain or “chorus”: 

Good Lord, When I Die 
I want to go to Heaven
    When I die.
I want to go to Heaven
When I die.
I want to go to Heaven
When I die.’
Good Lord, when I die.
Good Lord, when I die,
Good Lord, when I die,
Good Lord, when I die, shout one,
Good Lord, when I die.
I Hope I’ll Join the Band
Ride up in the chariot,
Soon-a in the morning,
Ride up in the chariot,
Soon-a in the morning,
Ride up in the chariot,
Soon-a in the morning,
And I hope I’ll join the band.
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me,
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me,
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me,
And I hope I’ll join the band.  

IV. The Music of the Spirituals 

In considering the musical aspects of the spirituals as separate from the texts of the songs, it is important, writes Krehbiel, to remember that spirituals are folksongs: 

Such songs are marked by certain peculiarities of rhythm, form and melody which are traceable, more or less clearly, to racial (or national) temperament, modes of life, climatic and political conditions, geographical environment and language[11] 


As folksongs, the spirituals which originated in the United States present an interesting phenomenon in that their musical peculiarities derive from a merging of racial or national musical characteristics. The musical influence most often associated with the songs is that of the various West African cultures represented among the African-American population of the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These people came from societies in which music was a vital part of every phase of daily life, and where music-making was considered necessary. It should be noted that while the music of these various cultures shared common characteristics, there were also features that distinguished one from another, just as many German folksongs have a sound quite distinct from many Scandinavian tunes, though the people of both groups historically come from a common stock. 

In the United States, West African musical characteristics blended with European influences: “Many characteristics of African musical styles persist to this day. Some of those characteristics are melodic or rhythmic concepts. “[12] 

Similarly, “the European elements of Negro folk music in the United States are many. English, Scottish, and Irish folk tunes, sea chanteys, hymns, and white spirituals have made a deep impact.”[13] James Cone maintains that “the spirituals are obviously not in an African musical idiom. . . But. . . the obstinate fact of a great difference between Negro folk songs and the white campmeeting hymns exists.[14] 

Variation of Form Within a Single Spiritual 

A common characteristic of authentic folksongs is that any particular tune may exist in two or more forms, each containing slight variations from the others. This is because the songs were usually passed along orally for quite some time before being written down. One singer would render the tune a bit differently from the version he or she originally heard, and this rendition would persist in the versions performed by those to whom it was taught. It is worth noting that this is the case with spirituals. Written versions of the spirituals were taken down in the mid-to late 1800’s by musicians interested in preserving them. Sometimes they are slightly (or more than slightly) different from the versions performed by artists who include the spirituals in their repertoire. This may also be attributable to the fact that now, over one hundred years later, the current versions likely contain fewer of the “peculiarities” that the earlier versions derived from more direct West African influences. Indeed, these idiosyncrasies made a difficult job for the nineteenth century musicians. Wrote Lucy McKim, Garrison, in 1862: 

The off 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.[15]

 In attempting to fit distinctively non-European idioms to a European notation system, it is almost certain that some of the “uncapturable” qualities of the spirituals were altered in the process. Since spirituals today are probably performed at least as much from written sources as from oral tradition, the versions we are familiar with vary somewhat from seventeenth and eighteenth century versions. In analyzing the musical features of spirituals we shall consider them as we commonly hear them performed today. The current versions still have enough distinctive features to readily set them apart from other bodies of music.

The three basic components of any type of music are (1) rhythm, (2) melody, and (3) harmony (or a lack thereof). In the case of spirituals, the two features which would likely be performed in the same basic way, regardless of the particular performer, are melody and rhythm. Harmonization of any particular tune may vary much more, depending on the type of performance (soloist, ensemble, choir, instrument, etc.) and the taste of the performer and/or arranger of the setting. Therefore, it seems most practical to limit the discussion here to features of melody and rhythm. 


 A starting point for analyzing the melodic features of a body of music is the scale system, or systems, it employs. For example, most melodies rooted in European tradition are based on either the seven-tone major scale or one of three seven-tone minor scales which might be considered variations on the major scale.

