Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Exploring R. Nathaniel Dett in Vocal Ensembles

This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.


Don’t Be Weary, Traveler, Motet on a Negro Folk Song Motif : For Six-Part Unaccompanied Chorus of Mixed Voices, 1921

R. Nathaniel Dett was one of the earliest composers to arrange African-American folk melodies in new, creative settings. In his documentary four-volume Dett Collection of Negro Spirituals, containing simple harmonizations, he is credited as editor. In his more artistic interpretations, such as “Don’t Be Weary Traveler,” he is listed as composer. This distinction allowed Dett to preserve the legacy of the spiritual, while also bringing new ideas to the development of the genre.

Dett took inspiration from European composers who incorporated folk melodies into classical works. Critics agreed that he excelled in this endeavor, here highlighted by concert reviews from two rival Nashville newspapers:

  • “…one who has been uniquely successful in translating the rich folk music of his race into an art form that is already the treasured possession of the musical world.” - Nashville Banner, Feb 27, 1923
  • “He has glorified the Negro folk song as did Chopin and Grieg the songs of Poland and Norway.” - Nashville Tennessean, Feb. 27, 1923

Reflect

Don’t Be Weary, Traveler” is subtitled “Motet, On a Negro Folk Song Motif,” explicitly drawing the reader’s attention to the intent to set traditional melodies in new, classically-inspired ways.

  • How do students distinguish the work of an arranger from that of a composer? Why are the distinctions important?
  • What could be Dett’s social or musical motivations to make this piece a motet?
  • How and why do composers draw inspiration across diverse genres throughout history?

Perform

Students might rehearse this piece after gaining an understanding of the form by singing an archetypal Renaissance motet.  The word motet evokes specific expectations of a piece’s texture, harmonies, structure, and theme.  Motets require singers to carefully manipulate vocal tone, intensively listen across the ensemble, and precisely tune harmonic moments within an ever-shifting texture.

  • What features of “Don’t Be Weary, Traveler” strike students as distinctly motet-like, or spiritual-like?
  • What musical elements do motets and spirituals have in common?
  • How can singers make performance choices that honor the duality of this work?

Explore More

Dett composed several works based on spirituals for three-part treble chorus, including “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight“ and “Done Paid My Vow to the Lord.”

His original SATB setting of “America the Beautiful” invites an interesting comparison to the traditional melody.

 

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