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They Bear Acquaintance

African American Spirituals and the Camp Meetings


Nancy L. Graham

Identifying the roots of African American spirituals and other religious folk music has intrigued academics, hymnologists and song leaders since this genre came to the public eye in 1867. The conversation on origins has waned and waxed for over eighty years, sometimes polemical, sometimes compromising. They Bear Acquaintance looks at this discussion through the output of various well-regarded researchers from the twentieth century. The effects of cultural distinctions, immigration patterns and class structure have all left their imprint on the anatomy of the music. No one living has ever heard a spiritual performed in an authentic setting, so misconceptions abound. Pre-dating the American Civil War and achieving global attention in the Civil Rights movement, the spirituals soften the edges of difficult situations, and speak gently, yet poignantly, to human struggles. The book also pinpoints new material from a wide range of sources in the twenty-first century that will preserve and affirm this music for many years to come.

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Chapter 3: Listening to the Song


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Listening to the Song

My first exposure to the term reception history was in a course at Oxford taught by Christine E. Joynes (b. 1971). Dr Jones is the Director of the Centre for Reception History of the Bible which fosters multidisciplinary research on the Biblical text and its influence in literature, art and music (CRH 2016). I was astonished to learn that, as a church musician, I had been creating reception history for over twenty years. The fact that this what I deemed ordinary skill had a respected academic label was startling. A year later at a conference sponsored by the CRH, I presented a session of the music about women in the New Testament. The positive response was exceptional, considering I still felt like I was getting too much credit for something that seemed obvious.

With some study and research, I learned that reception history is a relatively recent theory in research and prediction. Harold Marcuse (b. 1957) of the University of California at Santa Barbara is given credit for the definition,

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