MADISONVILLE, Ky. (2/10/17) — Pastor Demetrius Russell presented a background on “Negro Spirituals” sponsored by the Hopkins County-Madisonville Public Library in honor of Black History Month.
Friends of the Library treasurer Mariam Russell said her husband is the pastor of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Earlington, graduated from Berea College with a music degree and has always been interested in negro spirituals, how they originated and how they were used to aid slaves to freedom.
Russell began by singing the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
He displayed a black screen and asked the audience to imagine being blind folded, bound and kidnapped from your home and taken to an unfamiliar place.
“What would be your reaction or response?” asked Russell.
Russell said Africans were taken from their homeland and displaced in a foreign land and what they did was rely on the familiar and where they had come from.
In the African culture, one of the main things that really encouraged them during this time was music, he said.
Russell said in African culture, they used drums as a way to communicate and celebrate or mourn, whether it was a marriage, birth, right of passage, hunting or war.
The drums were a major method of communication and expressed the moods of people, invoked emotion and summed up the harmony of the community, said Russell.
He said whatever the beat of the drum was, it stressed or stated how the African people felt in the community. Everything they did was tied to music, and was the way of life in the African culture.
He said throughout all the struggles in the history of the African people, music has always been what encouraged them to keep moving forward.
To see how spirituals were developed, Russell took the group back to the continent of African. He said different African tribes warred against each other and captured one another as slaves.
Then, Europeans came and captured slaves according to their skills or what they were good at and they utilized the African trade system, he said. The first documented slaves in American was in the colony of Jamestown in Virginia in 1619, said Russell, and the purpose was to aid in the production of tobacco.
The origin of spirituals was connected to their lifestyles, he said.
Russell said they were filled with despair and they turned to music, which connected them to their roots. They went back to music because that is the way they communicated, when the use of drums and the use of their native language both were banned, said Russell.
He said they merged Christianity with their love for music.
They could not read and they could not write, so they listened to the stories of their heritage that were told and would make those stories into songs he said.
Russell spoke about “work-songs” developed to be used during long days of work, which helped them keep a rhythm and encouraged them and kept them in good spirits.
Russell said spirituals were more than an art form and were developed from the sorrows felt by the slaves, “birthed out of pain.”
Russell told the group to imagine being forced to do something you didn’t want to do, being whipped and beaten.
The slaves were in a lot of pain and struggling, said Russell.
He said they would moan and the moaning was an important aspect of the spiritual.
“They loved music and their pain and struggling forced them to a place of music,” he said.
Russell said with spirituals, different people have sampled them and various regions sing them differently, therefore, a spiritual can be sang in many different ways.
He said rhythm is critical and they utilized Old Testament narrative from the Bible, because they relate to the Hebrews or the Israelites, who were in bondage and the many other stories about God delivering His people.
Russell said spirituals had coded messages the slaves were able to sing and understand but the slave masters did not.
He quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and, he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
Russell named many songs that were used on the Underground Railroad that had a coded meaning; “Steal Away,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Michael Row your Boat Ashore,” “Deep River,” “Hold-on, Keep your Hand on the Plow,” and “This Train is Bound for Glory.”
He said music has been a great influence in African culture and remains important in the African-American community today.
Friends of the Library Dotty Short encouraged the public to support the library because, “It is such a great place.”
Short said there are lots of programs on tap at the library for coming year and can be accessed at Hopkins County-Madisonville Public Library on Facebook.
SurfKY News Reporter
SurfKY News Photos/Tammy Holloway
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