The Spirituals Project And The Deep Meaning Of Slave-Era Songs

Listen Now
Photo: Spirituals Project 3 |A. Todd Jefferson (Wolf)
A. Todd Jefferson of the Denver choir The Spirituals Project in the CPR Performance Studio on Jan. 18, 2018

Most people know the lyrics to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
(Coming for to carry me home)
I saw a band of angels coming after me
(Coming for to carry me home)

Fewer people realize how songs like this, sung by many Africans enslaved in America in the 18th and 19th centuries — that we now call spirituals — had coded messages.

“One of the important functions enslaved Africans wanted this music to serve was to help them with their quest for freedom,” says University of Denver professor Arthur Jones.

The chariot in “Swing Low,” for example, “was understood as a symbol for the Underground Railroad. When that song was being sung, people knew it was time to prepare for that.”

Jones, whose courses often focus on the history of African-American music, has made it his mission to preserve and revive spirituals. In 1998, he officially formed The Spirituals Project, which is now based out of DU’s Lamont School of Music. An extension of that project is its choir and, recently, 40 members of the ensemble packed into the CPR Performance Studio to share this music and the stories behind it.

While the original spirituals are centuries old, they continue to inspire and take on new meaning for the members of the choir. The choir marks 20 years of educating people about this music. And as the country celebrates Black History Month, CPR News asked members to share how the spirituals continue to affect them.

Choir director M. Roger Holland connects spirituals to present-day movements, such as #MeToo: “I think about the need to honor the contributions of women to society. So to do the music by female composers and arrangers is another way to lift up women and their value and their contributions to our society.”

Regina Flores-Dunda, who lives in Centennial: "It really truly is the first American art form that we encounter in our history. And throughout our history, as Americans, we have struggled and we have overcome. And we hear these themes that have come out of the spirituals, time and time again. Ya know, as a Latina, we can look at the farm workers movement, the Chicano movement and hear the same, 'We shall overcome.'"

Mercedes Toregano, who moved to Denver from New Orleans: “In the spirituals, if you don’t feel, you really can’t hear it. You have to feel it in here (points to her heart). Feel it in my heart, feel it in my soul and every beat that’s in me because that’s what the spirituals are. When the slaves sang, they couldn’t just sing ‘hear my prayer,’ they had to feel ‘hear my prayer, get me out of this misery.”

Founding choir member Alice Norman, of Indian Hills: "Part of what [the choir] discussed [early on], is that this is shared history and this is history of this country. So very intentionally we made the decision to build a choir that is diverse, multi-generational, multi-cultural, and it has enriched all of us. There are people in this choir that I sing with that are not the same color as I am and I call them family… And I think we have to embrace these songs and share these songs because they are full of joy and hope."

Ed Battle, of Denver: “Growing up with people who lived before the depression and the wars, when they really had to deal with the reality of Jim Crow [laws]... I had an uncle who was a violin virtuoso. When he reached an age where he should have been prepared for a professional career, [people told him] there’s no such thing as a black virtuoso. This destroyed many. It was the kind of thing that would happen.”

The Spirituals Project founder Arthur Jones: “Something that [civil rights activist] Vincent Harding] taught me was that all of these movements are interconnected. We have this country that was founded by rich, white male landholders… nobody else could vote or have a say. And everyone of these modern movements, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, #MeToo or the gay rights movement, they’re all about folks who are Americans saying that they have a place in this democracy. To me, [singing spirituals] honors all of those… it’s about saying this really, truly is a place that everybody’s supposed to belong to.”

Russell Costen, of Denver: "I've been living by my wits for a very long time. There hasn't been a month in my life that I haven't thought, 'So what's gonna happen tomorrow?' Am I going to step out into space? Am I gonna fall? So far it hasn't happened and when I saw the lyrics for ‘He Never Failed Me Yet,’ I said, that's my song."

Jim Cosby: "I think of it [this music] in terms of where I spend my days these days, working [with inmates who have mental illnesses] at the downtown Denver jail... I think there's a lot of people in jail now, particularly folks that have major mental illnesses, who probably aren't well suited for that environment. And I think the whole concept of spirituals is a notion of freedom. So I [think about it] on a daily basis as I look at those folks who are struggling to figure out how to get themselves free.”

The Spirituals Project has several concerts coming up, including in Denver, Steamboat Springs and Lakewood. Find the schedule here.