O Black and Unknown Bards
Dr. David Morrow taught us a poem last week. The esteemed Professor of Music and Director of the Morehouse College Glee Club taught the poem to students from Camas, Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln, McDaniel, Reynolds and Wells High Schools. He taught it to the choral students in three Portland State University Choirs – Chamber, Rose and Thorn. And on Sunday April 3, at the culminating concert – no, actually an event – he taught it to parents, educators and our community.
The poem: “O Black and Unknown Bards” written by James Weldon Johnson.
Morrow excerpted the poem at various times during his three days as guest conductor of Portland State’s “My Heart Be Brave: Part II” series. It was a celebration of the history of the African American Spiritual and the poem pays homage to those with whom the spiritual began. It deserves a full reading.
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?
What merely living clog, what captive things
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.
Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme Nobler than
“Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when
Time was young.
There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.“O Black and Unknown Bards”–James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).
The Portland State University Chamber Choir was the first group to work with Dr. Morrow on Friday afternoon. Ethan Sperry, Director of Choral Activities and PSU’s Chamber Choir, had prepared his singers well in William Dawson’s arrangement of “Soon Ah Will Be Done” and other spirituals. Morrow didn’t need to–or care to–teach notes. But he did teach about “that subtle undertone, That note in music heard not with the ears.”
When the lower voices sang the background words “weeping” and “wailing,” Morrow approached the singers and asked them to imagine moaning. “Sing those words,” he said, “not as background sound but actual moaning.” And halfway through Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “The Battle of Jericho” Morrow emphasized the lament as the stars began to fall and the triumph at the trumpet sound – “it’s all of the story to tell. What is the mood now?”
Morrow was a commanding presence as he directed the choir to excellence in singing and musicality; then he stepped forward to speak intimately of enslaved people making music in the oral tradition.
He mentioned composer Henry Thacker Burleigh–an American classical composer who made significant contributions to the American art song and also arranged spirituals–and arranger Hall Johnson, whose well-known spiritual “Ain’t Got Time To Die” wasn’t from oral tradition but an original piece in the style of the spiritual. When Morrow invited questions and a singer asked about enunciation and vernacular, he replied, “Well, of course you are a collegiate choir, but this is not Handel. Respect the culture”–citing how he “respects the German language” and its regional pronunciations when singing in that language.
Morrow has been on the Morehouse College faculty since 1981. The Glee Club, which Morrow has led since 1987, sings the full choral repertoire for TTBB choir, in various languages and from various periods of music. The all male, historically Black Morehouse College–which began as Augusta Institute in 1867–established a small ensemble singing tradition within its first years. The Institute moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1879, became Atlanta Baptist College in 1897 and Morehouse College in 1913, two years after Kemper Harreld founded the Glee Club.
Harreld would remain on the podium for 42 years, succeeded by his student Wendell P. Whalum. Under Whalum’s directorship the choir would tour extensively, singing at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King and at President Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration; in 1972 they would embark on an five-nation African tour. This summer, from June 26-July 9, Morrow, graduate of Morehouse, a student of Whalum and only the third conductor in the 111-year history of the choir, will travel with the Glee Club to Nigeria for the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of that tour.
On the Sunday program the PSU Thorn and Rose choirs performed works by Finnish composer Mia Makaroff, late 19th century Amy Beach, Franz Schubert, Morrow and Uzee Brown. The PSU Chamber Choir, who will represent the United States this summer at the International Federation for Choral Music, sang Sperry’s arrangement of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen and “My Lord What a Mourning” (a spiritual arrangement by William Dawson), as well as music by Benedict Sheehan and Caroline Shaw.
An intentional look at common practice
In informal conversation prior to one rehearsal, Morrow described how “back in the day” he went into a music store (like dear old Barker-Lin Sheet Music, remember that Portlanders?) to search out new spiritual publications. They were not cataloged by theme, season, or as folk song arrangements. He did finally find those spirituals – filed with the Show Tunes.
