Sunday, August 10, 2014

Singing Spirituals Using 19th Century Black Dialect

Edited by Azizi Powell

[Title revised 8/13/2014]

I acknowledge that there are different opinions among African Americans and non-African Americans about the appropriateness of using 19th century "Negro dialect"* while singing Spirituals. For some people the question is one of preserving the authenticity of these Spirituals and not "watering them down". However, I'm much more concerned about how 19th century dialectic words may be interpreted as a reflection of the lack of respect for the intelligence and the literacy of African Americans in the past, and in the present. Perhaps if racism wasn't still so very much a factor in the present, I wouldn't be as concerned about how Black people are depicted in our songs.

The main reason why I don't like to hear Spirituals or any other songs in 19th century Negro dialect is because that dialect reminds me of black-faced minstrel songs. Those minstrel songs are heavy on Negro dialect and are full of highly offensive depictions of Black people. I admit that Hearing songs that include 19th century Negro dialect-particularly when sung by non-Black people- makes me cringe.

Furthermore, not all Black Americans way back in the 19th century and the early 20th century used dialect. And the earliest Black touring groups who introduced Spirituals to the world didn't use dialect.

"The Use Of Dialect In African- American Spirituals, Popular Songs, and Folk Songs" by J Graziano - ‎ Black Music Research Journal © 2004 Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago - ‎ p. 261
"The presence of vocal works that use dialect in African American culture has been a controversial and difficult area of inquiry for those investigating the phenomenon. Dialect was first heard in the minstrel shows that toured the United States and Europe* before the Civil War (Mahar 1999). They continued to be performed as well after the Civil war, although not as frequently by professional groups. Textually, many minstrel songs presented derogatory caricatures of African Americans and slave culture known from its depiction of southern plantations. By the 1870s African American dialect was still heard, most often in minstrelsy, although probably also in some sacred repertory as well. While spirituals and jubilees sung in church may have used dialect, existing evidence suggest that touring college groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hampton Students avoided the use of dialect when they performed spirituals as part of their programs…Undoubtedly the use of standard English in these publications and public performances reflected a desire to demonstrate that African Americans were educated and could sing and speak in standard English.”
-end of quote-
Here's another quote on this topic from "American Negro Folk-Songs" by Newman Ivey White - 1928 [Page 27 - Google Books]
"Dialect may be considered a characteristic of the spirituals and the older ... but Negro dialect was never so standard or consistent as dialect writers have made it and it is now so obviously on the wane and so obviously (where it exists at all) merely a mixture of ordinary illiterate English with a few dialect survivals that it is no longer a very significant element, except in a few localities such as eastern South Carolina*.
*Eastern South Carolina is where African Americans known as "Gullahs" people are from.

I believe that when it comes to 19th century "Negro dialect", less is best. In my opinion, it's better (and more politically correct) to convert old time dialectic words which are no longer used in conversational speech to the forms that are now commonly used by African Americans and non-African Americans. For example, words such as "de", "dem", "dose", heb'n", "chillun” and "gwine" should be changed to "the", "them", "those", "heaven", "childen", and "gonna" or "going to". Also, "dis" should be changed to "this", "der" to "there", "dor" to "door", "jes" to "just". I believe that the word "mammy" and "massa" are highly offensive to Black people and should be changed in songs to "mother" and "Master" [note the custom of capitalizing words that refer to God and Jesus.) Furthermore, the words "Lawd" and "Lawdy" should be changed to "Lord".**

However, it's appropriate and preferable to continue to sing dialectic or informal English words which are still used in general conversation. For instance, the word "ain't" shouldn't be changed to "am not", for example in the line "I ain't gonna study war no more". Also, the word "got" shouldn't be changed to "have" ("I got shoes" shouldn't be changed to "I have shoes". And the word "'round" shouldn't be changed to "around" in Spirituals. Notice that that word isn't changed in the folk song "She'll be comin' round the mountain when she comes."

Furthermore, I believe that singers should retain the "a" that is added for rhythmical purposes to words such as "a-turnin'". And singers can continue to drop the final consonant in the words such as "turning" and "morning", although it seems to me that is optional. If the final letter is dropped, that line would be "There's a little wheel a-turnin in my heart." and not "There's a little wheel a-turning in my heart".

With regard to pronunciation, I believe that it's not only appropriate, but preferable to pronounce the "a" as "ah" as this is the way that most African Americans informally pronounce that word. Therefore, "There's a little wheel a-turnin' in my heart" would be pronounced "There's ah little wheel ah-turnin in my heart".

To each his or her own, but these are my opinions on this subject. And I believe that a number of African Americans agree with me regarding these suggestions for using and not using 19th century Negro dialect while singing Spirituals. It's my direct & indirect experience as an African American that we (African Americans) rarely use such dialetic language in our performances of Spirituals. I'm interested to read what you think about this subject.

*It's also important to note that since the 1960s, the word "Negro" is no longer an acceptable referent for African Americans (Black Americans). Also, for various reasons, most African Americans consider "Negro" spelled with a lower case "n" to be highly insulting. However, "negro" may be purposely used by African Americans to refer to another Black person who is always seeking White favor, and/or otherwise talking and acting in ways that aren't in the best interest of Black people (i.e. "an Uncle Tom").

**That said, under certain circumstances, in online conversations and otherwise, some African Americans consciously "code switch" to long retired forms of "downhome" (Southern) speech including "dis" for this and "dat" for "that" and "Lawd" for "Lord". I refer to this conscious use of African American dialect as "Putting On The Black". Click for a post that I published on that topic.

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