Spirituals Songs of Praise


Spirituals

The Adventist Vocal Ensemble sing classic African-American spirituals; and David Grant talks to Bonnie Greer about the origins and popularity of these songs.


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There's a kind of music that resonates

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with a story of exploitation and suffering.

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But also of courage and salvation.

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This week I look back at one of the principle roots of popular music

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and introduce some of the most inspiring of all songs of praise.

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'African-American spirituals

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'are sublimely sung for us

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'by the Adventist Vocal Ensemble,

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'Tessera

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'and new talent Jeharna South,

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'and I meet experts

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'who regard these wonderful songs as having lasting significance.'

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It's the music of being an African-American,

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being a black American, being a descendant of enslaved peoples,

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it is the music.

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Spirituals were born in slavery but they transcended slavery,

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they came out of slavery and they rose above it,

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and they created hope out of hopeless circumstances.

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They are beautifully crafted and they take you on a journey

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and that enables you to transcend this world.

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We're going to hear some of the finest spirituals

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sung in the splendid surroundings of St John at Hackney Church

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and we begin with an all-time favourite.

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The story of spirituals begins in the 16th century

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when millions of Africans were forcibly shipped across the Atlantic

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to the Americas.

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And these people were transported on ships,

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stacked up like pieces of wood at the bottom of the ship

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and brought over to the United States,

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to the Caribbean.

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These people were counted as assets, the way you would count

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a house or a car, or an animal.

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Your slaves were your wealth.

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So you're thrown into this hole

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and you have to figure out how to dialogue with one another

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and one of the ways that you do is through music.

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You use music as a way of being able to communicate,

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as a way of soothing each other

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and as a way of saying, "We're going to survive."

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And like any human being,

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these people had to find some way of healing themselves inside

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so they could keep going.

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# Nobody knows... #

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'Spirituals have always been an important part of the repertoire

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'of the Adventist Vocal Ensemble.'

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# Nobody knows the trouble... #

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Could you tell us the distinctive qualities

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that spirituals have that make them identifiably different

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to any other music.

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It's very much this element of call and response

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that is very, very central to spirituals.

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What's the meaning of that? What is call and response?

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"Swing low, sweet chariot" is a call phrase.

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-For example, if we have...

-KEN PLAYS PIANO CHORDS

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# Swing low, sweet chariot... #

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-That's the call?

-That's a call.

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# Coming for to carry me home

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# Swing low, sweet chariot

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# Coming for to carry me home. #

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You have these different lyrics...

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# I looked over Jordan and what did I see...? #

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Response.

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# Coming for to carry me home

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# There's a band of angels coming after me

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# Coming for to carry me home. #

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-And what's...?

-I want to be on your next single.

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-THEY LAUGH

-Done! So was this the first form of music

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to feature call and response extensively?

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Well, music is a universal language,

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so call and response you will find if you look at the Psalms -

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"O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good, for his mercies endure for ever",

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and you see practices right across the world of call and response

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and of different types of scales being used.

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One of the central elements of spirituals is a pentatonic scale.

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-What is that?

-Pentatonic scale - "pent" meaning "five"...

-Yes.

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If we use as our reference point the Sound Of Music -

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# Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. #

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-Yes.

-If we take...

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# Do-re-mi...

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# Sol-fa... #

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KEN PLAYS MATCHING SCALE ON PIANO

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Pentatonic scale is a universal scale

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used a lot in folk music, such as...

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HE PLAYS A SPRIGHTLY MELODY

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OK.

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Oriental music.

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HE PLAYS A SLOW AND GENTLE MELODY

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Spirituals.

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HE PLAYS NEW CHORDS

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Somebody once joked that actually,

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-if you find...

-HE PLAYS CHORDS

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the pentatonic scale on the piano,

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they are found exclusively on the black keys.

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Ah!

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We're going to hear a song by four gentlemen called Tessera of whom you're a member.

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Tell me about it.

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The message of the song is a deep faith and trust in Jesus.

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It says you can have all this world, your silver, your gold,

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but give me Jesus.

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# In the morning

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# When I rise

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# In the morning

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# When I rise

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# In the morning

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# When I rise

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# Give me Jesus

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# Give me Jesus

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# Give me Jesus

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# You may have all this world

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# Give me Jesus

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# Just about the break of day

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# Just about the break of day

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# Just about the break of day

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# Give me Jesus

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# Give me Jesus

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# Give me Jesus

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# You may have all this world

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# Give me Jesus

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# You may have silver

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# You may have gold

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# Give me Jesus

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# You may have riches

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# And wealth untold

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# Give me Jesus

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# You may have this whole wide world

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# Give me Jesus

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# Nothing compares to you

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# Oh, Jesus

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# Give me Jesus. #

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I suppose the term spiritual really originates with Isaac Watts

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who published a book called Hymns And Spiritual Songs

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in, round about 1700.

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This book of songs went to America

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and was really taken up and adopted

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by what were then the slaves on the plantations,

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who took the songs and adapted them to their own circumstances

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and read into it something that spoke to their condition

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and appealed to them as melodies as well,

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so that's really where the term spiritual comes from.

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Slave Christianity

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and the spirituals born within slave Christianity

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are really protest songs.

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They're songs by slaves

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attempting to resist the tyranny of slavery

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and calling on God to deliver them.

