Joe Carter —
The Legacy of the African-American Spiritual

Born in slavery, the Negro spiritual conveys a generous understanding of the nature of God and of human life. A celebration in word and song — through its hidden meanings, as well as its beauty, lament, and hope.

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Joe Carter

was a celebrated performer, educator, and traveling humanitarian who took the Negro Spiritual to audiences around the world, from Novosibirsk to Nigeria.

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A hip-hop street dancer from Rio says that it is a gift to know not only your own personal history, but also the history of others.

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The Listening Room

About 5,000 spirituals, which are distinguished from gospel songs in part because their authors are unknown, are known to exist today. Those songs, Carter says, played a large part in shaping American music of all genres in the 20th century. In this Listening Room, you can listen to Carter's commentary on each spiritual, his in-studio performance, and the performances of other musicians' renditions of that same song.

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Joe Carter performs live in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Music Studio at Minnesota Public Radio.

Photo by Judy Stone-Nunneley

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The story of slavery is our story; we all live as captives, if we choose. If we choose to live in the spirit of freedom and knowledge, then we do say "All is well with my soul."

Joe Carter put that so well: "How are you doing?" is an inquiry; our ultimate answer is not of the moment, but of eternity and our investment in the matrix, the fabric of living, in this world and the next.

Yes! All is well with my soul!

To Day is a fine one: we are ready for a baby and while we are waiting and watching we are prayerful and filled with the miracle of this moment of an ti ci pati(ien)tion par excellence.

How wonderful that we can see the shape of the baby within mother's body, even as the mystery of of the full body, full face, full detail is held from us for yet another time: a promised time and place.

God has made a promise to us: this baby is coming; we have seen it becoming. The face, the movement, that we witnessed by means of the remarkable opportunity of the sonogram, that we witnessed each day by virtue of proximity to the mother, that mother witnessed directly and in essence all of this is the outward and visible sign of the mystery that God provides for us, to us, in us.....each day, each hour.

As we move today through our ordinary lives on a calendar day we've named Saturday, we are markedly aware of the extra-ordinary moments in which we are taking part. This is the mystery in which we are living everyday; today and tomorrow and all tomorrows, as we wait the "delivery" of the baby into our loving arms, we are charged and vitalized with the knowledge that we are woven into this remarkable fabric of life extending from that which we name "nature" to that which we name "spirit."

All praises be!

By accident (or Divine intervention), this program came on as the ignition turned over in my car. Had just had Sunday brunch with a student and on the way home planned to pick up a few items at the grocer. Mr. Carter's voice immediately communicated grace and dignity. Something about the cadence and enunciation suggested a link to educated African American Christian orality. And then he sang! What a voice. What power. What communication of the essential tragic condition of human existence: joy and sorrow; triumph and suffering. I sat transfixed in the parking lot in front of the grocer. Hanging on to every word. Every question (call) and response (answer. Only the inclusion of a song by or reference to Marion Williams (no relation) would persuade me to grade this otherwise excellent learning and teaching program an A+ rather than an A.

As my husband slept in this morning, I was able to give my full attention to this wonderful repeat program.

As a hospice chaplain, I bring music to my patients through my MP3 player and try to offer a variety of muscial genres. I am Jewish and I love what the spirituals express and often play them for my patients. However, I learned so much about their history and their place in our culture: the importance of nourishing the soul, even if the body is hurting.

What strength and courage slaves had to keep their spirits alive and what a true blessing to have these songs to draw upon today!

I plan on using them in our team meetings (where we discuss all our patients)and hopefully to more fully engage our African-American aides who do such important work every day bathing and caring for people who are dying.

Music moves us in ways we understand and in some we don't fully know.
I think this program will continue to resonate in my soul and help me grow spiritually in the months to come.

As always, I am in awe of Kristen's interviewing skills and I am deeply appreciative of Speaking of Faith every week.


