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.
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 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.