NYFOS logo

Song of the Day: October 2

from Michael Barrett:

For my final choice of this week’s survey of the Negro Spiritual, I have a selection of six from the amazing Shirley Verrett in live concert from the 1960s. Ms. Verrett was a vocal force and a major Met opera star. I had the good fortune to work with her in the 1980’s at the very end of her career, and it was a beautiful experience. The songs are (in order) :
1. Can’t Stay here
2. Hold On
3. I Want Jesus To Walk With Me
4. Ride On, King Jesus
5. Witness
6. Roll Jordon Roll
The formal style (and tradition) of presentation of these songs, which lasted for several generations, is in full display. The rolled rs, the pronunciation of Jordan as “Jerden”, and fully committed vocal power all contribute to performances of dignity and  deep religious conviction. This music may not have become the themes of our American Symphonies, as Dvorak had hoped, but it did (and continues to) make its way into our concert programs right there with Schubert and Beethoven.

Song of the Day: October 1

from Michael Barrett:

Today’s song is “Let Us Break Bread Together” sung by Jessye Norman, with beautifully orchestrated accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak was an early champion of the negro spiritual during his stay in New York (and Iowa) in the early 20th century. He encouraged his black students to draw upon this music, extolling it for its thematic beauty. Here was the raw material, he thought,  for symphonies, oratorios, and concertos. “Let us Break Bread Together” is a wonderful example of this thematic richness. Sung by Ms. Norman, it already sounds like an important, noble, work of art.

Dvorak’s advice wasn’t heeded, alas, by his students. Very few attempts have been made to have negro spirituals enter the concert hall in new, large, musical forms. Perhaps that’s because of the enduring potency of these melodies and lyrics. They inhabit a special place in our national music, and our national social consciousness. They help tell an important story of our unflattering history and speak to the resilience, dignity, and perseverance of the downtrodden. And they remain in the “church”. I personally don’t regret that they haven’t found an inflated presence as material for our European-based symphony orchestras. Their authenticity, purity, and simplicity speak directly to me, and continue to educate my intellect and spirit.

Song of the Day: September 30

from Michael Barrett:

In our brief survey of the Negro Spiritual this week, we’ve heard from Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. Let’s hear now from Robert McFerrin Sr. from 1957. Yes, this is Bobby McFerrin’s Dad. Two years before this recording Mr. McFerrin became the first black man to sing at the Met. Listening to this perfectly produced voice and razor clean diction reminds me of the tradition of many classically trained black singers. There is something dignified and pure in their declamation of the english language. I remember Virgil Thomson once telling me that the reason Four Saints In Three Acts had an all-black cast in 1937 had nothing to do with what I thought was a cool and subversive idea. “No.” he said. “Black singers just had the best diction, and that’s what I wanted”.

Begin at 4:28 to hear “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Witness” in Hall Johnson’s arrangements.

Song of the Day: September 29

Today’s Song of the Day features Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole in Steal Away. The lyrics are “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here.” Again, it is code for an escape to freedom. This recording from 1957 is a good reminder of how gospel music was (and in some places still is) accompanied—a piano and a hammond organ with all its vibrato. The spiritual is beautiful, and even though it is one of Harry Burleigh’s original settings, it doesn’t seem to be a  favorite of singers. Its internal qualities perhaps don’t make it a frequent choice for recitals, but it has long been near the top of my list. In Ms. Jackson’s voice (and her glacial tempo), it’s a wonderful piece of American history.
—Michael Barrett

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org