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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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This book traces the development of both the early research and ensuing criticism of the conclusions reached as concerns religious folksong of the American South, African American spirituals in particular. New methods of untangling roots of the music and winnowing out the intercontinental connections with the help of digital technology are also examined.

During the last third of the twentieth century much was written about the origins and purpose of African American spirituals. The songs had captured global attention during the US Civil Rights Movement. After the 1960s, many newly enfranchised scholars of black history, James H. Cone (b. 1938), Eileen Southern (1920–2002), John Lovell, Jr. (1907–1974), and Dena Epstein (1916–2013) to name but a few, produced historical accounts of African American music. Often their writing seems to be stacked with an understandable longing for the possession of space in the elusive records and story of slavery. These academics listed often repeatedly ignored the evidence presented by the research of the first half of the twentieth century, or criticized it to the point of irrelevance. The work of one man in particular, George Pullen Jackson (1874–1953), bore the largest and most derogatory share of their judgment.

Jackson, a professor of German at Vanderbilt, had an insatiable interest in folk hymnody of the American South. He gathered an enormous and impressive collection of song, through the many volumes of hymns, spirituals and Sunday School songs released in the American hymnal-publication explosion...

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