Journey to Freedom Continues With A Spiritual That Resonates In The George Floyd Era

March 10, 2021

Moses Hogan's arrangement of 'He Never Said a Mumblin' Word' performed by Kevin D. Johnson, Baritone, and Dr. Nicolas Catravas, Piano


This month for Journey to Freedom: The Spirituals Radio Project, M. Roger Holland reflects on the spiritual “He Never Said A Mumblin Word." Watch Holland's interview with CPR Classical's Monika Vischer about the spiritual, which imagines what Jesus Christ endured during his crucifixion. But, as Roger writes, the words of the song were rooted in powerful meaning to enslaved Africans and still carries a profound message today. ~ CPR Classical Team


They crucified my Lord,
and he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word

Like most spirituals, the origin of this song is unknown, passed down from generation to generation. Alan and John Lomax recorded prisoners in Louisiana and Mississippi in 1933 singing “Never Said A Mumbling Word.” The Lomax brothers noted on their anthology, American Ballads and Folksongs, that the song was well known throughout the deep south. Blues performer Huddie William Ledbetter (Lead Belly), born in Louisiana and raised in Texas, recorded the song in 1945 and said he learned the spiritual from his mother. Others who recorded it  include The Golden Gate Quartet and operatic soprano Barbara Hendricks.

Because this music was shared among communities through oral tradition, the words and melodies of songs could vary from place to place, region to region, and plantation to plantation. Often, lyrics from one song could be found or used in another, and were indeed interchangeable. In the case of this song,  the words, even the  melody have varied, but the theme is always the same:  

They crucified my Lord,
and he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word

Enslaved Africans felt a kinship with Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt as told in the Old Testament book of Exodus. They believed the same God who delivered the Hebrews could and would deliver them from their own bondage. 

And then we find in the New Testament scripture that the Son of God came to set the captive free. Jesus was God made flesh (human), and as such, experienced everything that humans experience, including suffering.

They nailed him to a tree,
And he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word

The story of Christ’s crucifixion was something enslaved Africans could easily relate to: suffering and silence.  

The pinnacle of Christ’s suffering was death on a cross, which he suffered mostly in silence. The late theologian James Cone equates the act and suffering of crucifixion with lynching, an event all too familiar for African Americans in this country. When enslaved Africans were whipped, beaten and lynched, they very often endured that suffering in silence. Not because they didn’t feel pain, but because they sought to deprive their tormentors from deriving pleasure from their suffering. That act of defiance required enormous strength. It was also an act of resistance. So when the Romans lynched (crucified) Jesus, the slave community saw themselves. 

They pierced him in the side,
And he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word
The blood came trickalin’ down,
And he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word

They understood that to share in the suffering is to share in the victory; victory over death, the enemy of life, and therefore achieve ultimate liberty – freedom.

He bowed his head and died
And he never said a mumblin’ word
Not a word, not a word, not a word

Just last year, our country was reeling from what many have called a public lynching in the death of George Floyd. Many white folks in this country still don't believe the things that Black folks have been talking about in terms of police brutality; it's often met with a sense of disbelief or dismissed altogether.

But in front of the entire country, the entire world, we saw George Floyd being pinned on the ground with a policeman's knee on his neck for some odd eight minutes and forty-six seconds. What is that except for a lynching?

Whenever you physically accost and deprive a Black body of life, it's a lynching.

Even though Black people are protesting, just as with the spiritual “He Never Said A Mumblin Word," when our voices are not heard, when our voices are being silenced, it's the same thing.

It is suffering in silence.


CPR Classical is lifting the curtain on 12 spirituals chosen by Professor of African American Music and Religion at DU, M. Roger Holland, II. It's part of our collaborative yearlong series Journey to Freedom: The Spirituals Radio Project. Watch the full interview with M. Roger Holland and Program Director Monika Vischer below:


Spirituals on CPR Classical

Holland joins with CPR Classical as co-producer of Journey to Freedom: The Spirituals Radio Project, a yearlong exploration of African American history and culture through spirituals. Roger will select and write about a new spiritual each month throughout 2021. Each will air during regular programming on CPR Classical, including Sunday mornings on our choral music show Sing! from 6 to 10 a.m., hosted by David Ginder

Listen to CPR Classical by clicking “Listen Live” on this website. You can also hear CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, at radio signals around Colorado, or ask your smart speaker to “Play CPR Classical.”

Bravo!

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