The Legacy of Civil War Spirituals

Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One of the themes resulting from the multitude of Civil War Sesquicentennial commemorations around the country is the notion that the role of African American culture during that great conflict must receive more attention. Both scholarly forums and the general public’s continued dialogue about the war’s enduring impact on American society can provide opportunities to examine aspects of the war in new and constructive ways.

The broad study of music of the period involves a differentiation between ethnic and geographical boundaries, as well as context. Military music of the Civil War, for example, involved not only differences and similarities between the Union and Confederate forces, but also the skin color of those men and women involved in the war effort on either side.

The African American spirituals tradition of the Civil War era offers one of the most tangible, indisputable and enduring examples of how African American culture helped shape American Society from the 1860s through the present. This musical tradition, the focus of the March 30, 2013 Music Division symposium entitled “African American Spirituals of the Civil War,” was a major factor in the development of roots music throughout the twentieth-century. Gospel, soul and even funk styles can be traced back to the spirituals that touched all facets of African American life in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

Dr. J. Weldon Norris
(by Justin Knight, used by permission of Howard University)

“African American Spirituals of the Civil War,” presented in association with the exhibit The Civil War in America and the Daniel A. P. Murray African American Culture Association of the Library of Congress, begins with a spirituals performance workshop (10:30 a.m.). This is a unique educational opportunity for singers and members of the general public to learn what types of practices are required in performing spirituals. The workshop will be led by Dr. J. Weldon Norris, who as director of choruses at Howard University is one of the foremost scholars of African American music.

Dr. Norris will be joined by musicologist Steven Cornelius of University of Massachusetts Boston and music reference specialist Samuel Perryman of the Music Division for “The Legacy of Civil War Spirituals” (1:00 p.m.). This enlightening panel discussion will examine the evolution of spirituals from a demographically segregated music form to the basis of many contemporary American musical styles.

The symposium will conclude with a special performance (2:00 p.m.) by the Howard University Chorale under the direction of Dr. Norris, and the Baltimore City College High School Choir led by Linda R. Hall.

The Howard University Chorale is widely recognized as a definitive interpreter of spirituals and work songs, as well as music by composers of African descent. Their performances have been called “mesmerizingly beautiful” by The Washington Post. The award-winning choir has toured internationally, including performances in Rome, Tokyo, Valencia, Paris, Oxford and the Caribbean. These talented singers notably performed spirituals as part of the February 2010 presentation of PBS’s In Performance at the White House.

The Baltimore City College High School Choir has graced the stage of Carnegie Hall and performed with the Baltimore Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. Their director, Linda R. Hall, is a renowned music educator in the mid-Atlantic region. Her leadership has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Baltimore City Council’s Teacher of the Year Award.

Hampton Institute Choir Concert Program
December 17, 1926, Coolidge Auditorium

Concerts from the Library of Congress has a long history of creating forums to examine the legacy of the African American spirituals tradition. In 1926 the Library hosted the Hampton Institute Choir, led by Dr. R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), for a full-length concert. The Hampton Institute Choir was one of the first and most important ensembles to perform spirituals in concert halls around the country, similar to the Fisk Jubilee Singers (pictured above). Spirituals were in focus again during a 1940 concert that honored the 75th anniversary of the thirteenth amendment of the Constitution. This concert featured The Golden Gate Quartet and Josh White (1914-1969), with commentary by Sterling Brown (1901-1989), Alain Locke (1886-1954) and Alan Lomax (1915-2002). A recording of this concert is available as part of the Great Performances from the Library of Congress series (vol. 14) on Bridge Records.

Event Program

Event Listing
African American Spirituals of the Civil War
Saturday, March 30, 2013
10:30 a.m. – Spirituals Performance Workshop
1:00 p.m. – Panel Discussion: The Legacy of Civil War Spirituals
2:00 p.m. – Performance: Howard University Chorale and Baltimore City College High School Choir
Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress

Free, reservations required. Please contact (202)707-5502 or [email protected] for more information, or visit loc.gov/concerts for more information.

Presented in cooperation with the Daniel A. P. Murray African American Culture Association of the Library of Congress

One Comment

  1. Steve
    December 30, 2020 at 8:37 pm

    I’m looking to see where I can find… Great Performances from the Library of Congress series (vol. 14) on Bridge Records – As stated above. Bridge Records don’t seem to have it listed on their website. I’m researching this concert and would love to be able to see the full program and or full list of what was songs were performed at the original 1926 concert. It would be incredible if anyone had a recording of the 1926 concert!

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