The Glory to God hymnal we use every Sunday includes many hymn arrangements of spirituals that are favorites of the WPC congregation. These songs, including “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” and “I’ve Got Peace Like a River,” developed “as Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population. Spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes,” according to an essay written for the Library of Congress “Songs of America” project.
Though spirituals were handed down through oral tradition, Black composers like Harry Burleigh, William Dawson and Hall Johnson wrote them down and arranged them for voice and piano. Their efforts made possible the publication of the first collection of spirituals in the 1860s. Performances and recordings by Black artists like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers exposed the spiritual tradition to a broad audience in the U.S. and Europe. Contemporary arrangements of spirituals by Black composers like Moses Hogan and Rollo Dilworth are popular among church choirs, including WPC’s own Chancel Choir.
Less well-known is the evolving body of sacred work by Black composers who write for organ, voice and various instruments. Preludes, postludes and several Worship Through Music selections during February will introduce some of those compositions. Among the writers whose pieces we will hear are William Grant Still, a Mississippi native who is known as the “Dean of Afro-American composers;” John W. Work, an ethnomusicologist who chaired the music department and conducted the Jubilee Singers at Fisk University; and Fela Sowande, whose organ music shows the influence of his native Nigeria.
We hope you enjoy singing and listening as we celebrate both the rich history and significant accomplishments of Black musicians.