Although Negro spirituals can trace their history back to the folk songs of the African continent, their first entry into the art song repertoire occurred barely a century ago with the publication of “Deep River” by Harry T. Burleigh in 1916. Their presence in the repertoire has not been without controversy, however. Some have questioned whether the sorrow songs of slavery would be diluted by forcing them into the mold of the European art song format. Caucasians and other vocalists not of the African diaspora have questioned whether they have “permission” to sing spirituals, especially using dialect. Even the choice to use “Negro” spirituals, “Black” spirituals, “Afro-American” spirituals or “African American” spirituals has sparked discussion among those who question which term is appropriate.
Still, singers are discovering that it is difficult to resist the powerful pull of the spirituals’ soul-stirring words and music as they search for opportunities to enrich and diversify their vocal repertoire. The spirituals’ melodies are often familiar, and the sacred texts often tell biblical stories from a different perspective. Mostly, though, spirituals tell the story of a people who created the sorrow songs, the songs of defiance, and the songs of deliverance as they bore the burdens of slavery.
In So You Want to Sing Spirituals: A Guide for Performers, soprano and researcher Randye Jones gathers into one resource information musicians will find pertinent to developing an understanding of the vocal style. The book explores the history of spirituals–from its folk song roots, through the transformation to choral and solo vocal concert performance, to its development into art song, followed by a discussion of the lives and recorded works of several composers and singers who have contributed significantly to the Spiritual art song repertoire. Jones also delves into the performance practice of spirituals, especially when and how to use dialect in performance. There is discussion about the various controversies related to singing concert spirituals, including the question of whether the performance of spirituals should be open to all singers no matter their race, and closes with selected bibliographies of music books, scores, and sound recordings and a categorized guide on spirituals with biblical references and vocal anthology placement.
While So You Want to Sing Spirituals is intended primarily for classically trained solo singers, there is content suited to collaborative instrumentalists, studio instructors, and choral performers as well as others in the world of music who want to learn more about this vocal musical style. Voice teachers and coaches will also find the book helpful when selecting music and representative recordings to assist their students in developing the relevant technical and stylistic approaches to singing spirituals. It would also be helpful to instrumentalists–especially keyboard players–and conductors who may be working with singers on this repertoire, and librarians who wish to acquire books, scores, recordings, and other resources to support their patrons who are interested in Negro spirituals.
In addition to the foreword by George Shirley, contributors to So You Want to Sing Spirituals are: Casey Robards (collaborative piano), Emery Stephens and Caroline Helton (art songs by African American composers), Barbara Steinhaus (interpretative guidelines for studio teachers), Patricia Trice (concert spiritual choral music historical overview), Timothy Sharp (development of spirituals as sacred choral music), Felicia Barber (dialect in concert spiritual choral music), Scott McCoy (singing and vocal science), and Wendy LeBorgne (general physical wellbeing). The book and series editor is Matthew Hoch.
So You Want to Sing Spirituals is scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in Fall, 2019. So You Want to Sing: Guides for Performers and Professionals is a series of works devoted to providing a complete survey of what it means to sing within a particular genre. Each contribution functions as a touchstone work for not only professional singers, but students and teachers of singing. Titles in the series offer a common set of topics so readers can navigate easily the various genres addressed in each volume. This series is produced under the direction of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the leading professional organization devoted to the science and art of singing. Pre-order information will soon be available at https://rowman.com/Action/SERIES/RL/SCPWTS#.
If you have questions about ANS, please contact Randye Jones.