Ariama: You said in your liner notes that spirituals are typically performed as encores or contrast pieces in concerts. Why aren’t more choirs doing full programs of this music?
CHJ: I think about what Dvorak said so beautifully about spirituals, “they are the foundation of all American music.” If it’s true, and I firmly subscribe to his view, we can’t play lip service to the music. When you start to know this music and fully immerse yourself in it, you see that spirituals make perfect sense for a full concert. I feel quite passionate about this and hope that we can see more performances of them.
Ariama: John Lovell says in his book Black Song, that spirituals are “…successful in blending the experiences and imagination of one folk group while creating songs for the universal heart.” “Universal heart,” I thought was so eloquent. But the other side of it is there could be some who question your claim to performing this music. I remember how Paul Simon was accused of “colonialism” when he played South African music on his album “Graceland.”
CHJ: I’m curious to see if the question is raised and I feel fully prepared for it. It may be a question that just needs to be asked to move this whole discussion forward. I’ve gone through my own period of asking, “Is this something we aught to be doing?” I asked the question with an honest readiness to accept the answer that should come from deep within. I wanted to reflect and respond, to answer “yes or no,” and move forward with courage. In the end the answer was a resounding, deep and quiet “Yes!”
We are a classical choir and we’ve done a lot of exploring. I love extending the boundaries of what people call sacred and secular or art and pop music; these are liberating places to explore. So we recorded these spirituals with a choir that included six African-Americans and 26 or so Caucasian singers, so I suppose we could be perceived as a classical White choir. But if we really believe these things about this music (which I do), that it’s fundamental to the musical development of this country, then we wish to pay homage to it the only way I know how and that’s effectively performing it. I want to explore it, to sing it, to excavate its nuances in every way. We love and adore this music and want to pay tribute to it and acknowledge that in many ways it’s been marginalized and left off our concert stages. So people can have any reaction they want or need to have about our performing it, it’s not a problem from my perspective.
Ariama: There are many familiar arrangers on the recording – William Dawson and Moses Hogan, but also David Lang, Tarik O’Regan, Robert Kyr and you. You must have looked at tons of arrangements.
CHJ: It was a wonderful, maddening process. I’m hoping this recording is only part one because there’s so much out there that we didn’t record. This is an album of choral arrangements so we didn’t want to do something that felt like it was a Smithsonian Folkways field recording or historical in that way. These are choral settings, a subdivision of the repertoire, so of course we had arrangements by Moses Hogan and William Dawson. But in addition to paying homage we wanted to set our eyes forward. Tarik, David and Robert are all close collaborators and we’ve done projects with them so when I started to speak about the project each of them wanted to offer something.
Ariama: Your arrangements are very powerful.
CHJ: Of my own arrangements, “Hard Trials” was one spiritual I didn’t know. The first time I saw it was in just a single line melody and it knocked me over. But I had an inspiration. I was at the Smithsonian the summer before we made the recording and there was an exhibit about slavery in South Carolina. There was an interview with a woman who talked about what it was like to be born into slavery and see your parents and siblings sold off, she spoke about how alone she felt in the world. She remembered being on the auction block and seeing these loud dirty men poking slaves with sticks and evaluating their naked bodies. She said, “This was the day my heart died.” I wanted her voice in this spiritual, so I added that line in a new text for the third verse.
Ariama: It’s one of the most moving moments on the album.
CHJ: We often refer to spirituals as being written in community and we don’t question that. But by living inside many of these songs we know that someone originated the idea, someone had the first inspiration of the lyric and melody. Yet we go through many of them and don’t see a single reference to a name or an individual human being – it’s just a tiny glimpse into a way an entire generation was lost. It’s unbelievable to me that we can’t say their names today, but we can hear their music in different ways and I hope our album achieves that.