Sharon Weissman

As I listened to Joe Carter perform sorrow songs and explain the stories behind them, I
appreciated how well this history is captured in spirituals. This music isn’t the blues,
stuck in despair, but musical code and encouragement similar to the book of Revelation. Not being black, I
didn’t at first identify with it on a personal level, but what Joe said next,made it extremely
personal. These sorrow songs told about finding life and hope within a harsh, inescapable
reality. My own reality is that I lost my vision as a child. IN a sense, I am a slave,
because there was no escape from my blindness. During the past fifty four years, my path led
me through sorrow, pain, titanic struggles, a masters’ degree in mathematics, a beautiful
wife, two sons, careers in aerospace and the computer industry, and retirement. Looking
back, I know that I was in those sorrow songs too. I was forced to adapt and try to find a
blessing in the midst of tragedy. Ultimately , we will all sing those songs. Thank you Joe
NOTE: My screen reading software didn't let me deal effectively with the above permissions radio buttons for permission to share these thoughts. So, I don't know how they are set, but I do give permission.Neither did my screen reader let me set the combo box about how regular my practice is It is very regular.

I was fortunate to listen to this program alone in my car while driving home through north central Oklahoma at twilight.

This is the music of my childhood sung by my great uncles who comprised a gospel quartet that traveled with the Chautauqua.
Listening to Joe Carter sing and explain this wonderful music has given me a deeper understanding of these much loved songs that I have carried in my head and heart my whole life.

His explaination of the character and faith and grace of his ancestors and those that have marked his life will enrich this music for the rest of mine. I'll never sing "Steal Away" again without thinking of Joe Carter, Speaking of Faith and a twilight trip home.

Thank you for this and so many marvelous programs.
A fellow Oklahoman ..... Gail Wynne

Dear Staff at "Being", While I always try to respect people's spiritual or religious convictions regardless of my own feelings, I found JOe Cater to be a bit self-righteous in his pietistic affectations and consecending judgements about the blues and soul traditions of Black music. Does he really expect life to be one long church service? I would think that MS Tipett would question his tired narrative about "blues vs Gospel" etal and ask him instead if they aren't woven together in the lives of Balck citizens. Then again, sorry to say, MS Tippett seems to have an appetite for simplistic narratives that serve the status quo. Religion and faith should not preclude critical thinking.

I have to disagree with the interpretation of the words expressed by Mr. Carter according to Ms. Franchitto. Mr. Carter was specifically speaking to the promotion of Blues music- not it's content. He highlights the way Blues are particularly subjected to stereotypical reformations that foreclose more complex expression of the music while at the same time minimizing sorrow songs and their respective complexity. I don't think he would disagree that sorrow songs could co-exist with other forms. There was nothing condescending or judgement about the blues itself but rather the way the genre is characterized for popular consumption!

Krista's interview with Joe Carter just ended. I don't believe I've ever had such an incredible experience. The first thing I thought when the fact that Joe had passed away was great regret that I had never met him, although I hope to someday! What a huge loss for the world and immeasurable gain for Heaven when Joe went home.

You have my everlasting gratitude for making his work available without a fee. It is priceless, and as a teacher, I can only imagine how far his legacy will reach!

Dear Krista and staff: I am so glad you shared this interview with Joe Carter with us! I found it riveting and enlightening. I also just downloaded those 12 songs you so GENEROUSLY made available to us. HIs singing voice is delightful, low, and a deeply resonant soulful voice I find captivating! Bravo! I also took your suggestion and just e-mailed a friend about this show...let's keep Joe's light shining! Thanks for your shows.... Craig Smith San Diego

I loved the show with Carter and the Sorrow Songs. I had written a blog on Alvin Ailey's Revelations on this topic. It's at

THANK YOU so much for the mp3s for Joe Carter. After I first heard this program I went looking for a CD and was disappointed to learn he had never made a recording. I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for making these available for download - and free as well. What a lovely Christmas gift to your listening. I'm just delighted! Great program - sorry I haven't said thank you sooner. Yours, Lori Cline


Pain and suffering are inevitable; misery is optional

Your conversations with Joe about dealing with suffering resonated with the above saying I heard and adopted recently.