 There are, however, numerous other scale systems. One of these, the pentatonic (five-tone) scale, “is probably the oldest tonal system in the world and the most widely dispersed.”[16] It is easy to hear the sound of this scale by playing only the black keys on a piano, or by singing the tones of a major scale, omitting the fourth and seventh tones: Do Re Mi [no Fa] Sol La [no Ti] Do. Its frequent use in the folk melodies of many widely divergent culture & suggests that the pentatonic scale may be a naturally comfortable system for the human voice to handle. 

In the early part of this century, musicologist Henry Krehbiel analyzed the musical features of 527 Afro-American folksongs. He found that 111 of the songs were completely based on the pentatonic scale.[17] Krehbiel classified another 331 of the songs as “major,” but noted that of this number “seventy-eight… have no seventh and forty-five have no fourth.”[18] The same author notes that “many Negro songs utilized... ‘gapped’ systems such as the ordinary major scale lacking its fourth or its seventh—in other words, the pentatonic plus an additional note, either the major fourth or the major seventh.[19] 

While none of the songs mentioned in this article is completely pentatonic, each is essentially so. For example, 81 of the 85 tones comprising “Deep River” (see Conclusion) are pentatonic; of the four non-pentatonic tones, three are the seventh tone of the major scale, and the other is the major fourth. 

Besides a decided leaning toward pentatonic tonality, another melodic feature shared by many spirituals is a wide compass, that is, the difference in pitch between the lowest and highest notes of a melody. Few spirituals have a compass “smaller than an octave, and many extend over a range of a tenth or a twelfth.”[20] (Tenths, twelfths and octaves [eighths] are measurements of the distance between two pitches based on the number of scale tones separating them.) “Deep River” and “Were You There?” both cover a compass of an eleventh, while “My Lord, What a Mornin’” covers a ninth. By comparison, most hymn tunes based solely on European tradition cover a compass of an octave or less. 


 Spirituals “show a decided preference for simple duple [= double] meters, as distinguished from triple meters.”[21] Meter, as students of poetry as well as music will remember, is the regular pattern of strong and weak beats upon which the syllables of a poem or the musical tones of a melody “ride.” In duple meter, beats are grouped together in twos: STRONG/weak. Groupings of four beats—STRONG/weak/weak/ weak—would also be considered duple in musical analysis. It should be noted however, that duple meter using four beats to the pattern is frequently performed: STRONG/weak/WEAK/weak. The third beat in the pattern is given more emphasis than the second or fourth, but not as much as the first. In triple meter, beats are grouped by threes: STRONG/weak/weak. (“Amazing Grace” is an example of a melody in triple meter.) Less than one-tenth of the songs analyzed by Krehbiel were in triple time.[22] The spirituals discussed in this article are in duple meter. 

Melodies based on European tradition ordinarily begin longer sounds on the stronger count or counts within the beat pattern being used. For example, in four-beat duple meter, longer sounds would ordinarily begin on beats one or three. When a longer sound is, instead, begun on a weak beat, the result is syncopation. Syncopated rhythmic patterns are a prominent feature of spirituals. In “My Lord, What a Mornin’,” the words “My Lord” and “Mornin” are set to a syncopated pattern each time they occur. “Were You There?” syncopates the words “sometimes” and “tremble.” And syncopated patterns are used for “river,” “Jordan” and “campground” in the refrain of “Deep River,” as well as for the words “Oh, don’t” at the beginning of the song’s verse. “Deep River” also contains several examples of a one-syllable word sung on two different pitches using a syncopated rhythm: “go,” “feast,” and “land.” 

The spirituals’ distinctive rhythmic patterns stem from their West African heritage. 

