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John Lamb, Published May 01 2013

'The mother music': Classically trained voices tell stories of American slaves

FARGO – For those jazz aficionados who proclaim the music is the first real American art form, Everett McCorvey has a history lesson for you.

“The spirituals are really the mother music,” says the professor of voice and director of opera at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Spirituals started many genres of American music. The first music born in this country was the spiritual.”

McCorvey offers a musical history lesson Saturday night when the American Spiritual Ensemble plays Festival Concert Hall at North Dakota State University. The group is the featured act at NDSU’s choral symposium, “Music of the Americas.”

The three-day program, running Friday through Sunday, features music from a number of NDSU groups and regional acts such as the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber Chorale and West Fargo and Detroit Lakes high schools’ choirs.

The conference also includes choral directors and arrangers from North, South and Central America.

“We were looking for something unique to what we do here at NDSU and we thought this would be a great addition to the symposium,” says one of the event’s organizers, Michael J. Weber, associate director of choral activities at NDSU.

“They search out how this music would’ve been performed and give it to their audiences in a real vibrant and authentic way,” adds JoAnne Miller, director of choral activities at NDSU.

The authenticity comes in part from McCorvey, who founded the American Spiritual Ensemble in 1995. Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., in 1950s and ’60s, McCorvey was raised on the old folk tunes.

“I remember as a child hearing the spirituals sung a cappella and it was very meaningful to me,” he says.

But by the early 1990s, he realized spirituals were getting lost in the shuffle.

“I was noticing most people did not know the difference between spirituals and gospels. I found the two types of music were being lumped together,” he says.

“Spirituals are folk songs of American negro slaves,” he says, explaining the differences. “Gospel music really is a 20th Century phenomenon.”

Spirituals started with slaves, who were stripped of most, if not all personal belongings, as well as their native language. Introduced to American churches, many related to biblical stories of the oppressed.

Slaves set the stories, or similar ones, to tunes and sang them while working in the fields. McCorvey says masters saw that slaves worked better while singing, so they let the practice stand.

“What the slave master may not have known was that it was a form of communication,” he says.

Gospel music developed from spirituals McCorvey says, and points to songs like “Swing Low” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain” as examples of songs that evolved from cotton fields to churches.

“From the spirituals, many forms of music grew. Jazz, blues, gospel, even more popular music,” he says.

The American Spiritual Ensemble even makes a connection between the folk music and opera. Each of the 22 singers is opera-trained.

“When you have these wonderful melodies and pair them with trained, operatic voices, it’s quite exciting,” says McCorvey, the group’s musical director.

The group performs mostly a cappella in the first half of the show, then adds piano and djembe, an African drum.

“I wanted spirituals to have their own category and place in American musical heritage because of the significance to the music of this country,” McCorvey says. “It’s something no other country can lay claim to. It’s truly an American music art form.”

If you go

What: The American Spiritual Ensemble

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Festival Concert Hall, North Dakota State University

Info: The show is free and open to the public. (701) 231-7969

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533