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SPIRITUALS: Barbara Conrad
When asked to personalize an introduction to this recording,
the soloist, Barbara Conrad reflected: Imagine a small
southwestern rural black community, rich-red soil, beautiful fields of cotton, corn,
potatoes, and such clear blue skies, hot-hot sun, huge oak-trees that provided wonderful
shade and gentle breezes perfumed with the unique smell of East Texas Pines. This is the
place where I grew up, a place called Center Point. And where my family and friends,
proudly and dutifully toiled long and hard to establish this community. They built our
homes, our school and Center Point Baptist Church where I first experienced great gospel
revivals and the singing of negro spirituals. It was a great old Church to worship and to
vent matters of the spirit, be it troubled or exultant. It was a safe haven where all
could release some of the pain of a segregated and sometimes cruel South. We, as a family,
prayed, sang, shouted, and often wept for the horrible injustices done to our people. And
it was in those early years of my life that I first gleaned what a great antidote these
spirituals could be - how it let spirits and hearts know the ecstasy of freedom. It was in
this Church that I was able to freely express all my joys and sorrows and find the source
of inspiration so that Jesus, my black Jesus, could dwell in me. Where else, therefore,
could I possibly do my first recording of spirituals but in the Church, where every prayer
meeting began with my Bigmama singing, O, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, when I lay My Burden
Down, and often ending with my brother Dinard playing the piano and singing, Come Ye
Disconsolate - (Earth has no sorrow, that Heaven cannot heal). It is not
surprising that Barbara Conrad in looking into her heart dedicates this recording to her
beloved brother, Dinard.
In his introduction to Fisher's Negro Slave Songs in the United States (1953), R.A.
Billington of Northwestern University took the view that "the African-American
spiritual has been revealed as a master index to the mind of the slave."
Billington asserted that "Equally startling is Dr.
Fisher's discovery, through the medium of songs, that the slaves were dutiful, obedient,
and well adjusted to their lot... we have taken our cue from the abolitionists and their
descendants among New England historians and have pictured the Negroes as surly,
resentful, and constantly on the verge of rebellion. This view is flatly contradicted by
the spirituals, which reveal in the bondsman a strong sense of duty, a desire to please
their masters - the Lawd in the vocabulary of their songs - and an eagerness to conform no
matter how unpleasant their tasks might be. Apparently the slave must be pictured in the
pattern of Uncle Tom rather than of Nat Turner."
This is ground upon which few would stand today. However, it
makes a useful point about the ways in which American culture has addressed the Negro
spiritual. Its richness and ancient tradition has been susceptible of many
interpretations. Although simplified and prettified by well-meaning popularizers, its
vitality and boldness remain insurmountable.
From the view that it represents a longing for safety,
certainty, and reconciliation in the arms of Jesus, across to a subtextual code of rage
and rebellion, this African American music holds influence well beyond its makers. In this
recording, Barbara Conrad explores its most brave and beautiful meanings.
Only after the Civil War did the spiritual become known to the
larger world. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University led the way, concertizing here and in
Europe from 1871 to 1878. Following them came a wide appeal, wider repertoire,
publication, and transcription into new forms. But, even during this first period, concern
was expressed about durability. Wrote Thomas Fenner in 1865, "The freed men have an
unfortunate inclination to despise this music as a vestige of slavery; those who learned
it in the old time, when it was the natural outpouring of their sorrows and longings, are
dying off, and if efforts are not made for its preservation, this country will soon have
lost this wonderful music of bondage."
In 1904, Booker T. Washington held that "The plantation
songs known as the Spirituals are the spontaneous outbursts of intense religious fervour,
and had their origins chiefly in the camp meetings, the revivals and in other religious
exercises. They breathe a child-like faith in a personal Father, and glow with the hope
that the children of bondage will ultimately pass out of the wilderness of slavery into
the land of freedom... while some of the coloured people do not encourage the singing of
the songs because they bring up memories of the trying conditions which gave them rise,
the race as a whole realizes that apart from the music of the Red Man the Negro folk-song is the only
distinctively American music, and is taking pride in using and preserving it."
Ninety years later, following tidal changes in law and attitude
and culture, the music endures. Its origins are African, Caribbean, and New World,
biblical and natural, work and celebration, spontaneous and additive, and subject to
endless variation. In this recording, Barbara Conrad, The Convent Avenue Concert Choir,
and The New England Symphonic Ensemble, restore original life, and infuse new life, into
the spiritual. The music endures.