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We shouldn't just interpret them as nice music,

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they go beyond nice music,

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they are songs of resistance

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and that's how we should sing them and celebrate them.

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It was very important to them that they held onto stories

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that gave them a sense of hope.

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We know from the spirituals that songs about Moses

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and God's deliverance of the Hebrew people, songs about Joshua,

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the battle of Jericho, these images of God as a warrior,

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defeating oppressive regimes were songs that they could hold onto

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because they gave them a sense of hope.

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# Joshua fit the battle of Jericho... #

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In the 1870s, concert performances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers

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brought spirituals

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to international prominence.

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Queen Victoria was reportedly

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so moved that she wept

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when she heard them and commissioned their portrait.

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Later, spirituals were to provide the basis of gospel music.

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Now, the word "gospel" means "good news"

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and next up we have a quartet called Resurrection

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singing a song appropriately named Good News.

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# I've got a home up in that kingdom Ain't that good news?

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# I've got a home up in that kingdom Ain't that good news?

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# I'm gonna lay down this world

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# I'm gonna shoulder up my cross

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# I'm gonna take it home to my Jesus

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# Ain't that good news?

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# I've got a saviour

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# In that kingdom

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# Ain't that good news?

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# I've got a saviour In that kingdom

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# Ain't that good news?

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# I'm gonna lay down this world

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# I'm gonna shoulder up my cross

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# I'm gonna take it home to my Jesus

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# Ain't that good news?

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# I'm gonna take it home to my Jesus

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# Ain't that good news?

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# I'm gonna take it home to my Jesus

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# Take it home to my Jesus

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# Take it home to my Jesus

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# Ain't that...?

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# Good news

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# Good news. #

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Spirituals have a double meaning.

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On one level, they're concerned with the Bible

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and stories or themes within the Bible

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or images that they have conjured up from hearing Bible stories.

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On another level, they are political songs,

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they tell the slaves about how to resist slavery

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and how to escape the plantation.

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We know for example, that songs like Wade In The Water

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were not just nice songs about God

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but also coded directions of how to get off the plantation,

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to cross the water to make sure the dogs could not follow you

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and to make sure that you gave yourself the best chance of freedom.

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# Wade in the water

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# Wade in the water, children

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# Wade in the water

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# Wade in the water

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# Wade in the water, children

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# Wade in the water

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# I stepped in the water

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# And the water was cold

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# It chilled my body but not my soul

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# Ooh

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# Wade in the water

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# Wade in the water, children

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# Wade in the water

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# If you don't believe I've been redeemed

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# Then follow me down to the Jordan stream

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# Oh-oh-oh-ooh-oh

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# Wade in the water

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# Wade in the water, children

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# Wade in the water

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# God's gonna trouble

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# God's gonna trouble

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# God's gonna trouble

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# God's gonna trouble

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# God's gonna trouble

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# God's gonna trouble the water

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# Ooh

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# Ooh-oh. #

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# Joshua fit the battle of Jericho... #

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'Spirituals continue to have a meaning for people today.

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'This is certainly true for the members of our choir,

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'the Adventist Vocal Ensemble.'

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# And the walls come a... #

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Nice!

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# Tumbling

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# Down. #

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When you think of the background of spirituals,

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they tell the whole gospel story.

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They speak of people's problems that they've had

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and how they've overcome them

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and with the help of God, how we can get through things.

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Since I am not a preacher,

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I like to use singing in the choir as a way of preaching,

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reaching other people and letting them know what God means to me.

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There's still slavery in the 21st century,

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it may not be the way it was a few centuries ago,

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but in individual lives,

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I think we can all identify with things that we feel enslaved to.

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Bad habits, bad traits of character, bad circumstances.

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I work with drug addicts and alcoholics

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and I see it day in, day out.

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The sense of hope and encouragement that spirituals gives me,

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gives me the courage to think that these plans that they work with

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can also turn their lives around.

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There is hope. One's life can change. Freedom is there, available.

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The Beckford name is a slave-holding name.

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The Beckford's were the second-largest slave owners

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in Jamaica,

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in the west of the island, in Westmoreland in particular.

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So this name isn't a name that was bequeathed to me,

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it is instead a stamp of ownership.

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I really wrestled with whether or not I should keep this name,

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after all it is a brand of ownership and I'm no slave,

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I don't want anything to do with that slave past.

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But when I was researching at the national records office -

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the history of slavery,

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I came across a slave by the name of Robert Beckford

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and this guy just happened to be a Christian,

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and he fought in the 1831 slave rebellion in Jamaica.

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But I decided to keep the name to retain his memory and his struggle.

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As we've heard, spirituals were inspired

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by the understanding enslaved Africans had of the Bible

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and I'm sure these verses from Psalm 95

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would have resonated with many of them.

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"Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord.

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"Let us shout aloud to the rock of our salvation.

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"Let us come before him with thanksgiving

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"and extol him with music and song."

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'Next week, join me again

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'to celebrate Pentecost Sunday with

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'spirit-filled, house-shaking gospel music

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'from our congregation at St John at Hackney,

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'plus special guests Kym Mazelle

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'and Avery Sunshine.'

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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The Adventist Vocal Ensemble, Tessera and Jeharna South, sing classic African-American spirituals; and David Grant talks to Bonnie Greer and Robert Beckford about the remarkable origins and popularity of these songs.


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