I am a 60+ white man who had the good fortune to have had a near lifelong connection of listening to Paul Robeson since the 50s. "Old Man River" (Paul's lyric version) was the first song I sang as a performance. "Swing Low,", "Motherless Child," and "Nobody Knows" are other songs I find especially powerful. The music speaks volumes about how to deal with adversity imposed by outside forces; either of having the spirit to fight it when you can, or of living with it when you can't.

Be it slave masters, the weather, genetic problems, cancer, or any other source, there are things outside of our power to control which we need to cope with. The character of the music you spoke of fits with the saying.

It's been said that religions are the opiates of the masses. In the context of spirituals, perhaps this also holds true though of course they have the redeeming qualities we must acknowlege.

Forbearance of the blacks' lot was possible for so long partly laid to their songs but their awakened anger brought about the Civil Rights movement with songs the wind beneath their wings.

Thank you for your most appreciated program.

Best wishes for 2011 to all responsible for putting on your shows!

Aloha, namaste!
Frank Luke

"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" was in a song book we had when I was a child in Canada. I picked out the melody and the words made me sad but heartfelt. I feel the same every time I hear it sung and with Mr. Carter, this was a special treat on this December 31, 2010.
Terry Fuller

I had the privilege of working with Joe Carter in the Minneapolis Public Schools. I am a violinist in the Minnesota Sinfonia and was able to see and hear first-hand how Joe would relate to so many young school children through word and song. Joe performed at dozens of schools for several years and always left an unforgettable impression. Joe would sing several spirituals and tell stories to the students. When he spoke to the audience, he immediately drew them in with the richness of his voice. What a captivating personality! He often encouraged students to sing with him on the songs that they knew. His voice was so beautiful. What life he brought to each of those performances. With every song, every story, he gave each of us an amazing gift.

Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child is dear to me.
There is a Balm in Gilead keeps me in remembrance that no matter what the challenge is there is a healing is available.
I commend Ms Tippet in this awesome and moving tribute through the voice, stories and songs by Mr Joe Carter.
This presentation is a priceless treasure to be explored and reverenced for generations.
It is as he said that secret door. It is a door that will invite others to walk trough and research the many thoughts he provoked. Maybe even visit "The naratives of The Slaves" to relize the true humble life of slaves in their own words. To me these songs vibrated and declared a greater presence and challenges one to seek futher evidence of the visit of God's Divine in the heart of one declared 3/5 of a human. Nothing but The spirit of Eternal Life could do this.
Perhaps this is when American was granted a soul and given a rebirth.
Praise God
God Bless you all on Being.

I cannot pretend to imagine the depths of despair and sorrow a slave must have endured. I would be the first to admit that my troubles are trivial in comparison. However, all humanity faces sorrow and sadness in various degrees. Back in 2001, I was trapped in a life of self-destruction. I was struggling with deep depression, despair and drug addiction. I found hope in a program called Teen Challenge and began a spiritual journey of renewal. Upon completion of the program I began an internship and styed on as staff for four years.

Working with men struggling with addiction is a daunting burden to shoulder. A journey to sobriety is a lifetime task and you never reach your mark until your breath is taken from you. Until then you wake every morning making a choice to live life in a new way. In so doing you must face your demons as they come and there is no lack of them. When you choose to work with addicts you must be willing to help them work through their burdens as well as your own. There is no reprieve from suffering.

If this happens to build fortitude within you the victory is short lived because you must factor death into the equation. Giving yourself to the service of those facing addiction means you will stare the reality of human mortality right in the face. I have lost more men to addiction than I care to count. Sadly, the losses never get easier to live with and you find that a funeral is just another aspect of the job.

About six years ago I remember praying and asking God why life must be filled with such pain and wishing he would relieve my burdens of sorrow. Despair was not relieved but what came was a deeper understanding of what it means to grieve.

As I stated before, no matter your walk of life, sorrow is not in short supply. It is a reality that we all must face everyday. These African-American Spirituals have reminded me of a reality I learned many years ago. In order to live well you must learn to grieve well. We will never find reprieve from suffering. We then must learn to embrace it and work through it, or we will never experience peace.

