Program Particulars: Joe Carter and the Legacy of the African-American Spiritual

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to web version of audio

Joe Carter

(00:48–02:01) Music Element

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


Wings Over Jordan 1939 brochure

Wings Over Jordan 1939 brochure

(02:35) Audio Clip of Wings Over Jordan

Wings Over Jordan was a renowned African-American choir formed in 1937 by Rev. Glen T. Settles in Cleveland, Ohio. The Wings Over Jordan choir was featured as a popular family radio program for the CBS network. The Wings Over Jordan Celebration Chorus was formed in 1988 to carry on the original group's mission.

(03:56) Reference to "Sorrow Songs"

Carter notes that there are an estimated 5,000 spirituals in existence, which were originally called "sorrow songs." In The Soul of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois devotes an entire chapter to "sorrow songs," describing them as "the rhythmic cry of the slave, the most beautiful expression of human experience, the siftings of centuries, the voice of exile."

Joe Carter

(05:45–08:00) Music Element

"Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

Joe recounts a story told to him by the daughter of slave parents about emancipation day in which promises by the government went unfulfilled. According to legend, the song was born on this day.


Joe Carter

(08:48–9:46) Music Element

"Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


Joe Carter

(12:50–13:00) Music Element

"Standing in the Need of Prayer" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

Carter recites lines from the spiritual "Standing in the Need of Prayer." In an excerpt from a book with the same title, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., Corretta Scott King, writes about how the prayer and song of African-American slaves became a spiritual lifeline for her and other civil rights advocates in the 1960s.


(13:38) Quote from James Weldon Johnson

The line cited by Krista, "the verging of the spirit of Christianity with the vestiges of African music" comes from James Weldon Johnson's 1925 anthology, The Book of American Negro Spirituals, the first published collection of Negro spirituals. Johnson published a second volume a year later.

(14:32) Religious Music in Africa

Music and religion were inseparable to many Africans. The Gullahs of South Carolina serve as a good example of the importance of this syncretic combination of Christianity and African rituals and traditions. Music played a dual role of spiritual exaltation and secret communication with other slaves in the community.

Joe Carter

(16:36–17:40) Music Element

"Daniel in the Lion's Den" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

The Old Testament story mentioned can be found in the book of Daniel, chapter 6. According to the text, Daniel was a pious and wise youth who able to see visions of future events. King Nebuchadnezzar exiled Daniel and other prominent citizens to Babylon around 597 BCE. The following passage was excerpted from the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures


Carter at the mic

Carter at the mic

That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old. It pleased Darius to appoint over the kingdom one hundred and twenty satraps to be in charge of the whole kingdom; over them were three ministers, one of them Daniel, to whom these satraps reported, in order that the king not be troubled. This man Daniel surpassed the other ministers and satraps by virtue of his extraordinary spirit, and the king considered setting him over the whole kingdom. The ministers and satraps looked for some fault in Daniel's conduct in matters of state, but they could find neither fault nor corruption, inasmuch as he was trustworthy, and no negligence or corruption was to be found in him. Those men then said, "We are not going to find any fault with this Daniel, unless we find something against him in connection with the laws of his God." Then these ministers and satraps came thronging in to the king and said to him, "O King Darius, live forever! All the ministers of the kingdom, the prefects, satraps, companions, and governors are in agreement that a royal ban should be issued under sanction of an oath that whoever shall address a petition to any god or man, besides you, O king, during the next thirty days shall be thrown into a lions' den. So issue the ban, O king, and put it in writing so that it be unalterable as a law of the Medes and Persians that may not be abrogated." Thereupon King Darius put the ban in writing.

When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God, as he had always done. Then those men came thronging in and found Daniel petitioning his God in supplication. They then approached the king and reminded him of the royal ban: "Did you not put in writing a ban that whoever addresses a petition to any god or man besides you, O king, during the next thirty days, shall be thrown into a lions' den?" The king said in reply, "The order stands firm, as a law of the Medes and Persians that may not be abrogated." Thereupon they said to the king, "Daniel, one of the exiles of Judah, pays no heed to you, O king, or to the ban that you put in writing; three times a day he offers his petitions [to his God]." Upon hearing that, the king was very disturbed, and he set his heart upon saving Daniel, and until the sun set made every effort to rescue him. Then those men came thronging in to the king and said to the king, "Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that any ban that the king issues under sanction of oath is unalterable." By the king's order, Daniel was then brought and thrown into the lions' den. The king spoke to Daniel and said, "Your God, whom you serve so regularly, will deliver you." A rock was brought and placed over the mouth of the den; the king sealed it with his signet and with the signet of his nobles, so that nothing might be altered concerning Daniel.

