Deep River: The African American Choral Spiritual

"One finds in the Spirituals the polarities of hope and despair, joy and sorrow, death and life."—Dr. Jim Mumford

choral ensemble in robes

Photo: Eugene Siew

The African American Choral Ensemble delivers a broad repertoire of spirituals, folk forms, traditional and contemporary gospel music, and formally composed works by and about the African American experience.

From the days of slavery 150 years ago, the African American spiritual grew out of the earliest days of Black America.

Over time, spirituals spread across denominations, cultures, and concert venues around the country and the world. Many of us have heard this music without being aware of how deep the meaning and history run beneath the surface.

This special radio program is produced in partnership with IU’s African American Arts Institute, and is hosted by Ross Gay, a poet and professor of creative writing. Our guest is IU Emeritus Professor James E. Mumford—performer, composer, educator, and director of IU’s African American Choral Ensemble for more than two decades.

Spirituals, according to Dr. Mumford, are “books in the library of primary sources of the real experiences of enslaved Africans.” Spirituals can tell us “how they felt about slavery, were able to endure it; define it; adapt it; hate it; to fight it, and to eventually come out of it.”

The language in spirituals, their poetry, comes out of the necessity to use double entendre in order to veil the messages hidden in each song. As Dr. Mumford says, “one finds in the Spirituals the polarities of hope and despair, joy and sorrow, death and life.”

Music Heard On This Episode

Wade In The Water
Fisk Jubilee Singers — Wade in the Water, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005)
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Wade In The Water
Fisk Jubilee Singers — Wade in the Water, Vol. 1 (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005)
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Great Day
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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Go Down Moses
Fisk Jubilee Singers — Song of America (Thirty Tigers, 2007)
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Give Me Jesus
Barbara Hendicks/Moses Hogan Singers — Spirituals Volume 2 (EMI Classics, 2004)
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Barbara Hendricks/Moses Hogan Singers
Ain't-a That Good News — Spirituals Volume 2 (EMI Classics, 2004)
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Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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Rockin' Jerusalem
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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In That Great Gittin' Up Mornin'
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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Hush, Hush, Somebody's Callin' My Name
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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Listen To The Lambs
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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Soon-Ah Will Be Done
Fisk Jubilee Singers — In Bright Mansions (Curb Records, 2003)
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Ain't Got Time To Die
IU African American Choral Ensemble
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I've Been 'Buked And I've Been Scorned
Tuskegee Institute Singers — Tuskegee Institute Singers (1914-1927) (B001U9DFV6, 1997)
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