Psychology professor Arthur C. Jones stepped onto the stage of a University of Denver auditorium as some 200 students and teachers grew silent in anticipation. But instead of a lecture on Jungian philosophy or Freud's interpretation of dreams, Jones opened his mouth and began to sing.
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child...
As his clear, bright tenor filled the hall, Jones, dressed in a traditional shirt from Kenya, swayed slightly, clasping his hands in front.
A long ways from home,
A long ways from home...
When he finished, the audience erupted in applause for him and pianist Ingrid Hansen Thompson. These were mostly students from DU's Lamont School of Music attending Jones's performance at the Margaret Foote Music Hall. But just as this was not a psychology course, neither was it just a dissertation on a particular kind of music, in this case "Negro" spirituals. It was an unusual mixture of both.
A practicing psychologist and DU professor specializing in African-American mental-health issues, Jones is also a professional singer. His personal affection for the spirituals--songs that rose from the travails of slavery--has become a mission to save them from oblivion. His quest has taken him to schools, museums and cultural centers across the country, as well as to music festivals. Perhaps most surprising, he's taken his quest to conventions of mental-health professionals, to whom he tries to make his point about the relevance of the spirituals to issues confronting African-Americans today. This self-described "obsession" became the basis for a book, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals.
Jones cautions against confusing spirituals with gospel, a misperception that he says is common. Gospel is the blues-based "feel-good" music that currently permeates black churches. Although he acknowledges gospel's cultural significance, Jones says the spirituals are pre-gospel, created during 250 years of slavery as a way of retaining African traditions of song and dance and expressing unity in the face of oppression.
But there is more to spirituals than meets the ear. Jones describes them as "freedom songs" with hidden meanings that inspired insurrection, encouraged slaves to run away and sent messages of hope for the end of slavery. Lyrics such as "I don't expect to stay much longer here" held a double meaning, he says. And the phrase "Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho...and the walls came tumbling down" was as much about fighting to tear down the walls of slavery and social injustice as it was a biblical reference. Moses crying out to the Egyptians to "let my people go" was a rallying cry for humans sold into bondage.
The song from which he took the name of his book, Wade in the Water, in which "God's a-gonna trouble the water," or make a change, sent a signal for insurrection, says Jones, and a hidden message to runaway slaves to wade in the water to throw bloodhounds off their scent.
Some spirituals also stressed personal accountability, he adds, a message needed in today's African-American community and the society at large. As an example, he sang "Scandalize My Name" and asked the predominantly white audience to join him in the refrain by shouting, "No, no!"
I met my brother the other day,
Gave him my right hand.
But just as soon as ever my back was turned,
He took an' scandalize' my name.
You call that a brother?
You call that a brother?
Jones fell in love with spirituals while growing up in the South Bronx, and he sang them in high school and college chorales before deciding to make a career as a psychologist. He was forty years old before he returned to his first love and took professional voice training.
His "mission" began in 1991, when he gave a lecture-recital on the "Hidden Meanings in Spirituals" for African American Awareness Month activities at the Denver Museum of Natural History. The response he got then and at subsequent programs convinced him of the need to resurrect spirituals.
And it hasn't been that long since they were prominent. The anthem of the Sixties civil-rights movement, "We Shall Overcome," came from "I shall overcome someday." In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. concluded his famous "I Have a Dream" speech with, "In the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.'" But in the past twenty years, Jones says, spirituals have essentially been abandoned by young African-Americans.
He concedes that not all of his colleagues attach the same importance of spirituals to such issues affecting the black community as racial intolerance, black-on-black violence, drug use, gangs and self-destructive behavior. But he contends that the spirituals helped blacks survive slavery and lynchings with a clear idea of who they were. A situation like the current disorganization in the African-American community, he says, didn't happen in the civil-rights era, when spirituals were still being passed on to succeeding generations.
As a psychologist, Jones says, he sees daily the struggle of African-Americans to "remain sane in the face of constant assault." Through the spirituals, he says, "they can see the success of a group of oppressed people in retaining their sense of dignity and self. The spirituals are about social justice and freedom. As such, they are as relevant today as they were 200 years ago."
When Jones wrote his book, the publisher made an unusual request: Put it to music. The result was that Jones and Thompson recorded a collection of spirituals for cassettes accompanying the book.
The quest now has broadened: Jones is working on a new project to make a documentary on spirituals for public television. He recently scored a major coup when jazz artist Bobby McFerrin agreed to host the program. McFerrin is best known to the general public for the popular hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy." But he is a respected jazz musician who recently has taken up conducting orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Symphony.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Jones had hoped from the beginning to land McFerrin, whose parents had been singers (his father, Robert McFerrin, was the first African-American man to sing at the New York Met) and were known for their renditions of spirituals. A mutual friend gave Jones the singer's home address, and Jones sent his proposal.
It so happened, the way Jones tells it, that McFerrin was nearing the end of a long road trip and, tired and discouraged, he was sitting offstage in Cleveland when a children's choir began performing spirituals.
"He later told me," Jones says, "that within the first minute, his whole body relaxed and he felt refreshed. He realized how important this music was and wanted to get involved in educating people about it. Then he came home, and there was my packet waiting for him."
Jones had expected to wait eight weeks before calling McFerrin. Instead, the singer called him. "He said his eyes bulged...He called it a gift from God and said that he would be honored to host the program," recalls Jones. "I don't believe that things like that happen by coincidence.