Krista's Journal: A Sophisticated Theology Behind the Musical Tradition

July 6, 2006

I once heard a story about an American who was peppered with questions about Joe Carter — in, of all places, Siberia. Joe had made one of his riveting educational presentations about the African-American spiritual there, and had indelibly impressed his audience. His would forever be the generous, glorious face they put on all people and things American. Joe's presence — his voice, his spirit, and his life — made the world a larger place. This program was special from the first. We recorded it in Minnesota Public Radio's Maud Moon Weyerhauser Music Studio — a spacious chamber where orchestras record. It was just Joe and his pianist and I. And as we talked about the spirituals, Joe periodically stood up and sang them to illustrate his points. It was a delightful experience. We all enjoyed ourselves immensely, and I think that enjoyment is audible in the final production. And our conversation was a revelation. It was so interesting to take a staple of American culture, as the spiritual has become — music that we all seem to know and can sing without thinking — and ask questions of it. It was painful to be reminded, foundationally, that this music had its genesis in slavery. What distinguishes the spiritual from its later offspring, like gospel music, is in part the fact that it springs from a body of work of collective, anonymous authorship. Nameless bards bequeathed us a remarkable inheritance out of a cruel period in our nation's history. There is also, as Joe helped me understand, a sophisticated theology of suffering contained in these melodies and words. It is a theology that leans into suffering — and, in surrender, transforms and rises above it, if only in moments. Still, such moments are nurturing and sustaining, and many of us have experienced this directly through hearing and singing the spirituals, generations later and in radically different contexts. "The thing we find," Joe said, "is that in the midst of all of the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals lived transcendent, shining lives. They were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. Mammy was taking care of master's baby. She could have smothered that child. But she loved the child like it was her own child, because there was something in her faith that said, 'You're supposed to be loving, you're supposed to be kind, you're supposed to be forgiving — and there's no excuse if you're not…' The ancestors knew that the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place on the inside. And when we look back to the slavery days we were bound, but it was the master who was really the slave. And I think some of us understand that now." I asked Joe whether someone like him couldn't reasonably begrudge the way in which white Americans have appropriated the spiritual, embraced it as their own genre. But that question was mine, not his. In Siberia and Africa and Wales, he says, these songs speak directly to the recurrent human struggle to survive when the worst happens. They have become symbolic of a universal yearning for freedom — "that part of us all which says, 'I will not be defeated.'" We rebroadcast this hour in celebration of Joe Carter's gifts of wisdom and music that echo vibrantly beyond his death.

Recommended Reading

Image of The Books of the American Negro Spirituals
Author: James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson
Publisher: Da Capo Press (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages

Joe Carter brought a battered, treasured early volume of this work with him to our interview. There is a 2002 combined volume of the two seminal collections of sheet music, history, and commentary that Johnson published in 1925 and 1926. They remain among the most significant reference resources ever compiled on this musical genre. Johnson's prefaces are elegant and moving. Chapters are devoted to the most significant known spirituals. "As the years go by and I understand more about this music and its origin," Johnson writes, "the miracle of its production strikes me with increasing wonder."

Also, the Listening Room on our companion site features full-length, downloadable tracks of Joe Carter's live performances in our studio, and recordings of these spirituals by other renowned artists such as Mahalia Jackson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

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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.