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Context, Content, Connotation: Five Things We Learned About Spirituals From Choral Expert Ken Burton

Spirituals take a central role in Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River, which we’re excited to be learning as an orchestra this summer. So, we were enormously grateful to welcome conductor, presenter and spirituals expert Ken Burton to speak to us. Ken is known for his work on UK television programmes, BBC Songs of Praise, and was choirmaster for the multi Oscar-winning film Black Panther, and he immensely inspired us. Here are five things we learned from Ken about spirituals… 


What is a spiritual?


Spirituals are religious songs which voice the hardships of slavery. Mixing expression from two worlds, the root of the spiritual lies in West Africa and the religious protestant hymns of the United States. They grew organically in the places people worked and spread from plantation to plantation.


What does a spiritual sound like?



The pentatonic scale and ‘call and response’ structure is defining characteristics of the spiritual. Without hymn books, hymns were led in church by precentors ‘lining’ where words were called and the congregation responded, and from this grew ‘call and response’. Bent notes, improvisation and rising energy are also key characteristics of the spiritual. 

Central characteristics of African life, such as the importance of community, religion, and the use of song and spoken word to spread news, which were carried with those who were taken to the Americas against their will, all influenced the spiritual. 



‘This music is borne out of necessity; borne out of the need for survival and hope in the face of horror. Embedded in spirituals is African chant. Singing (and dancing) spirituals was the slaves’ way of combining their own music with Protestant hymn.’ – Errollyn Wallen


You must understand the history


‘Understanding the story and the journey is the only way you can authentically deliver a spiritual. Beyond the music, to understand it properly you have got to understand the emotion, the back story.’ – Ken Burton 



‘To understand Black music, even when you hear ‘happy’ music you will hear a pain, yearning, longing, the voice of suffering, a voice which is hoping, and that is at the heart of the music.’ - Ken Burton 


Spirituals hid secret messages 


Metaphors and secret meanings were often buried in spirituals. These were hidden voices of hope to keep spirits raised or would spread knowledge of escape routes and those who would help slaves to freedom. 



Water is an important symbol 


References to water are often found in spirituals. Water was a symbol of separation between the South of America where slavery existed and ‘over the river’ to North of America which meant freedom. It was also a symbol of heaven, freedom via death. The flow of water and the way it flows to larger waters and always moving and longing to be free is another interesting way it is a symbol of freedom. 



‘In Mighty River it is as if the perpetual motion of the music, like water, like time,  through its sheer momentum, carries with it the cries and echoes of human hearts and voices that are singing out of suffering, repentance, humility and hope.’ – Errollyn Wallen 


Spirituals changed with history 


Early spirituals were called sorrow songs, but they took a more combative form and later became known as jubilees celebrating freedom. Between sorrow and freedom was the quest for freedom and how it was painted by the words of the songs. Later, spirituals were arranged and made fit for concert halls which generally how they are kept alive today.


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