In connection with the release of “So You Want To Sing Spirituals.” one of the events I planned was a recital of concert spirituals by composer Harry T. Burleigh. I was also inspired by an all-spirituals recital by Kathleen Battle I attended in Chicago. I found an Underground Railroad fugitive slave narrative that really touched me. I also selected a full program of Burleigh concert spirituals that fit the narrative. It included a number of rare gems in addition to the Burleigh war horses such as “Deep River.”
One of the rare gems that I came to love and hope to program again was the setting of “Don’t Be Weary Traveler.” I discovered Burleigh’s setting of another gems, “Stan’ Still Jordan,” many years ago and am glad to add other Burleigh gems to my repertoire, even this late in the game, as it were.
As I prepped the songs of the program, especially during the rehearals with pianist Marlys Grimm, I found myself often marveling at the beauty and power of the folk spirituals and how effectively Burleigh set them for concert performance. Deceptively simple, the settings demand that the musicians performing them use the full range of interpretative options available to present them properly.
Marlys’ husband, Norm Grimm, did a wonderful job reading excerpts from the narrative “Margaret: Born on a Slave Ship.” The narrative told of a woman who was forced to escape the horrors of slavery with her infant son and accompanied only with an old mastiff. After a deadly confrontation, the fugitives were able to get assistance from those who ran The Underground Railroad and find freedom in the north.
The recital, Carry Me Home: A Story of the Underground Railroad Told with Song and Narrative, was presented on Sunday, November 10, 2019, at First Presbyterian Church, Newton, Iowa, and on Sunday, November 17, at Herrick Chapel, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa.
The videos of the Grinnell concert are finally available:
Pt. 1. Sometimes I Feel Discouraged. https://youtu.be/1pfKr7F4I2A) narrative with songs: “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” “I’ve Been in de Storm So Long”
Pt. 2. Comin’ For To Carry Me Home. (https://youtu.be/W2sDgIGrMFE) narrative with songs: “Steal Away,” “Go Down Moses,” Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “De Gospel Train”
Pt. 3. It Will Chill My Body But Not My Soul. (https://youtu.be/lEzHK-X86Q8) narrative with songs: “Oh Wasn’t Dat a Wide Ribber,” “Deep River,” “Wade in de Water,” “I Stood on de Ribber ob Jerdon,” “Stan’ Still Jordan,” “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray”
Pt. 4. Come Along Home to Jesus. (https://youtu.be/-Xls0SLevzM) narrative with songs: Don’t Be Weary Traveler,” “Heav’n Heav’n,” “By an’ By,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”
Encore: “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit”
Each of the four sections was given a theme using the lyrics of one of the songs in that section.
In the months since this concert, the world was struck with a terrible novel coronavirus that has taken thousands of lives and disrupted the ways of life for us all. One of the many impacts has been the understanding that concerts like this may not safely occur again for quite some time. Singers are affected because it has been discovered that the virus is heavily spread through the droplets produced during the vocal process. For now, we musicians are using as many workarounds as we can to be able to continue to perform, even if only virtually. It’s definitely not the same as having the live contact with the audience, but it’d have to do for now.
My prayers that we will all get beyond this by and by.