Highlights from “A Religion that Sings”

Roger Hoard Speaks
Roger Hoard taught that our people faced disaster, uprooted from their African homes, and dragged through the Middle Passage to a strange land. Yet they came fortified by their tribal religions with upper and lesser gods. On these shores they learned another God whom they embraced and with whom they identified because they too were rebuked, despised, and rejected.
The music of enslaved African Americans began with the call and response style, relying on much repetition of sounds because they could neither read nor write, having been so forbidden. Later in our history, our black musicians were trained in the European mode with entirely different rhythms. Yet our brand of rhythm is an inextricable part of black music. Such collegians and arrangers of our music as Burleigh, Dett, and Worth actually created black sacred music combining aspect of their heritage with their training. It was the Fiske Jubilee Singers who took black music to the white community, while the Hampton Choir took it to Paris.

DuBois noted later that black music became misunderstood and neglected. Our people grew ashamed, embarrassed by the songs of toil and trouble. Yet we continued to sing of our Biblical heroes who overcame their trials and tribulations. We sang of Moses, Daniel, Joshua, and David. Harriett Tubman was like Moses, leading her people out of bondage. River Jordan became the Underground Railroad. The gourd was the Big Dipper, serving as a celestial road sign guiding the trip.
Slaves had been forbidden to use drums, once the slave masters learned of their clever use as communications tools, so our inventive predecessors instead stomped, clapped, shouted, and tapped spoons to convey their thoughts and feelings.
Roger Hoard cited Thomas Dorsey as musician supreme. Though a former night club and speakeasy pianist, his life was turned upside down after his wife died in childbirth. He composed the classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” We see how a great work, like so many, grew out of overwhelming tragedy.

Rev. James Cobbs Speaks
Rev. James Cobbs cited the 1979 masterpiece publication ” Somebody’s Calling My Name,” written by the pastor and musicologist Rev. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker. My choir, The Voices of Canaan, performed on the audiocassette tape which accompanied the first printing of “Somebody’s Calling My Name.” Dr. Walker’s extensive research on that book took him far and wide, throughout the American South, Haiti, the French West Indies, and East Africa.
According to Cobbs and Walker, if you hear people sing, you can learn what they are facing in their lives. The slaves—though no more than hostages—sang of hope, sang of future goals, despairing sometimes but never giving up.
Cobbs noted that gospel music developed in the 1920’s with Thomas Dorsey, Sally Martin, Roberta Martin, and Mahalia Jackson. Gospel music has its theology, speaking of how God calls us to live our lives. The first song was sung in the Old Testament. Church music must do more than entertain, he said. Hip hop music notwithstanding, we must continue in our church services to use hymns and spirituals.
From Cobbs, we learned that in black culture, gospel is thought to be in contrast to jazz and pop music. In fact, the gospel chords and rhythms derived from the secular music. Cobbs urged that we hold on to our musical heritage. Keep on singing our songs. Don’t let our traditions die.

Dr. Haywood Robinson Speaks
The final panelist, Dr. Haywood Robinson, Jr., noted that both Christianity and Judaism produced some of the world’s great music. Yet not all religions produce musical sounds and rhythms. What all religions do have in common is the search for an answer to the question “What is my relationship to the universe?” Our own religion has supplied answers, and music and songs have resulted.
What makes me want to sing and express in song my feelings about my relationship to the universe? Rev. Robinson asked. The Bible teaches, “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” “Sing unto yourselves psalms and make melody to your God.” The slaves came here with their own religion, their own music, and their native instruments. They had the capacity to receive and be exposed to the offering of the new world and its religion and songs. Although Christianity was the religion of our enslavers, we responded to parts of their religion.
The living hell of slavery somehow produced heavenly music. Our music survives because it speaks to all mankind through universal suffering. We adopted a God who said, “Let my people go.” “Lo, I am with you always.” So what makes you sing? It is the commonality of suffering. God cries when a sparrow falls. That’s the God the slaves served. “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

By Joyce Price

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