Negro church music… [has] more sophisticated elements of offbeats, retarded beats, and anticipated beats than does Euro-American folk music in general. The import of African tradition to the rhythmic element in American Negro music is more or less taken for granted.[23] 

In discussing Afro-American folk music in general, Southern notes that, “Against the fixed rhythms of the time-line, the melodies moved freely, producing cross rhythms that constantly clashed with the pulse patterns. [24] 

In light of the preceding statement, it is worth noting that in spirituals in general, the rhythmic patterns, including syncopation, do not produce a “clashing” effect. The rhythms do not intrude upon the melodies but, rather, seem quite natural to the poetic and melodic flow. Krehbiel gives a possible explanation for this: 

In South America and the West Indies, Spanish melody has been imposed on African rhythm. In the United States, the rhythmical element, though still dominant, has yielded measurably to the melodic, the dance having given way to religious worship, sensual bodily movement to emotional utterance.[25] 

Variety Mirrors the Creator 

In molding and purifying the individual believer to be conformed to the image of our Lord Jesus Christ, God does not erase the unique aspects of temperament, ability, and personality with which He created that person. That He should desire all Christians to manifest one correct “clone” personality would be antithetical to the character of a God whose creation is nothing if not evidence that He loves variety. Likewise, there is not one homogenous, “holy” musical style. The evidence seems, instead, to suggest that our Lord delights in preserving the unique features of a culture’s music while molding and purifying that music, through the believers who compose and perform it, into a worthy expression of worship to Him. 

V. Believing the Gospel Story 

From earliest childhood Marian Anderson attended the Union Baptist Church of Philadelphia, where her voice was increasingly recognized and appreciated in choirs. Young Marian was not to be a nominal Christian or even just an active church member. She became what we would call a “believer.” While her friends included both black and white neighbors, when she got beyond the circle of people who knew and respected her family, Marian at times ran into racial prejudice that was devastating to a sensitive girl. Sometimes she felt hurt, sometimes anger, sometimes a mixture of both. Due to her mother’s good training she wanted to have the power to love and forgive her enemies as Christ did when He was mistreated. Not long after her father’s passing away, there was a presentation at her church which included preaching by Pastor Wesley G. Parks interspersed with spirituals on the life of Christ sung by the senior choir.

The program of spirituals and Scripture that day was as follows:


       I.     Sister Mary Had-a But One Child (Luke 2:1-20)
     II.     Lit’l Boy (Luke 2:41-50)
    III.     Hear de Lambs a-Cryin’? (John 21:15-22)
    IV.     The Last Supper (Matt 26:17-30)
     V.     They Led My Lord Away (Mark 14:41-26, 53)
    VI.     Were You There? (John 19)
   VII.     He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word (Matt. 27:27-44)
VIII.     Did You Hear When Jesus Rose? (Mark 16)[26] 

The second selection was about Jesus in the temple at the age of 12— just the age of Marian. She could relate to His desire to do His Father’s business. She, too, had a longing to respond like Jesus to the hard knocks of life as God would desire. 

After the eighth and final song, the preacher gave an invitation, an integral part of Baptist gospel services. He ended his appeal as follows: 

And that’s the whole gospel story, friends. You’ve heard it from the Word of God. The question is now—what will you do about it? Do you want Jesus Christ to be your Saviour? 

For at least one Philadelphian girl that day about eight decades ago, the answer was “Yes!” 

Her subsequent story indicates that the Lord Jesus did indeed give Marian the power to forgive those who trespassed against her, and to be, as one spiritual puts it, “a Christian in her heart.” 

VI. Miss Anderson’s Evaluation of Spirituals 

Perhaps only African Americans can completely relate to the spirituals, but there are people of many ethnic groups who love these songs— especially Bible Christians. 

Although she learned to sing sophisticated music in nine languages with finesse, clarity, and good diction, Marian Anderson still preferred as her favorites, the beloved songs of her childhood and youth in her family’s Baptist church in Philadelphia.

 Let us take two excerpts from her beautifully and graciously written autobiography. First, an experience he had with a great song about the death of our Lord: 

I am reminded of a time when I sang “The Crucifixion” in Oslo. This spiritual is one of the most deeply emotional of all the songs I know. In its simple words and moving music it captures the terror and tragedy of that awful moment. I felt it all that night. I was so deeply stirred myself that I was on the verge of tears, and I believe that some in the audience did weep. There was so much applause that I could not go on to the next number, so I sang it a second time. I was not happy with the repetition. One critic the next day wrote that it should not have been repeated, and he was right. When you have been given something special in a moment of grace, it is sacrilegious to be greedy.[27] 

She tells elsewhere how warmly she was received in Scandinavia, especially by the Norwegians.

