Does anyone else, when playing the practice track think that they hear a super enthusiastic: “RIGHT ON, KING JESUS!” Just me? Alright, moving on….

This year, both the Treble and the Tenor/Bass choirs get to sing a spiritual, something we’ve mentioned before was a standard every year when we were going through the process, and was almost always the favorite song of the year. Spirituals represent a huge part of American song tradition, so we are glad to see this genre well represented again this year.

So what’s a spiritual? Here’s how the Library of Congress defines it:

A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong.

Though they are “colloquial” in style, meaning sung with the same freedom as spoken word, they do have a pattern or formula which makes them accessible and welcoming for group participation.

This particular song alludes to Psalm 45:4 which reads: In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.

Spirituals are typically sung in a call and response form, with a leader improvising a line of text and a chorus of singers providing a solid refrain in unison…Many spirituals, known as “sorrow songs,” are intense, slow and melancholic… Other spirituals are more joyful. Known as “jubilees,” or “camp meeting songs,” they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated.

These spirituals, which vary in their emotional intensity reflect the strife, and desire to overcome the enslaved people’s impossible circumstances.

“Ride on King Jesus” is in the ecstatic “camp meeting” style evident not only by the words, but by a quick tempo, major key, and lots of bouncy rhythm. There is clearly a call and response section, when the Soprano soloist sings “He’s the King… and the Lord”, etc. The other parts repeat what the soloist says, but always repeating the same notes. In order to keep your part interesting, dig into the dynamics and articulation which will help you to make your part seem less monotonous.

Spirituals have a rich history and were used for not only religious meetings, but also as a sort of code, passed between slaves.

Spirituals are also sometimes regarded as codified protest songs… Because the Underground Railroad of the mid- nineteenth century used terminology from railroads as a secret language for assisting slaves to freedom, it is often speculated that songs like “I got my ticket” may have been a code for escape… A spiritual that was certainly used as a code for escape to freedom was “Go down, Moses,” used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north.

We do encourage students to get into the style and learn the history of spirituals, but they often feel restricted by the expectations of choir. So here are some answers to common questions we get about this style.

  • Yes, you can use a bold, bright sound, possibly even more chest voice than usual.
  • Yes, you can use authentic vowels, but make sure they are clean and not lazy.
  • Yes, you can use straight tone OR vibrato, as is comfortable and appropriate.
  • Yes, some words are shortened and you should say them that way. Do what the composer has written (ie: conquerin’).
  • No, you can’t scoop, slide, or add any notes.
  • No, you can’t relax on consonants. The consonants are as important as ever, relax on them and you will surely fall behind the beat. Don’t add back in consonants that have been taken out!

We would encourage you to spend lots of time speaking the words in rhythm, WITH accents along with the track. The notes will learn themselves easily enough, it’s up to you to be rhythmically exciting and accurate and show us your entire dynamic range. Lastly, make sure you are singing the correct notes on the split! Visit here for instructions on the split and here to find your area.

Happy Practicing!

~Natalie