In light of the craziness of this pandemic season, as well as various shifts in our own approach to creating these offerings of songs and notes, we will be sharing last year’s words to our wider audience this year. The words below were originally made available in June of 2019 exclusively for the subscribers to SongNotes From the Birds.
As you will see, though, the timeliness of this song and this subject is especially poignant today. Here’s some context:
We live in North Minneapolis, near the banks of the Mississippi River. Nathan and I went for a jog there together yesterday and sat on the sand watching the ripples. Two nights earlier we were upstream across the way for a sunset viewing. The river is one of our favorite places to go for thinking, talking, gazing at nature, and all the while praying.
Three weeks ago, eleven miles south of us, a drive mostly along that river, right here in our city, George Floyd died.
The death of this man, and the actions of the involved Minneapolis police officers, intensified racial and governmental conflict in our community and around the nation. Protests turned to riots. Buildings were burned. Stores were looted. Military stepped in. Curfews were enforced. It’s been a very strange few weeks.
As the fog – or, rather, the smoke – lifts, Nathan and I are intentionally striving to continue to learn and understand and feel the complicated circumstances that lead to this crisis.
We want to learn more about our nation’s history and slavery’s role in it. We want to understand more about racial and cultural differences. We want to feel stirred to hate what is evil and cling to what is good.
The song of this week was scheduled as such long before these events. That must have been a God thing.
I’m glad to take some time to think through the history below.
I’m glad to practice appreciation for the sources of our beloved songs.
I’m glad to peer into a world that, though far away in time, clarifies the pains currently felt so very close to home.
As you read about and listen to “Down in the River to Pray,” may you also feel stirred to ponder, and praise, and pray…
From Nashville to Northfield (and North Minneapolis)
by Naomi Bird, revised from the original publication on June 15, 2019 via email
Featuring “Down in the River to Pray” – An African American spiritual that has become a beloved staple in the repertoire by many American musicians, even white Scandinavian Midwesterners like the ones who shared their voices over the internet to be combined into this virtual ensemble. Featuring Liz Gerdes, Tony Potts, Ami Andersen, Christy Jones, and Nathan Bird.
Raise your hand if you like the vocal ensemble Cantus.
If you didn’t raise your hand, well, we have some talking to do.
In researching for this week’s song I learned a fascinating story of a group of college students who formed an a capella singing group.
It wasn’t Cantus of Northfield, MN. It was the Jubilee Singers, 877 miles away and 100+ years earlier in Nashville, TN.
The voices of an all-black ensemble were on a mission to save their school, and in the process pave the way for much of what Cantus sings, and for much of what many of us have come to love about American folk music.
The year was 1871.
Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk University.
The black college was struggling financially. It had been open for five years, having first been a general school for freedmen, opening just 6 months after the end of the Civil War.
The American Missionary Alliance had helped to set it up, and efforts around the country were underway to help former slaves and their families be empowered to make a life for themselves.
While I know in my head that slaves didn’t read or write, the significance of the fact that it was illegal for them to be taught how to do so – is mind boggling.
That people in this very country were treated in that way. The deck was stacked against them in so many ways.
Fisk University was poised to help catch them up on the lost lessons.
I’m not aware of any situations where a school’s music director is also the treasurer, but that’s how it was at Fisk. George L. White, a northern missionary serving as the school’s treasurer and music director, took it upon himself to aid the school’s financial problem with a musical solution.
He would form a vocal ensemble and take them on a tour to raise money for the school.
This all-black group consisted of five women and four men, all students at Fisk. It didn’t exactly take off like wild-fire.
Speaking of which, the very first moneys that they brought in they ended up donating to the relief efforts of the Chicago fire. Even in their need they had compassion and generosity and kept pursuing a solution to their problem.
Slowly, the tour around the Eastern United States built momentum and had popularity with political leaders and churches and concert halls in New York.
They eventually surpassed the goal of the $20,000 White had promised to contribute to the University – doubling that and bringing in $40,000.
Over the following several years (1880s) the group grew and even did a European tour, performing for Queen Victoria and other notables as they raised $150,000.
It wasn’t all pleasantries though.
The conditions in which they travelled, ate, slept, and performed revealed the harsh realities of a world not ready to accept black people as equals.
Over the years the Jubilee Singers has had some stops and starts, but for the most part it has persisted and been an ensemble that continues to contribute significantly to America’s history and cultural heritage, even receiving special national acknowledgements.
Our song of the week is “Down in the River to Pray,” a song that has come to be associated with a variety of genres, but whose origins are generally accepted to be based in slaves’ songs. One of the first published versions of this song was in the 1880 book The Story of the Jubilee Singers.
The earliest known version of the song was published 13 years earlier in the 1867 collection Slave Songs of the United States, the first and most influential compilation of its kind.
“Down in the River” (or one of it’s other common title variations) is commonly sung at outdoor baptisms, but it is also very possible that the text had some other significant meaning as well, as indicated in this excerpt from my research:
“Another reason is that many slave songs contained coded messages for escaping. When the slaves escaped, they would walk in the river because the water would cover their scent from the bounty-hunters’ dogs. Similarly, the “starry crown” could refer to navigating their escape by the stars. And “Good Lord, show me the way” could be a prayer for God’s guidance to find the escape route, commonly known as “the Underground Railroad.”
Of note, that first tour that the Jubilee Singers performed brought them to cities along the path of the Underground Railroad.
To bring this story back around, while Cantus – as far as I can tell – has not recorded “Down to the River to Pray,” their repertoire is rich with diversity of many cultures and prominently full of American spirituals.
(Coincidentally, it was one of Nathan’s former Cantus colleagues that suggested that he sing this particular song as part of SongNotes, so all the more reason to tie them together!)
This beloved group of white guys from a Scandinavian school in the Midwest is loved for it’s treatment of spirituals.
This fact – that Cantus sing those spirituals, that Alisson Kraus sings those spirituals, that Nathan Bird sings those spirituals – is in large part a result of the work of the Jubilee Singers, a vocal ensemble that started with some college kids and their brave leader who were audacious enough to know they had something valuable to share with the world.
Let us remember the steps in the journey of bringing this art to us.
The pains and the injustices and the anguish. The persistence of the individuals who have not let up in their pursuit of doing justice.
The song isn’t just a pretty folk tune. It’s a piece of America’s heritage built on the shoulders of the brave and faithful and persecuted.
I’ll raise my hands to that.
Nathan Bird · Down in the River to Pray
The complete June collection is now available for individual purchase.