 In Israel Miss Anderson was also well received and had tea with the President and his wife, met the Prime Minister, and the widow of the first President, Mrs. Chaim Weizmann.

 I took occasion to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I did the Stations of the Cross… We went to Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, and the Dead Sea, and visited the River Jordan, which had tremendous implications for me. I remembered the words of the spiritual—”The River Jordan is so wide, I don’t know how to get to the other side.”

It turned out, in fact, to be quite narrow and muddy and was a bit of a disappointment. I went to see the walls of Jericho—another name that had all kinds of meaning for me. I thought of the spiritual’s lines, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.” But the walls were not high any more. Archaeologists were doing some excavation in the area, and, seeing the results of their work, I realized that the walls must have been high after all.[28] 

The American singer was impressed by the kibbutzim (Israeli collective farms) and was pleased to share in a thousand-strong Passover celebration. “The seder and the gathering,” she writes, “were impressive and moving.[29] 

But the great contralto had seen several places mentioned in the spirituals. For Christianity is a historical faith built on real people who lived, worshiped, and, died in real places: 

And it came to me that the Negro made images out of the Bible that were as vaulting as his aspirations. He had a desire to escape from the confining restrictions and burdens of the life he led. The making and singing of a song constituted an act of liberation, even if it is was one that lasted only briefly in the imagination. He expressed his emotions and dreams in terms that were closest to him—terms from the Bible. He could see Heaven and Jerusalem and Calvary and the stone that was rolled away from the tomb. Being oppressed and persecuted, he dreamed of a city called Heaven, which would be a new home of peace and love.

I could see in Israel the geographic places that represented the reality, and they stirred me deeply. I kept thinking that my people had captured the essence of that reality and had gone beyond it to express in the spirituals the deepest necessities of their human predicament.[30] 

Long before the fall of the Soviet Union, from Leningrad to Moscow, Miss Anderson’s concerts were packed. She was warned, however, not to sing religious songs or spirituals in the U.S.S.R. because they would “fall on deaf ears.”[31] 

“They are the songs of my people,” Marian had answered. “I shall sing them whenever and wherever I please.”

And she did.[32] 

Schubert, one of Miss Anderson’s favorite composers, is well known for his setting of Ave Maria, a song banned by the communists.[33] The announcer called it “An Aria by Schubert.” At the end of her first Soviet tour, however, people rushed down the aisle, pounded on the stage, and cried, “Deep River! Heaven, Heaven!” 

One of the songs that the Soviets clamored for may seem at first blush to be far-fetched. But the references to “robes,” “crowns,” and “harps” are all derived from the last book of the Bible: 

Ah you got shoes, I got shoes,
All of God’s children got shoes.
And when I get to heaven goin’ to try on my shoes,
I’m goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven. 
Oh heaven, heaven,
Everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t goin’ there,
Heaven, heaven,
I’m goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven. 
Well you got a robe, I got a robe,
All of God’s children got a robe,
And when I get to heaven goin’ to try on my robe,
Goin’ to Shout all over God’s heaven.
Well you got a crown, I got a crown,
All of God’s children got a crown,
And when I get to heaven goin’ to try on my crown,
Goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.
Well you got a harp, I got a harp,
All of God’s children got a harp,
Ah when I get to heaven goin’ to play on my harp,
I’m goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.

 It is noteworthy that this song includes the words “everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t goin’ there.” When it was popular to be thought a Christian (unlike today), many no doubt professed a faith they did not really possess. Sadly, today, things have become so secular that few people are even talking about heaven, and there are many who aren’t trusting in Christ alone to get them there. 

