The Michael O’Neal Singers, along with the Tri-Cities High School Chorale, the Georgia Spiritual Ensemble, and professsional narrators and instrumentalists, will soon be presenting a profoundly moving tribute honoring the participants of the Underground Railroad. The two performances will take place at 3 PM, May 6, at Roswell UMC in Roswell and 7 PM, May 7, at Tri-Cities High School in East Point. Written by Donald McCullough (Music) and Denny Clark (Script), sprituals and spoken word are woven together in such a powerful way that the amazing story of a proud and determined people takes on new life and relevance.
The notes we will include in our printed program, written by Zach Patton, are so helpful in achieving a more complete understanding of the work and how it came about that I decided to include them in my blog. Read below and learn more about this remarkable journey.
“Come on across and walk with me to a land where we are free!”
For slaves in 19th century America, those words held the sweet essence of life’s ultimate promise: freedom. The idea of crossing over into free territory meant nothing short of Heaven on Earth. And many slaves, of course, risked everything trying to get there. It was a journey burdened by fear and sadness and fraught with peril, but charged with hope and the faith that freedom, finally, would be delivered. For African-American slaves, spiritual songs not only became the embodiment of that journey, they evolved as a clandestine way to pass coded messages about the Underground Railroad.
Let My People Go! A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad is the creation of Composer/Conductor Donald McCullough and Scriptwriter Denny Clark. Written as a dramatic choral work, it weaves together spirituals, code songs and first and third-person texts to create a rich tapestry depicting the experience of the slaves’ quest for freedom. It’s a grand work, but also an intimate one, inspired by a small, red-brick vault inconspicuously situated in a little-known cemetery set aside for the burial of Blacks from the middle of the 19th century to the 1950’s. Known as the Old Methodist Burying Ground, the cemetery is located in Washington, DC’s prestigious Georgetown neighborhood. McCullough and Clark learned of the existence of the burial vault upon reading a 1998 Washington Post article which revealed that it had served as an important station along the Underground Railroad.
Speaking about their first visit to the cemetery, McCullough said, “As we stood before that unassuming, little brick building, we could picture slaves huddling inside, their minds running wild with both fear and excitement. And with Rock Creek just a stone’s throw below the vault, it was easy to imagine them sneaking down the hill in the dark of night to board a barge for the next leg of their journey.” It was this first visit to the burial vault that inspired the idea for a choral work on the subject of the Underground Railroad that would feature slave spirituals. “Hearing spirituals in the usual concert setting is a nice experience, but that kind of setting does not provide the kind of context needed to fully experience their full depth and beauty,” says McCullough. “When you add a script to the mix, you create a way for the audience to glimpse the harrowing life of the slave, allowing the slave spiritual to take on a whole new meaning.”
The spirituals in Let My People Go! do, indeed, take on new meaning as Clark’s script weaves stories together that gently steer the audience as they make their own personal spiritual journey along the Underground Railroad. In describing some of the roles that his script takes on, Clark explained, “Throughout the course of the work, the audience gets a more personal, up-close look at the history of slavery in the United States and is introduced to a world full of secrets, signals, and symbols, including the hidden meanings buried within many of the spirituals’ texts – words that not only inspired slaves to run but also aided them in their escape to freedom.” The musical journey of Let My People Go! is imbued with a richly expressive landscape of shape and color, moving from the plaintive, doleful spiritual “Soon-a Will Be Done” to the fear of the auction block, the dangers of the journey north, and, finally, the triumphant song of deliverance – “Go Down Moses.” With a chorus of enthusiastic singers, four soloists, and two actors, all accompanied by piano, acoustic bass, and percussion, Let My People Go! triumphs both musically and textually in celebrating two of America’s most venerable cultural treasures — the African-American spiritual and the Underground Railroad — making it a must-experience journey that everyone should take.
Filed under: Choral experiences | Tagged: Denny Clark, Donald McCullough, Georgia Spiritual Ensemble, Let My People Go!, MOS, Tri-Cities High School, underground railroad, Zack Patton | Leave a Comment »