Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Spirit of the Spiritual

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Spirit of the Spiritual

Article excerpt

When slaves sang in the fields of stealing away to Jesus, or of a sweet chariot swinging low, they were doing a lot more than singing pretty words and keeping melodic rhythms.

According to Francois Clemmons, founder and director of the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, spirituals encompass "a tremendous second language of double entendre."

Slaves were singing of their longing for freedom, plans for escape and calls to attend secret meetings. They also were singing of such things as Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist whose nickname was "Chariot," and of the pre-Civil War underground railroad, which carried slaves to the North and to freedom.

Clemmons has made it his life's work to save the spiritual and to revive its tradition by bringing it to the forefront of musical culture around the world. He will direct the ensemble Sunday at the Center of Contemporary Arts.

"My feeling is that spirituals belong to all Americans," Clemmons says. "It is commonly understood that the spiritual is America's most original folk music, but I believe it is also American's most original classical music."

Jazz and gospel music are usually mentioned among America's most important musical contributions, but Clemmons says, "The spiritual is the grandmother, and jazz and gospel are her glorious granddaughters."

Spirituals depend on the rich, natural texture of the human voice for their power. They have no single composer, unlike gospel music, in which a composer is always identified and which is often linked to a specific performer, such as Mahalia Jackson.

Another difference between spirituals and gospel music is the instrumentation. Because slaves were often superstitious, they regarded instruments such as guitars, fiddles, banjos and harmonicas to be evil and to lead to the sins of fun, dancing and frivolity.

To present the spiritual as closely as possible to its original style, Clemmons' eight-member ensemble uses only the piano and drums to accompany the singers.

Clemmons, who has musical degrees from Oberlin College and Carnegie-Mellon University, sings tenor in the ensemble. …

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