I had a chance to chat with the ebullient and gregarious Stacey V. Gibbs today. His music is almost ubiquitous in the choral world these days, and it should be. It is the kind of music that singers like to sing. It is authentic, inventive, and irresistible.
In recent years, I’ve noticed a trend that is slightly disturbing. A few conductors are moving away from spiritual arrangements. To be fair, there was a trend for a long time of always ending a program with a spiritual. Some people got a little tired of it, and so they stopped using them altogether.
When I was in high school, my school had what was probably the whitest choir in the district. During those days, everyone did the obligatory spiritual at the end of concerts. So, we learned them. Mostly, it was the old Dawson arrangements. The thing is, even though we were a bunch of middle class white kids singing, the music was gripping and powerful to me, and it never left me.
Now that I’ve taught University courses in the history of African American music, I am convinced of one thing. The history of black music is the history of American music. In fact, most of the music in this country on the popular end of things comes from a black musician inventing something original and authentic and then a white musician doing a watered down version that becomes more popular.
I’m just suggesting that you give the spirituals some room to come back into your life. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited this country, he was not interested in any of the Lutheran Churches. Instead, he went to a Baptist Church in Harlem and learned to sing spirituals which he found to be the most authentic form of spirituality. They are born out of suffering, and suffering has the potential to create authentic, spiritual works of art.
I find Stacey’s music to be in the best of this tradition, and I’m most fascinated by the way his ears hear rhythms different than mine do.
In the tradition of a black musician doing something wonderful and authentic and a white musician doing a poor imitation, I offer up the Stacey V. Gibbs arrangement of Go Tell it on the Mountain as sung by the USC Chamber Singers followed by my own. Imitation, in this case, is absolutely meant to be flattery.