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Friday, July 7, 2017

Spirituals and Deep River (45)

Singerreise's videos and articles are all about the singing life. Sometimes that means I'll be doing interviews of other singers to find out more about what they do. Sometimes, I take a survey of opinions on a subject. When I do that, I get to do my favorite thing, and just be a host for the conversation.

But more often, Singerreise's about my singing life, and my career. I consider my own life as Exhibit A, the first of many examples. So if you're interested in finding out more about what I do as a working opera singer, this is the right place!

One of the things I do with Singerreise is take you behind the scenes, showing you something that I'm currently working on. This is one of those Episodes! As I often do, I'm singing a solo for church on Sunday. The piece that I chose is Deep River, arranged by Moses Hogan. Sarah Silvia will accompany me.



Sometimes I choose my solo based on the scripture that is being read that day, or on subject matter in the sermon. I also try to consider where in the service the solo occurs. This week's solo happens during the "Offertory," which, for our church, is part of the service after the sermon where an offering plate is passed around.

The Offertory gives people a minute to reflect on what has happened in the service thus far. People can give their tithes and/or offerings at that point (church-words for monetary gifts to support the ministry of the church).

Having music during the Offertory can also help people focus on what was said in a sermon, a prayer, or simply on what the Holy Spirit wishes to tell them at that moment.

In this case, I couldn't find anything that matched the sermon or scriptures all that well. So I picked a piece that I hadn't done yet and felt fresh. I'll let the Holy Spirit make the connections for me.
Deep River is an African-American spiritual. This was a music style that developed during the times of slavery, a sort-of early version of Gospel music.

The original spirituals often served a functional purpose. Some helped teach Biblical stories in song form, especially important for a people that were not widely permitted to learn to read. Other spirituals were working songs - songs with a good hearty beat to pass the time in the fields. Many used a call and response format so that everyone could easily participate.

Of course, one subject that comes up frequently in spirituals is freedom. Some spirituals go beyond the mere concept of freedom and are actually coded, verbal instructions on how to access the Underground Railroad, such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Most of them weren't so specific.

Deep River is a perfect example. It is a profoundly simple song, but it has several layers of meaning.  Here's the text:

Deep river,
My home is over Jordan,
Deep river,
I want to cross over into campground.

Oh don't you want to go
To that gospel feast,
That promised land
Where all is peace.

Deep river,
I want to cross over into campground.


The deep river that is referred to in the text is called the Jordan River. That river comes up a lot in spirituals. In the Bible, it is the river the Israelites had to cross in order to escape their slavery in Egypt. Waiting for them on the other side was their "Promised Land." The deep, seemingly impassable Jordan River was the last obstacle. It required a miracle to cross it.

For African-American slaves, crossing the Jordan River represented gaining freedom. In some cases, it might mean crossing a literal river, such as part of the Ohio or Mississippi River.

The song also makes a reference to "crossing over into campground." This is probably a direct reference to the American Civil War. In the latter stages of the war, northern Union forces penetrated deep into southern territory. By order of the president, any place under the direct control of the Union army was considered "free" of slavery. So if a slave could just make it to the Union camp, he would gain his freedom.

For most slaves, though, physically crossing the line was not an option. The camps were just too far away, or the river was just too deep. Most who sung this song only could sing longingly of their "want to cross over," believing they would never get there in this life.

In Christian culture, however, crossing the Jordan River can also be a metaphor for death, the crossing from this life into eternal life. In this case, the Promised Land would be Heaven.

In either metaphor, Deep River is sung with a feeling of weariness and sorrow in the present troubled times. And, at the same time, it remembers a promised release from bondage - whether the literal bondage of slavery or the bondage of life on this side of perfection.

The most well-known arrangement of Deep River is probably the solo arrangement done by Harry Burleigh. I've performed it many times, and it's a classic. For this time, however, I'm going with a more modern arrangement, done by the late Moses Hogan.


Moses Hogan is best known for his choral arrangements of spirituals. It seems every college choir and community choir has done them at some point - songs like Joshua Fit De Battle and Elijah Rock.
Moses Hogan's arrangements are often a little challenging, highly detailed, innovative, but always exactly on point with the style, character, and the soul of the piece. His solo arrangement of Deep River follows the exact same pattern.

I've had it for a while, but I avoided it for years because of its range. Deep River is a song typically sung by basses, but this one has a high-G in it. That's new territory for me - I haven't pulled out a solo high-G ever before.

So I hope this performance won't disappoint. In fact, I think it'll be pretty exciting!

If you want to hear me sing Deep River live, come to either the 9:00 AM or the 11:00 AM service at Bellevue Presbyterian Church. If you can't make it in person, the services are all live-streamed. Head to Belpres.org or get the Belpres app on your Apple or Android device.


For now, I hope you enjoy this preview performance of Deep River, arranged by Moses Hogan.




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