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Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on
Creating these songs

Horace Clarence Boyer What do you mean by the music being functional?

Boyer : Many people would like to think that the Negro spiritual was created during a great church service and sitting in some wonderful cathedral, when in fact people were out in the field. The group is over here, chopping cotton. And a group is over here, picking tomatoes. And all of a sudden somebody over there says, ""Have you got good religion?"" And this group over here says, ""Certainly, Lord."" They may not have all said the same thing at the same time. They might have said, "Yeah," or "Mm hm." And he would come back: ""Have you got good religion?" " By that time, they’re thinking that ""Certainly", Lord" sounds good. ""Have you got good religion?"" Over here: ""Certainly, Lord. Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord."" And you know how we talk about rhythm being the distinguishing factor between European music and African American music. That rhythm, that pulse is so strong in there that it’s a good working song. As a matter of fact, not only did they sing it when they were working, but they sang it when they walked from this field up to the big house, or to the next plantation, or when they rocked the baby to sleep, or when they were cleaning the greens for dinner. We don’t have them singing "I’m looking over a four-leaf clover," or "East side, west side." None of that. They’re singing these songs that somehow they put words to from their church service. And I have read enough now to know that yes, the Negro spirituals were sung during church service, but they were also work songs. People sang these to accompany something. Whatever they needed, they created themselves out of this music.

The simplicity of the music, and all the lyrics are providing an interpretation or an understanding of the scripture. Talk about that.

Boyer : It was not until 1667 that it was agreed that black folk had souls. Now, this was in Virginia, and Virginia was kind of the leaders of the United States around this time. It was the United States, so to speak. And they passed a law which said that it would be possible to be a slave and a Christian too. This meant, then, that someone had to be responsible for the religious education of the slaves. The slaves are marched to church, sometimes sitting in pews marked BM for black males, BW for black women; sometimes sitting in the gallery or what we would know of as the attic; sometimes having service after the service for the slaveowner and his family. At any rate, under any circumstance, of course, they did teach them the Bible–more of the Old Testament than the New Testament

Once they learned these stories, they then began to make up songs about them. But these people were not readers. They were not writers. They had to sing songs with a few words that they could learn once, carry on forever, that everybody could sing at the same time. So you’re going to find spirituals that will say, "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." Just a few words which are going to be sung over and over. "In that great getting up morning, fare ye well, fare ye well. In that great getting up morning, fare ye well." Repetition and just a few words.

Now, let me tell you what happens. You start singing a song, and when you’re singing it first, according to the slaves, you’re just singing the words. But after a while, it’s almost like therapy. It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders begin to come back to their natural position. What’s happening is, you’re going through a cleansing process. You’re coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are. And the more you sing it, huh, the more you find relief, the more you believe that there is a way out of this.

Remember that the slaves endured days of hard work, mistreatment, little food, little clothing, little rest. And they had to get up the next day to work hard, get little [food], little clothing, a little rest, and get up the next day and go through hard work, little food, little clothing, so that they had to have something which would inspire them, which would keep them getting up from day to day. And that’s what these spirituals did for the slaves. I’ll tell you, had we had psychiatrists during that time, and sent the slaves to them, I don’t know whether they could have done the effective job that these spirituals did for them.

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