On Saturday, May 12 The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers will perform at the First Baptist Church. The program is called “An Evening of Negro Spirituals.” The ensemble was formed in 2010 by Ithaca College professor Baruch Whitehead and others in order to bring this particular musical canon to the attention of the Ithaca community.
“I had been wanting to do it for a while,” said Whitehead. “I wanted to preserve these spirituals. A lot of people don’t really know them.” Whitehead himself does know them, and not just as an academic; he grew up singing many of these spirituals in church during his Louisiana upbringing.
Spirituals represent a mixture of European and African cultural elements. “When the slaves were first brought over there was a process of acculturation,” said the music professor. “They were exposed to European hymn singing, although they had to sit separately in the balcony.”
But generations of African-Americans made the hymns learned in churches their own, according to Whitehead, by holding their own ceremonies in the out of doors, out of earshot of their European-American captors. “They added syncopation and clapping,” Whitehead said, “and it became their own musical form.”
The spirituals are older and more church-bound than gospel music. They employ four-part harmonies that are sung a cappella and retell the stories of the Bible. Because the slaves were forbidden to learn how to read, an oral tradition was preserved and pass along through song. The stories of the struggle between Moses and the Pharaoh encouraged African-Americans not to give up hope in the years before the Civil War.
“Gospel is basically a first cousin of the blues,” said Whitehead. “People like Ray Charles took church music and brought it into the night club.” Even now, he said, if you didn’t listen to the lyrics of gospel music, you would think you were in a night club. Gospel has, of course, found its way back into churches, but for Whitehead it retains the influence of the secular world that is quite absent in the spirituals.
The “jubilee singers” part of the Ithaca ensemble’s name is inherited from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk College is an historically black school in Nashville, Tenn. It was founded in 1866, but was in financial trouble by 1871. A group of students formed the Jubilee Singers and toured Europe and the United States, raising $50,000, a lot of money in the 19th century. Since then ‘jubilee singers’ as been a traditional part of the name of groups that sing spirituals.
During his childhood and early education Whitehead noticed that spirituals were not considered part of the European paradigm and were not included in the programs at art-music venues. Since that 1970s that has changed. Academics like Whitehead has begun to study the history and structure of Negro spiritual music.
“In the South we had a hymn book, but we didn’t sing out of it,” he said. “When I actually sat down and read them, I actually didn’t recognize them.” What he had sung as a child had been through what is popularly referred to as “the folk process.” In oral traditions the music and lyrics tend to evolve inexorably in both space and time.
Whitehead journeyed to west Africa in order to do research of traditional drumming in Ghana. He was startled to discover that he recognized some of the songs that were being sung there; some of them had apparently contributed to the spirituals that he had learned as a child. He will be returning to Ghana later this spring.
Another project of interest to him is the lyrical content of some of the songs, which reputedly contain coded messages for travelers on the Underground Railroad.
On May 17 Whitehead will direct the Ithaca Community Choruses group VOICES in “A Tribute to Broadway.” The program includes songs from 16 different musicals from throughout the 20th century.
Although the musical tradition of Broadway composition is quite different from that of the spirituals, the lyrical content of the songs includes a surprising amount of progressive sentiment. “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific makes the point that racism has to be taught, a somewhat revolutionary idea in the mid 1940s. Ragtime and Les Miserables explores social justice themes, and Hairspray addresses racism, misogyny and ideas of beauty in 1960s Baltimore.
The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers will perform at 7 p.m at the First Baptist Church. Whitehead also directs the Ithaca Community Choruses. The VOICES ensemble will perform “A Tribute to Broadway” at Ford Hall on Thursday, May 17 at 7 p.m. Tickets available at ithacacommunitychoruses.org.