VII. Conclusion 

We have only been able to touch on a few aspects of just a handful of spirituals, and especially the type of song that Marian Anderson loved better than any other. Harold Courlander summarized his chapter called “Anthems and Spirituals” with this sensitive and artistic paragraph: 

The Negro musical literature dealing with religious subject matter is rich and panoramic. It encompasses the anthems and spirituals with which we are largely familiar, chanted or half-sung sermons, improvisations by laboring gangs, the songs of itinerant street singers, and the spontaneous cries or hollers that are heard in the open fields. There is great variation among them in music and subject matter, but they all draw upon a common wellspring of inspiration and imagery… The total picture is one of splendorous vision and a sensitive comprehension of the religious precepts out of which the vision derives.[34] 

Shirlee P. Newman tells of attending Miss Anderson’s farewell concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall. In her floor-length slim white gown “she was as regal as the royalty for whom she has sung.[35]

 Her dignity, her stature, her confidence, her bearing, came from within. Standing in the curve of the piano before the golden pipes on the stage of Symphony Hall, she was in her world… 

“But I thought she was dowdy,” whispered a voice behind me. “She’s stunning!” 

“I thought she was older,” whispered another. “How old is she, anyhow?” 

Miss Anderson doesn’t tell. And neither shall I. It really does not matter. She is ageless. 

I had been early for the concert that Sunday afternoon, and I’d lingered in the lobby watching the audience assemble. Boston society arrived in chauffeur-driven limousines… political dignitaries alighted from cars with single-digit license plates… But perhaps the most stirring arrival of all was a frail young Negro woman who was lifted from her taxi into a wheelchair. She shivered, and as an usher wheeled her past, I heard him say, “Miss, it’s so cold—you should be wearing a coat.” 

“Oh!” she said, her bright laughter echoing through the crowded lobby, “don’t worry about me. This is the happiest day of my life. I’m going to hear Marian Anderson.”[36]

On April 8, 1993 Marian Anderson, in her 90’s,[37] crossed over that river that she sang about so eloquently:

 Deep River 

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground. 
Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground. 
O don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace? 
Oh, deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.

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[1] Shirlee P. Newman, Marian Anderson: Lady From Philadelphia (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), 105-106.

[2] Marian Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography by Marian Anderson (New York: The Viking Press, 1956), 185.

[3] lbid., 191.

[4] In preparation for this article both authors listened to a CD of 1930’s British recordings of the contralto, including compositions by Bach, Handel, Schubert, and ending with four spirituals. The sound fidelity was very poor by today’s standards but the excellence of the renditions made up for for all surface noise.

[5] Quoted by Henry Edward Krehbiel in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1962), 30.

[6] “Miss” Anderson was happily married (Mrs. Orpheus H. Fisher) but kept her maiden name for her public appearances.

[7] Quoted by William MacDonald in “The Book of Psalms,” Believers Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 545.

[8] Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 41-42.

[9] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 79.

[10] Eileen Southern, Readings in Black American Music (New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1983), 52.

[11] Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs, 2.

[12] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 1.

[13] lbid., 9.

[14] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1972), 11-12.

[15]  Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 191.

[16] Ibid., 193.

[17] Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs, 7.

[18] Ibid., 43.

[19] Ibid., 9.

[20] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 15.

[21] Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 193.

[22] Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs, 95.

[23] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 29

[24] Southern, The Music of Black Americans, 194.

[25] Krehbiel, Afro-American Folksongs, 83.

[26] Most of the details of Marian’s coming to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are from The Deep River Girl by Harry J. Albus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1949) Chapter 6, “Believing the Gospel Story,” 42-46.

[27] Anderson, My Lord What a Morning, 203-204.

[28] bid., 261.

[29] Ibid., 260.

[30] Ibid., 261-62.

[31] Newman, Lady from Philadelphia, 79.

[32] Ibid.

[33] At one of her concerts, the usually brightly-lit concert hall was dark except for a powerful spotlight on the American contralto. Later it was learned why: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was in the audience!

[34] Courlander, Negro Folk Music, 79.

[35] Newman, Lady from Philadelphia, 79.

[36]  lbid.

[37]37 Her "official" birthdate is given as 1902, but rumor has it that it was really about 1897.