Program B: The Riches of the World
Denial (Spiritual): Deep River
Dr. Cornel West reminds us that in the history of Black America, “from the Middle Passage to baptism, water is always considered a point of no return.” Many spirituals that reference water are evidence of this fact. The spiritual Deep River opens with the line, “Deep River. My home is over Jordan.” The theology of this song is one about death. Crossing the river is a point of no return. The added adjective in the title of deep, implies that the human soul has had a vast number of experiences. It is not just about crossing into an afterlife but a reflection on the wisdom gained through a wealth of experiences in one's life. When tragedy strikes us as humans, it is not uncommon to seek the wisdom of our living elders and deceased ancestors and ask, “What did you know? How did you endure?” The experience of grief that leads people of African descent across the diaspora to ask those questions is preceded by denial.
Anger (Classical): Frederick Douglass Funeral March
Nathaniel Clark Smith was a bandleader in the Midwest. He wrote this piece in tribute to the former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This piece of music has no lyrics. It is a funeral march set in g minor. The main theme is contrasted by the trio section written in B Flat Major. Listening to this, a person can almost hear the consistent rhythmic heavy footsteps of a marching band. It is normal in human behavior for a person to stamp their foot especially when they are angry. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were good friends who held each other's intelligence in high esteem. Both men were ardent believers in the humanity promised in The Constitution and adamant about uniting the country of the United States. To lose a patriotic person like Frederick Douglass and know that the things he fought for have not fully come into fruition, all those who consider themselves Americans should be stamping their foot in angry outrage.
Bargaining (Jazz): St. James Infirmary
Cab Calloway was one of the first great Black Americans in the Big Band era of the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. He became famous for his piece Minnie the Moocher. Minnie is derived from another composition, St. James Infirmary. The singer of St James Infirmary goes to the mortuary to identify the body of his loved one. Upon finding her, he must grapple with her passing and wrestle with the fact that he too will also die in the future. “Let her go! Let her go!” The singer exclaims. “God bless her wherever she may be. She may search this whole wide world over. Never find a sweeter man as me.” In one particular version, Cab Calloway shouts, “hallelujah!” symbolizing that contemplating mortality is always a conversation with the divine.
Depression (Blues): Poor Man’s Blues
Bessie Smith was known as The Empress of the Blues. She was a composer, singer and performer. Bessie's celebrity status did not separate her from being and living among everyday people. Bessie's song, Poor Man's Blues, is reflective of a life lived as the people's diva of the Blues. The text of the lyrics in the third verse reads, “Please listen to my pleadin’ cause I can't stand these hard times long. They'll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong.” With this particular lyric, Bessie highlights that lingering economic depression can result in human desperation.
Acceptance (Soul): I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
Written by pianist Dr. Billy Taylor for his daughter, this piece of music has been covered by many people over the years. The first singer to get ahold of it and make it popular was Nina Simone. As a central musical figure of the civil rights era and the 60’s and 70’s protest movements, Nina’s use of this song held great significance. In all her music Nina was an expert at acknowledging the unvarnished reality of what was happening to people. She did exactly that with this song while also projecting a hopeful possibility that all people could be reconciled to one another and live peaceably together. The text of the second verse illustrates that duality. “I wish I could share all the love that's in my heart. Remove all the doubts that keep us apart.” The text makes it clear, the challenge in sharing love, means accepting its existence.
Faith (Gospel): No Weapon
Fred Hammond is a prolific contemporary gospel music composer. This piece of music is based off Isaiah 54:17. Written in 6/8 time it is musically structured to convey a sense of safety. The pace and rhythm of the work is equal to that of a person rocking a baby to sleep. The lyrics of the text repeats over and over, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper. It won’t work.” Towards the middle of the piece, the orchestra has a gospel “shout” section. The ensemble emphatically proclaims over and over, “It won't work.” This infectious jubilation culminates the shout section by ending in a single orchestral hit. To believe that one can endure beyond all matter of circumstances, no matter what that weapon is- including the life destroying shot from a gun, is an act of faith.