Spirituals at East Chop Light

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir

I’d managed to miss all chances to hear the Martha’s Vineyard Spirituals Choir, despite best intentions and the fact that several friends sing in it, but this week I made up for lost time by hearing them twice, first at the Vineyard Haven library on Wednesday and then last night at the East Chop Light. Sky and sea were dramatically overcast, the forecast rain didn’t arrive, and I got to climb the lighthouse stairs for the first time in almost 20 years.

Director Jim Thomas founded the U.S. Slave Song Project in 2005 to educate the public about the slave songs, also known as Negro spirituals. These are true American folk songs: they were not composed but instead arose without attribution from the people who sang them. They were a means of communication, and, notes Jim, they were always sung in code.

A lamp in the window signified that a station on the Underground Railroad was safe to approach; hence “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” “Wade in the Water” was good advice to fugitive slaves determined to elude pursuing dogs who lose the scent in water. Other references to water, including the River Jordan, often signified the Atlantic Ocean, crossed by captives in the Middle Passage, and the home on the other side was Africa. If white Christians thought the slaves were singing about going to heaven, or that “that old-time religion” was Christianity, no one was going to set them straight.

Last night’s performance kicked off Della Hardman Weekend, an evolving annual celebration of the life and work of the late artist and community inspiration. Andrea Taylor (left), Della’s daughter, talked about her mother’s life and the rest of the weekend’s events. The sign she’s holding says SAVOR THE MOMENT, a Della axiom and part of her legacy.

A lighthouse keeper's view of the choir

The lighthouse was open for visitors, so of course I had to climb the stairs, then the ladder, and then duck through the very low (three feet high? less?) door to the outside. In the early 1990s a friend was the keeper. She’d open the lighthouse almost every Sunday evening, and often two or three musicians — often including the late bluesman Maynard Silva and harmonica virtuoso Eddy Larkosh — would drop in to jam. The acoustics were, in a word, awesome.

Christina dances

Christina Montoya sings in the choir and is also a fabulous dancer. Her dance and recital of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” was a knockout.

As I type, the M.V. Spirituals Choir is en route to Nantucket, where they’ll be performing at the Unitarian church this afternoon. For $25 you could go along on the ferry. I was tempted; boy, was I tempted.

Vineyard Haven harbor from East Chop Light

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Spirituals at East Chop Light

  1. Adrianne Ryan says:

    How wonderful ! This is something I would have loved to experience . Thank you for sharing this – and please give us a heads up if they sing on the Vineyard again.

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    • Adrianne, there are several opportunities coming up soon! We’re singing at Union Chapel tomorrow night (Sat., July 21), 7 pm. Christina Montoya is one of the guest performers, singing and maybe (I’m not sure) performing her interpretive dance to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” We’ll be singing (and Jim will deliver James Weldon Johnson’s sermon “Judgment Day” — riveting!) at the Unitarian service on Sunday morning. Then we return to East Chop Light on Sat., July 28 — Della Hardman Day. That starts around 7 pm. Hope you can make one or more of the events!

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  2. Sharon Stewart says:

    It’s difficult for a choir to sing outside. We did it once, but our notes were blown away by the wind. We couldn’t hear the other sections, let alone our own, so with no aural cues, we had no sense of ensemble. And then you strain to project because you figure the audience must not be hearing much either. I haven’t heard a choir singing outside, though, so maybe it sounds better from the other side of the wind.

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    • No kidding. Have sung in semi-outside venues, like those with roofs but no walls, and they’re challenging too. But Friday was a calm night (“the stillness in the wind before the hurricane begins” — though the storm never arrived). The ensemble is small (about 15), and the drums were audible everywhere. The harmonies aren’t complex: there’s a lot of call and response, and generally no more than two different parts going at the same time. I was walking around taking pictures, and I could hear pretty well. Acoustics from up in the lighthouse weren’t so good, however.

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