Spiritual arrangements have long been a staple of American choral programming. But often, as with the relegation of pieces to “show tune” status in choral collections, the songs are used only to signal the rousing conclusion, a show-stopper, to send the chorus off to the standing ovation. “One conductor once told me he always programmed the Hallelujah Chorus for the same reason,” laughed Morrow. And those favorite spiritual arrangements were often the very popular Robert Shaw-Alice Parker arrangements: these were common practice. Morrow has a connection to Shaw: he and the Morehouse Glee Club performed at the Kennedy Center Ceremony honoring Mr. Shaw in 1991, and Shaw was instrumental in Morrow’s decision to do his Doctoral Degree work at University of Cincinnati. Two of Morrow’s own spiritual arrangements were featured in this Portland event.
All of the participating students (close to 200) learned arrangements by Black composers–those currently contributing to the body of historically informed spiritual literature (Morrow, Stacey Gibbs, and current Morehouse Music Department Chair Uzee Brown), as well as those who through conservation and activism worked to preserved its integrity over 150 years (William Dawson, Wendell Whalum, John W. Work III, Undine Smith Moore).
Research into those names alone would yield the beginning – just a smidge – of a course on the history of the spiritual. Further research would reveal the enormous body of non-idiomatic compositions by those same composers – and so many more. Contemporary composer Marques L. A. Garrett ‘s “My Heart Be Brave” provided the title for this PSU series; for the text Garrett chose lines from “Sonnet,” another poem by James Weldon Johnson.
“Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight, There is a power [in] making for the right.”
Where to begin
“It’s important to admit what you don’t know,” PSU director Sperry freely admitted in introducing Morrow to the combined student choirs–high school and college–on Saturday afternoon. That, he said, is why Morrow was invited. Sperry met and learned from Morrow decades earlier, and introducing him to a new generation of young singers was a joy.
“This series of concerts is the beginning of how PSU’s choral community is enacting its commitment to the Black Voices Matter Pledge, which we signed last year,” said Sperry. “Seeking expertise from Black, Brown and Indigenous artists and culture bearers” is one of the “concrete actions” in fulfillment of that commitment.
Coty Raven Morris, Hinckley Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Education and Social Justice at PSU, hopes the weekend gave students “an opportunity to learn the complex cultural topics using music as a gateway [so] they may leave enriched, empathetic and empowered.”
When Morris, who conducts the Rose and Thorn Choirs at PSU with graduate assistants Simon Nissen and Rebecca Parsons, took the stage on Sunday, she led the choir in call and response. Then Morrow, who in rehearsals taught about oral tradition and heterophony in the history of the spiritual, invited the audience, the singers – everyone – to join in, saying “if you don’t know it, you know something like it.” He sang, we sang and within moments it was just about being together. “That’s how it all started.”
In the audience on Sunday were some of the high school directors, including Ethan Chessin. Chessin, who has taught music, and directed the choirs at Camas High School for eleven years, has guided his students on “a journey with Black sacred music all school year.” He sought the wisdom of local gospel choir director Derrick McDuffey of Kingdom Sound. For some of Chessin’s students, the connection to Black sacred music began centuries ago; for others the connection is new. For all who attended, Chessin said, “getting to study spirituals in depth with Dr. Morrow, one of the leading experts in the field, was an absolute joy.” The singers who gathered around Chessin at the end of the concert practically glowed with energy.
Coming up: Chessin is encouraging his students to attend the May 7th premiere of An African American Requiem composed by Portland artist Damien Geter and performed by Resonance Ensemble, Oregon Symphony, Kingdom Sound, and other members of regional choirs.
Making for the right
Is a concert a collection of sung artifacts? An oral “viewing” of items of cultural or historical interest? Oh, golly, let’s not even get started on why it can sometimes seem like it. Morrow and Sperry shared a smile when the subject of teaching concert programming came up. But this we know. The spiritual is not an artifact.
What was this event? An educational opportunity and excellent connection between students, the community and its urban university. An important societal call and intentional response to the climate of our times. Yes and yes. And something not just learned but experienced – less of an outcome, more of an “out-go”. With minds and hearts more informed, more courageous. With eyes opened to ways in which to engage in “making for the right.”
Here are just a few other resources on Black American composers and the history of spirituals which were referenced during the workshop or used in further exploration on the spirituals and composers represented.
“A House of Many Mansions: Undine Smith Moore and the Fight for Black Music” (The Gershwin Initiative Website).
“Non-idiomatic Choral Music of Black Composers” (research section of composer Marques L. A. Garrett’s website).
“Introducing the Black Women Composers Project” (Arizona State University, March 16 2021).
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