One of the joys of my life is singing in the U.S. Slave Song Project Spirituals Choir. Directed by project founder Jim Thomas, we sing songs sung by African slaves in the American colonies and the United States from 1619 till Emancipation was complete in 1865. These are true folk songs. None of them were composed.

We sing them at senior centers, libraries, churches, restaurants, and schools. Each summer we do one concert at Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven and another at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. We sing at the East Chop Lighthouse every Della Hardman Day.

These songs are powerful. They pull you into the lives of the people who sang them first. Jim has been researching slave songs for a long time. At our presentations he talks about how the songs developed and spread, and how most of them carry at least two levels of meaning, one for the powerful white folk in the vicinity, the other for the slaves themselves. The songs draw on stories and imagery from the King James Version of the Christian Bible, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, religious. “Jesus” in the spirituals can be anyone who helped the slaves. “Satan” is anyone who treated them cruelly.

So yesterday Jim and more than 20 members of the choir made our way via chartered bus first to Boston, where we sang at the historic Old North Church, and then to Medford, where we sang at the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum — a truly remarkable place. Its goal is similar to ours: to bring alive the daily life of African slaves in this country.

I blogged about our trip in the blog I maintain for the U.S. Slave Song Project. It’s a Vineyard thing as well as a U.S. Slave Song Project thing, so rather than reprint it I’m giving you the link. Check it out. It’s pretty cool.

Tom Lincoln, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, gave us a tour before we sang.

Tom Lincoln, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, gave us a tour before we sang. That’s the Slave Quarters in the background.



About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Twofer

  1. Sharon Stewart says:

    The Slave Song Project sounds like a wonderful way to help people connect with history and with the people who were part of that history. No doubt it opens up hearts, as well as channels of understanding. Music, especially singing, has a powerful effect on the musicians, too (at least, I have always felt that; and tuning myself to my neighbours is something that this introvert finds magical).


    • There’s definitely something about singing with other people. Look at how important singing was to the slaves, and the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the struggle against apartheid, and so on. I learned a lot of U.S. history from songs — in the antiwar movement (Vietnam War division), we sang labor songs, civil rights songs, Spanish Civil War songs. I grew up with Civil War songs, both northern and southern. Come to think of it, I’ve learned a fair amount of Canadian history from James Keelaghan and Stan Rogers, among others, and English working-class history from Jez Lowe . . .


  2. karen says:

    What a gift, to sing well. I love to sing, it’s such a joyous feeling. Except if you are in my vicinity and actually listening to me sing. Terrible singing voice! Glad you are able to share your gift!


    • I have an OK voice. I can carry a tune, and I’m getting better at improvising harmony. I definitely like to sing! But the Spirituals Choir isn’t about note-perfect singing. As Jim keeps reminding us, it’s about conveying the feeling behind the songs. The slaves didn’t sing professionally arranged compositions with multiple modulations. They didn’t worry about whether they could sing or not. They sang to survive


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