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Horace Clarence Boyer, Musicologist, on
Transcribing the spirituals

Horace Clarence Boyer When the real interest begins to happen in spirituals, there is an effort to transcribe them. Can you transcribe the music? What are these audiences hearing?

Boyer : I keep going back to "Slave Songs of the United States", because that’s such an important document. It was the first collection, and as was the trend, there’s a wonderful introduction at the beginning of this book, and the authors set out to explain what’s happening. And they talk about the difficulty they had in writing this music down.

Number 1: The scales that the singers used were unlike anything they had ever heard in the United States. We now call them blue notes, or the blues scale, adding flatted tones. Instead of singing, ""Oh my Lord,"" they’d sing, ""Oh my Lord." " "La la la, dee da da, dee dee dee." And .. if you don’t know that that is the correct way that it’s supposed to be done, you’ll say, "Well, they didn’t really mean that; they meant the other way." And that was actually a little bit of correcting. And it was not correcting the music. It was almost correcting the culture, because it was within the culture.

At the same time, they said that they don’t sing harmony as we know it, and yet no two people are singing the same thing, because the slaves were either not impressed with the harmony that they heard in the church services, or they disregarded it and went back to a kind of harmony not like that which we hear in the Bach or the Mendelssohn that we hear, but in—in a kind of a folk adaptation of a culture that’s not been impressed by European music at all.

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