1. *A City Called Heaven
Performed by Leontyne Price and the Rust College Choir (1962).
Beautiful both in its melodic and its poetic lines, this Negro spiritual tells of a lonely realm where "a poor pilgrim of sorrow" is "toss't'd and driven" (note the singer's insertion of an extra syllable to suit the line's rhythm) "in this wide world alone." The lost wanderer's family and "hope for tomorrow" are gone. This song has overwhelming force as a study of both the ravages of slavery and also the new forms of discrimination and prejudice in the decades after the Civil War—better to look forward to the Bible's promised "city called Heaven" than to rely on any consolations here on earth. This 1962 recording showcases Leontyne Price (b.1927), the soulful black operatic diva from Laurel, Mississippi, whose "City Called Heaven" keeps its black message while exploring a universal message of life's persistent sadness. For in a world where song and singer can be this full of feeling, perhaps an earthly home is worth pursuing after all. Consider also the extraordinary recordings of this song by Mahalia Jackson—especially the one for Apollo Records (1951).
From Leontyne Price's 1962 album Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (on RCA Victor Red Seal).
2. Ezekiel Saw de Wheel
Performed by the Abyssinian Baptist Church Concert Chorale (2009).
This Negro spiritual was arranged by William L. Dawson, best remembered as one of the most gifted arrangers of spirituals and the composer of the Negro Folk Symphony (1934). Stanley Crouch's eloquent description of spirituals is particularly apt here: "There was history in the notes [which] had the tonal presence of a sonic rainbow, glowing right up into the air, way up into the middle of the air, wheels of sound within wheels of sound."
3. I'm a-Rollin'
Performed by Oral Moses (2001).
4. Go Down Moses
Performed by Paul Robeson (1930).
This freedom song features the direct and powerful identification of African American slaves with Old Testament Jews, with Moses, and with a wrathful, protective God. Performed seventy-five years after slavery was abolished, Paul Robeson's circa-1930 version—in which his voice assumes the might and authority of God—reminds listeners of the ongoing struggles against slavery (in varying forms and degrees) around the world: Let my people go! Robeson delivers these powerful lyrics with an intensity that clearly shows why slaveholders threatened to punish any slave heard singing this song.
5. Been in the Storm So Long
Performed by Mary Pickney (1990).
This Negro spiritual offers religious testimony along with lightly veiled notes of protest. It sees life as a long storm through which one travels while yearning for a little time to oneself (always in short supply for the slaves)—time for the peace of prayer and reflection on deliverance into a just and quiescent realm of God. Such escapist songs offered slaves the consoling promise of a better world than the stormy one they had seen—and promised them the strength to carry on.
6. *Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Performed by The Staple Singers (1961).
This Negro spiritual, perhaps the best known of all, offers one of the genre's many meditations on the prospect of traveling from the world we know to a home of welcoming angels and reunions with loved ones already on the other side. The song's "sweet chariot" "swings low" to accommodate the meek, just as the biblical Gospels promise. Some have wondered if "Swing Low" might have served as a subtle signal piece evoking not only the hope of an afterlife home in heaven but also hints of a secret journey via the underground railroad out of the states where slavery was legal: a song of freedom that was philosophical and political, metaphysical and tangible. This dolefully low-swinging 1961 version by the Staple Singers reminds us that the group known internationally for their R & B hits of the 1970s started (and remained) a family gospel ensemble—their 1972 hit "I'll Take You There," in fact, conveyed much the same theme as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."
From The Staple Singers' 1961 album Swing Low Sweet Chariot (on Exodus Records).
7. Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?
Performed by Paul Robeson (1955).
8. Soon I Will be Done (Trouble of the World)
Performed by Mahalia Jackson (1963).
Here again, the themes of weariness with "the troubles of the world" and the desire to go "home to live with God" and visit the ancestors convey the hope for a better day on earth. This 1963 gospel version of the spiritual—featuring the solo singer against a background of piano, organ, bass, and drums—presents Mahalia Jackson's magnificent voice playing with and between the notes, sliding and leaping the intervals, now like a blues singer, now like an opera singer, parleying with the inspired piano, building to crescendos, elevating the song to meanings beyond those carried by words alone. "A voice like this," said Martin Luther King Jr. of Jackson, "comes along only once in a lifetime." (See Ralph Ellison's essay "When the Spirit Moves Mahalia.")
9. Come Sunday
Performed by Duke Ellington featuring Mahalia Jackson (1958).
10. *God's a-Gonna Trouble the Water (Wade in the Water)
Performed by The Soul Stirrers (1959).
This 1959 version of "Wade in the Water" adapts the original lyrics and melody for an up-tempo treatment by the Soul Stirrers, one of the most widely celebrated gospel quartets of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Sam Cooke, who became an international R &B star after leaving the Soul Stirrers (where for several years he was the group's best-known soloist), sings in the background here behind Paul Foster's lead. Consider the roles played in this song by water: the promise of spiritual cleansing (Holy Baptism in the Christian tradition) as well as a boundary across which Jesus calls humankind from sin to salvation. True to the gospel form, Foster counts the water's many pleasures: cleanness, wholeness, freedom, love, peace, and—as Foster repeats—joy. While "wading in the water" certainly does imply hard plowing through life's bleak currents, the water-journey also evokes God's invitation to holy blessings. Do check out the many more-traditional renderings of this song of the nineteenth century—particularly those by historically black college choirs. And consider the roots of black secular music in the rhythms and melodies heard here. Like the Soul Stirrers' version, Eva Cassidy's "Wade in the Water" (1997) brings sacred and secular together.
From The Soul Stirrers' 1961 album Jesus Be a Fence Around Me. Released in 1959 as the first single from Sam Cooke's SAR label. Written by Sam Cooke and J. W. Alexander. Recorded September 1, 1959, at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago. Paul Foster on lead vocals.