Bringing The World Home To You

© 2022 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wade In The Water: 5 Jazz Takes On Spirituals

The gospel/folk singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was accompanied by a jazz orchestra on her debut recording.
Chris Ware
/
Getty Images
The gospel/folk singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe was accompanied by a jazz orchestra on her debut recording.

The African-American religious folk songs known as spirituals grew out of the slavery experience and the introduction of Christianity into slaves' lives. Though rooted in African musical tradition, they reflected life in a strange and terribly oppressive new world. Often improvisations upon older hymns, they became entirely new songs — songs like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho" and "Steal Away." In some ways, they foreshadow the birth of American jazz.

Though spirituals were a product of enslavement, they also became a coded means of communicating escape. The lyrics of some are said to have referred to the Underground Railroad, and the singing of spirituals could signal an imminent slave revolt. They were also sometimes used to summon clandestine night-worship services — the so-called "invisible churches" that existed on plantations where masters feared that religious meetings could lead to insurrection and liberation.

In the years following the abolition of slavery, the Fisk Jubilee Singers introduced the sound of spirituals to many different audiences through concert tours. In the early 20th century, singers such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson performed spirituals, and they figured strongly in the repertoire of many New Orleans and revivalist jazz bands.

Spirituals were played less often in later years, but their themes of suffering and liberation retained a latter-day appeal for some modern jazz musicians, many of whom grew up knowing and singing spirituals in the African-American church community. Notable recordings were made by performers such as Louis Armstrong, Albert Ayler, Johnny Griffin, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones. Here are five jazz interpretations of spirituals by other artists.

Copyright 2013 WFIU

David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.
David Brent Johnson
David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.
More Stories