Steal Away is a call-song,
one of the origins of the spiritual. In the southern fields of hard labour, slaves would
often sing out to one another. Here, they call for release in death: Steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here. There
is some evidence that this song may actually have been written in 1825 by the Spartacus of
his day, Nat Turner, and used to convene secret meetings of his fellow insurrectionists.
Certainly, Lord is a biblical
song taking the call-and-response form in which preacher and congregation converse.
In the fifth chapter of John, the story is told of a man
waiting beside a pool. In Wade In The Water,
the story is transcribed for the special circumstance of its audience. Wade in the water, children, God is going to trouble the waters,is read both as a story of baptism and as one of escape through the waters
nearby to freedom afar.
Ride On, King Jesus illustrates
another of the starting-points of the spiritual: the New Testament certainty that one's
personal saviour is greater than any hardship and that, from the mundane to the
miraculous, no man works likes Him.
The lamentation Take My Mother Home, here given by piano and solo
voice, has a startling personal power. Its blues and dissonance strengthen the voice of
Jesus, begging that his mother be taken away so as not to witness His death.
The folk-hymn Amazing Grace is
not strictly an African-American spiritual. It was notated by William Walker in South
Carolina in 1835, and uses text attributed to Newton. It has numerous variant titles, and
a close relationship to the old hymn Primrose.
The course of a great river is easily read as that of a man's
life. To the slave, it must have been a river like the Mississippi. To the slave dreaming
of freedom, it was a channel of escape, a final hurdle before finding safety in the North,
or Canada, or some safe harbour. We love Deep River for
its exalted sound and are troubled by its sub-surface meaning. The song originated in
North Carolina. Its title may have referred to the name of the local Quaker meeting-house,
Deep River. This congregation was active in the purchase and release of slaves, and in
aiding their return to new colonies in Africa. In such a context, the deepest river would
be the Atlantic itself.
Surely He Died On Calvary is
the drummed introduction to an overview of the mystery and triumph of the Cross. It leads
to He Never Said A Mumblin' Word, in honour
of stoical courage, and into the unspoken reply I was to the question Were You There When They Crucifi'ed My Lord? The
final affirmation He Rose! He Rose! is a
Barbara Conrad's a capella version of I Been In The Storm is firmly in the blues idiom, and
a story as might have been told by a weary elder to a family in session. The spiritual Po' Monercontinues the narrative begun previously
and adds an insistent instruction to obey the speaker.
The unaccompanied chorus sings Soon ah will be done, a devotional, and leads us On mah Journey in progress. Barbara Conrad continues
this pilgrimage with her solo, I Want Jesus to Walk
>My Lord, What A Morning is
presented in duet with a descant soprano line and brimming with joy and prophecy at the
Triumph, when the stars begin to fall. The album ends with the stirring He's Got The Whole World.
The Negro folk-song - the rhythmic cry of the slave - stands
today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human
experience born this side the seas. It still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of
the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1902.
1995 Dr. Charles Barber and Barbara Conrad
The distinguished American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad has
appeared regularly with the Metropolitan Opera since her début as Azucena in Il trovatore. She has appeared at the same
opera-house in Der Rosenkavalier and Les Troyens, both also telecast, in Porgy and Bess, L'enfant et les sortilèges and Aida. A native of Texas, Barbara Conrad has been
active with the University of Texas at Austin, where she was awarded the prestigious Texas
Distinguished Alumnus Award, and enjoys an international career in opera that has taken
her to the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, to Frankfurt and to Cologne, and to major
opera-houses in America, with concert engagements in Europe and the Americas and
recordings that include her performance as Gertrude in the Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas with Joan Sutherland and
Recorded live in concert at The Convent Avenue Baptist Church,
Harlem, New York on March 27, 1994. , , , ,  recorded at Fisher Hall,
Santa Rosa, California, May 23, 1994, by courtesy of Suzanne and George Ledin Jr.
Producers: Barbara Conrad and Patricia Sage
Release Coordination: Encore Consultants, San Rafael,
California. Recording Engineer: Jim Smith, Muddy Hole Studios
Post-production and Editing: Lolly Lewis
Engineering Supervision: Stuart A. Rosenthal
This Concert and Recording has been funded by a generous Gift
from The Vidda Foundation.
Special thanks to Rev. Clarence P. Grant, Pastor of Convent
Avenue Baptist Church and Gregory Hopkins, Music Director. Additional thanks for their
invaluable help to Robert Lombardo and Christophe Capacci, and to Sylvia Olden Lee for her
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