Denver project preserves and performs spirituals

DONNA BRYSON Associated Press Published:

DENVER (AP) -- Cars rumble past on a busy street just outside. A radio tuned to a jazz station plays a bit too loudly. But those distractions fade away when 80-year-old Ed Battle shares a song he learned from his grandmother when he was a boy.

"Guide my feet while I run this race," he sings, sitting very straight, hands still in his lap. "'Cuz I don't want to run this race in vain."

The power of the solo session in Battle's sun-filled dining room is amplified when he sings with The Spirituals Project Choir, a Denver institution that has performed across the U.S. and produced CDs to spread the music even further.

As The Spirituals Project enters its third decade, founder Arthur Jones is trying to spread the power he believes the music holds to build community across lines of race and class, and to move individuals to address personal and political challenges.

Jones last summer held the first of what he plans will be biannual conferences on spirituals where performers share stages with scholars and activists who have found inspiration in the music that is the roots of gospel, blues, jazz and hip hop.

The project also includes an Internet archive of educational materials. On the calendar this year is a slam poetry event.

"We see rap and hip-hop and spoken word as an extension of what started with the spirituals," Jones said.

In "Wade in the Water," a book Jones wrote on the music, he juxtaposes songs like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" with historical accounts by former slaves of watching anguished mothers beg slave traders not to separate them from their children.

He also decodes the language of resistance in songs used to signal uprisings or share information about escape routes.

And he describes a music that blends Christian themes from the West with themes, rhythms and the call-and-response pattern from Africa, linking the slaves who created it to a tradition and identity that predated slavery.

Poet Nikki Giovanni has written a book of essays on the spirituals, joining W.E.B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson in a tradition of poetic response to the music. Giovanni said Jones contributes something special to a topic that also has been tackled by historians and sociologists.

"What Art brought to us was another level of emotional bonding," said Giovanni, who teaches at Virginia Tech.

Giovanni said the spirituals provide a personal link to history, and in doing so point a way forward.

She quoted a line from one of the best known songs to illustrate her point: "'I've been 'buked and I've been scorned,'" she says, not quite singing. "That's a history. They tell you, 'We've been through the fire, but we're going to be all right.' That's what's so essential."

Members of the Spiritual Project Choir are black and white. The singers come from the suburbs and from inner city neighborhoods like Battle's. They are Jews and evangelical Christians, and some who attend no church or temple.

Among the white singers is Wendy Willbanks Wiesner, a soprano and an economist who first joined the choir a decade ago. She said she stumbled upon The Spirituals Project Choir almost by accident, at a time when her family was coping with the deaths of her in-laws.

She found solace in the music, she said, calling spirituals "a cultural treasure and heritage that is for everyone. Everyone needs this music."

Willbanks Wiesner said she looks to fellow choir members like Battle for instruction and inspiration. She said spirituals provide singers and listeners the mental strength they need when they are struggling, whether physically or psychologically, politically or personally.

"In slavery, there was a lot of work. People sang when they worked," Battle said, adding that his grandmother sang the same songs when she did chores around the house. Even as a small boy, he said, he could hear something special in her voice when she sang about personal or family worries.

"People would end up standing out on the sidewalk, listening to her," he said.

Jones, a singer as well as psychologist, first sang spirituals for the pleasure and strength they gave him and friends. Then, he was asked to create a lecture-recital event about spirituals, which led in 1990 to his book, which is in its third edition.

That led to an effort to produce a documentary about spirituals. The choir was formed with the idea that it could help raise funds for the documentary, which was never made.

The choir brings people together. Witness Dedee Stump, a white, 47-year-old notary from the comfortable suburb of Highlands Ranch who settled into a pew in a church where The Spirituals Project is giving a concert.

Next to her was Jean Hines, a 63-year-old black retired civil servant who brings a well-thumbed Bible bound in maroon leather to the concert. They did not come together, but after hearing a powerful soloist, Stump leaned over to whisper to Hines: "I think the walls are going to come down!"

Hines said: "I felt like we were all together, one color, enjoying it together."

That evening, The Spirituals Project performed on a program with a high school choir, a statewide children's chorus and a traditional gospel choir. Jones sang with his choir and provided commentary.

"It was good for us to hear it, to be reminded of" the lives of the slaves who created spirituals, Stump said, adding she left the concert with a deeper understanding of the inspirational power the music still holds.

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The Spirituals Project: http://spiritualsproject.org/