The king then went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and his sleep fled from him. Then, at the first light of dawn, the king arose and rushed to the lions' den. As he approached the den, he cried to Daniel in a mournful voice; the king said to Daniel, "Daniel, servant of the living God, was the God whom you served so regularly able to deliver you from the lions?" Daniel then talked with the king, "O king, live forever! My God sent His angel, who shut the mouths of the lions so that they did not injure me, inasmuch as I was found innocent by Him, nor have I, O king, done you any injury." The king was very glad, and ordered Daniel to be brought up out of the den. Daniel was brought up out of the den, and no injury was found on him, for he had trusted in his God. Then, by order of the king, those men who had slandered Daniel were brought and, together with their children and wives, were thrown into the lions' den. They had hardly reached the bottom of the den when the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language that inhabit the earth, "May your well-being abound! I have hereby given an order that throughout my royal domain men must tremble in fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God who endures forever; His kingdom is indestructible, and His dominion is to the end of time; He delivers and saves, and performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, for He delivered Daniel from the power of the lions." Thus Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and during the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

Joe Carter

(17:58–19:35) Music Element

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" piano interlude performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


(19:54) Gospel versus Spiritual

Negro Spirituals are sacred folk songs that were first sung by African Americans during their enslavement in the southern United States. The original composers are unknown, and the spirituals are considered to be collectively owned by the Black community. Because they are often used in communal singing, many spirituals are based on a call-and-response structure, in which a leader and a group conduct back-and-forth exchanges.

The gospel music tradition originated in the churches of the urban North in the early 1900s and can be directly traced to its roots in spirituals and the blues. Whereas spirituals have no identifiable composer, most gospel songs can be attributed to an individual. Gospel music fuses musical elements of both the spirituals and the blues, and incorporates extensive musical improvisation — using pianos, guitars, and other instruments as accompaniment.

Joe Carter at the mic
Joe Carter

(21:36) Music Element

"Let My People Go" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

Carter often uses this song to teach children how spirituals were used by slaves as a way of flying in the face oppression.

Joe Carter

(23:21–25:41) Music Element

"Steal Away" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

This spiritual served not only as a song of transcendence and hope, but as a signal for escape.


Joe Carter

(30:03–32:24) Music Element

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio



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,  A band of angels coming after me,  Coming for to carry me home.    Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home,  Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home.    If you get there before I do,  Coming for to carry me home,  Tell all my friends I'm coming, too.  Coming for to carry me home.    Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home,  Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home.    I'm sometimes up and sometimes down,  Coming for to carry me home,  But still my soul feels heavenly bound,  Coming for to carry me home.    Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home,  Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home.    The brightest day that I can say,  Coming for to carry me home,  When Jesus washed my sins away,  Coming for to carry me home.    Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home,  Swing low, sweet chariot,  Coming for to carry me home.


Joe Carter

(33:38–35:27) Music Element

"Wade in the Water" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio

Spirituals were a means for slaves to communicate. In many spirituals, the lyrics functioned as code, which disguised the slaves' yearning for freedom. The lyrics for "Wade in the Water" warned an escaping slave to get to the river, where bloodhounds would not be able to follow the scent.


Joe Carter

(37:57–38:59) Music Element

"Motherless Child" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


(41:53) Gershwin and the Spirituals

One of George Gershwin's best-loved musicals "Porgy and Bess" incorporated spirituals into the action of the plot. Gershwin went to Folly Island off the coast of South Carolina to observe the customs of the local people, the Gullahs, and listen to their music, using their "shouting" to create rhythms with hands and feet as accompaniment to the spirituals.

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

(43:06) Reference to Robeson and Anderson

Paul Robeson, the son of a runaway slave, was considered by many a Renaissance man because of his athletic, academic, and artistic talents. He is most noted for his singing and acting, playing lead roles in Shakespeare's Othello and in O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, and is widely remembered for singing "Ol' Man River" in Showboat. He was an outspoken critic of racism and a supporter of socialism who would later be targeted by McCarthy and others during the Red Scare.

Marian Anderson is considered one of the great operatic voices of the 20th century. Although she gained international acclaim by the late 1930s — Arturo Toscanini once stated, "Yours is a voice one hears once in a hundred years." — Anderson would face discrimination in the United States through most of her life and was eventually invited to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1954.

Joe Carter

(45:33–50:29) Music Element

"Be Ready When He Comes" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


Joe Carter

(46:58–48:51) Music Element

"Let the Work That I've Done" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


Joe Carter

(49:01–50:36) Music Element

piano interlude from "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" performed live by Joe Carter at Minnesota Public Radio


Voices on the Radio

Joe Carter

(1949—2006)
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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