Scandalize My Name: Spirituals with a moral compass

I’ve talked about many spirituals in these articles that reflect the harsh conditions experienced by the enslaved. Many of the slave songs contain language that commented on their harsh treatment or were biblical references, some with coded messages that were meaningful to the oppressed, yet hidden to the slave masters. In the religious folk songs of the Negro now called “Negro Spirituals,” there are many themes that can be identified in the canon.

For instance, when someone’s moral compass goes far askew. Fellow “Christians” on occasion may be suspected of lying, cheating, stealing, and even spreading rumors about a member of the community. What makes such behavior so disappointing is when the person of low moral fiber professes to be a Christian.

There are spirituals that comment on the bad behavior of members of the community, no matter the race. Those fall into the category of songs about accountability. One example is “I Got a Robe,” where the slave sings: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there.” This is a comment on the hypocrisy of the white Christian slave master who purports to be Christian, but his behavior does not match Christian morals or values. This critique, however, could also be applied to a member of the enslaved community.

In the spiritual “Scandalize My Name,” the singer confides in a community member about an encounter with someone who has spoken about the singer in an unkind, malicious way, akin to gossiping.

Well, I met my sister the other day
Give her my right hand
And as soon as ever my back was turned,
She scandalized my name.

Well, I met my (deacon) preacher the other day
Give him my right hand.
Just as soon as ever my back was turned,
He scandalized my name.

Within this spiritual you’ll find a bit of humor, almost “tongue in cheek” as the testimony of the singer is also, in effect, gossip, too, especially as the singer defames the deacon and preacher.

From a performance at Carnegie Hall, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle sing "Scandalize My Name."

The song is meant to poke fun at those who gossip and display poor character, below what would be expected of a Christian. At the same time, the lesson to be heeded is that talking about one’s neighbor is unacceptable behavior and is being critiqued in the song, albeit in a light-hearted way.

Do you call that religion? No, no.
Do you call that religion? No, no.
Do you call that religion? No, no.
Scandalize my name.

In the version of the spiritual “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” that appears in American Negro Songs and Spirituals edited by John W. Work, the second verse finds the singer testifyin’ and signifyin’ after being accused of being a sinner. To testify is to give witness or perhaps declare a truth in the company of family, community, or whoever is gathered. Signifyin’ is a method of conveying a veiled meaning that is a mode of communication in the Black community.

You may talk about me just as much as you please,
You may spread my name abroad;
I’ll pray for you when I get on my knees.

In this second verse, we see the singer signifyin’ when she/he says, “I’ll pray for you when I get on my knees.” The singer may pray for the person who defames them, but more than likely this is a hollow statement. The singer might likewise talk about the slanderer or may pray that God take care of (punish) this mean-spirited person.

Another spiritual that addresses the scandalizing and “bad mouthing” of an individual is found in the spiritual “I’ve been ‘buked.” Here the singer informs the listener that, “I’ve been ‘buked (rebuked) and I’ve been scorned,” as well as “talked about.” Other spirituals iterate the desire of the community to live in such a way as to exude good and upstanding character, more in keeping with that of an upstanding Christian. In “Plenty Good Room,” the community member pledges not to be a sinner or a liar. In “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” the member confesses a desire to live a righteous life. Further still, the spiritual “You Better Mind” cautions community members to be careful about their behavior, lest they be judged unworthy to enter heaven:

You better mind how you talk,
You better mind what you talking about.
You got to give an account at the judgement,
You better mind.

The enslaved were just as concerned about the internal dynamics of their own community as they were with the external forces that impacted their lives. These songs of “accountability” serve as admonishments, reprimands, and cautionary advice, as well as acknowledgment of a desire to “live right,” commitments to embrace Christian values, or simply a prayer to God asking for divine assistance in adhering to values and tenets befitting the Christian life.

For more information about this topic and many others regarding Negro Spirituals, I recommend the book, "In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals" by Eileen Guenther.

M. Roger Holland, II is Teaching Assistant Professor of African American Music and Theology at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, and Director of DU’s Spirituals Project Choir.

Listen to Professor Holland’s monthly musical selections and commentary throughout the year on CPR Classical, including Sunday mornings on our choral music show Sing!, hosted by David Ginder.

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