I will never forget the pain my wife and I faced when we had a miscarriage. The knowledge that we had lost our baby seemed to suck the very breath from our souls. It was like being hit by a great wave and being trapped in the undertow you are pulled into the sea to suffocate and drown. I remember hearing that if you struggle against the undertow you will surly drown but if you relax and allow nature to take its course you have a greater chance of surfacing safely.

When the wave of despair hits me I have found it best to allow it to crash over me and let it carry me in its undertow. I allow the feelings to saturate me and soak deep into my very soul. It takes some time but eventually I surface and find that I am safe and I have survived. In that knowledge I find peace that life can still go on. Never has happiness felt so blissful as when you feel it after having truly felt what it means to grieve. Once you have fully surrendered yourself to the sorrows in life you then have a contrast in which you can base happiness. Only then can you experience peace.

I loved the program on Joe Carter. He is my hero. He makes me so proud. I felt as through I knew him, but I did not. I truly wish he was alive. His sprit, love for his black people and humanity in generally was shrouded all around him. His bass voice puts you at ease, telling the songs and hopes of slaves. Some of the songs are similar to what my Grandmother sung as a sharecropper in the delta. I can listen to this show over and over again. I wish it was longer. It means so much to me.

James Newborn

Speaking of Faith
Estate of Joe
Dear Ms Tippett and the Administrator of the Estate of Joe Carter:
Please consider granting permission to publish on the web and other media as property of the larger community the words and music Joe sang at about minute 12 of your July 10, 2009 “Joe Carter and the Legacy of the African-American Spiritual”.
I propose to insert in place of “Daniel” the name of another Bible person or situation, as in
“Didn’t my Lord deliver Ishmael, deliver Ismael,
Deliver Ishmael
Didn’t my Lord deliver Ishmael, why not everyone.” (Genesis 21:14-19)
“Didn’t my Lord deliver man-by-pool-of-Bathesda, deliver man-by-pool-of-Bathesda,
Deliver man-by-pool-of-Bathesda,
Didn’t my Lord deliver man-by-pool-of-Bathesda, why not everyone? “ (John, chapter 5)
That “why not everyone” spiritual takes my research findings into songs in the hearts of us all. Here’s what I mean: I am researching precedents and ways to form prayers for healing of entire congregations gathered for worship of whatever ailment of body or mind or community, individually or collectively, may be touched by that worship experience. My expectation is that whatever Bible person’s experience of deliverance is the subject of that worship service, can in that hour of worship become a similar deliverance experience of the congregation individually and collectively. Like Archemedes, the call here is for a lever long enough to move the whole congregation. This spiritual, climaxing in “why not everyone”, may be that lever!
I seek no personal financial gain by this activity. I would be happy to contract to share any revenues above expenses 1/3 to Estate of Joe Carter, 1/3 to “Speaking of Faith” and 1/3 to my discretion.

I was privileged to meet Joe Carter in 1967, when I was 16 and he was only 17. I had no idea he was near my age, he was so self-assured and wise. He introduced me to his Saviour and Lord, Jesus Christ, by giving me a synopsis of the Bible in 2 hours, accompanied by wonderful singing and piano playing. I particularly remember "We've Come This Far by Faith" and "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." He changed the course of my life! Over the ensuing years he was always there as a mentor and friend. The last time we met, he was performing his wonderful show about Spirituals. His voice and songs will always remain close to my heart. Thank you SO much for putting this on the net for all to enjoy! Joe's passing was such a blow to his friends, but having his voice available here has brought much comfort.

What date was Joe Cater born and death?

I listened to this interview several times because I cannot absorb the message enough. It should be required listening for all Black Americans and everyone else. This is what I personally want a spiritual belief to do for me. It is entirely heartfelt and simple and this is why it is so sophisticated. Why even in the throes of slavery, wrought from slavery, the joy of salvation and love is unmistakable. This is an American legacy of great historical value.