Spirituals are more than just songs.
For many who first sang them, they were an escape – a way to tell their story of seemingly hopeless situations.
Tradition has kept these lyrics alive, and there are some who are passionate about making sure it stays that way.
American Spiritual Ensemble soloists led a group of about 770 third- through sixth-grade students from nine local schools in a workshop Monday to do just that. The professional singers demonstrated how to sing various classic spirituals while also telling their historical origins.
"It’s American history. Especially for a community that’s predominantly white American, bringing our culture and our history, it’s important," soprano singer Karen Slack said. "It doesn’t get taught with the kind of detail and depth it needs. So to do programs like this is very necessary."
Tenor John Wesley Wright taught the students how to sing titles such as, "Wade in the Water," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning," which all speak of African-American slaves using the Underground Railroad. Others such as "Old Lady Come From Boosta" were more focused on children.
Mezzo-soprano singer Cherry Duke said by singing these songs, the children could relate to the history and realize they are songs children their age once sang.
"We want to have them participate in learning history, we don’t want them to just sit there and be told what they need to know," she said.
As they were asked questions, some knew the historical answers. Others learned something new. Either way, singer Michael Preacely said it will help them remember.
"To attach the music to the history really leaves a lasting impression on the minds of the children," he said. "That’s our history, not only in African-American history, but in American history. It ties in a great deal. So to have that connect is really important."
Members of the American Spiritual Ensemble have conducted many of these workshops. For workshop leader and tenor John Wesley Wright, the passion to educate young children came following a similar workshop he attended. He was inspired by the drive of an African-American woman’s singing group.
"I thought, ‘I want to be like that woman when I grow up,’ because this is stuff you don’t learn," he said. "You hear bump and grind on the radio, but you don’t hear (spirituals). This is the root of all that."
The soloists from the American Spiritual Ensemble are in the area to sing in the community’s 132nd annual Messiah Festival of the Arts.
Blakely Bunning, Messiah Festival Coordinator, said she anticipates having more guests as part of the festival, and hopes they can continue to expose children to various forms of art. This year, students in high school and college will have the opportunity to participate in a master class, where the soloists will critique their singing.
Page 2 of 2 - "We feel education is a very important part of what we want the Messiah to be," she said. "They can provide something new and unique every year."